All across America, churches are closing.
Between 6,000 and 10,000 churches in the U.S. are dying each year. That means around 100-200 churches will close this week. The pace will accelerate unless our congregations make some dramatic changes.
It’s tempting to see statistics like this and start looking for a fall guy. Blame politics, or the internet, or Millennials.
But another approach is possible. Instead of focusing on solving the intractable problem of why churches are closing, forward-thinking leaders will try to learn from models that are thriving.
Models that are thriving today and in the future will have certain things in common, such as a commitment to making disciples of modern secularized Americans, a deep knowledge of the changing cultural landscape that exists outside of Christian enclaves, and a capacity to grow and multiply without the traditional funding sources that churches have traditionally relied on.
That doesn’t mean new thriving churches will all look the same. They will range from freeform experimental communities to retooled and revitalized traditional congregations.
In a time where much looks bleak for the church in North America, we’re going out of our way to highlight thriving movements. Leaders from four of these movements will join us at the Awakenings Gathering in March.
Get to know them below, and share about the thriving models you know about in the comments.Churches all over N. America are closing, but these four models of churches are thriving. Learn about them here! Click To Tweet
Four Models of Church that are Thriving in Modern America
1. Dinner Church
Inspired by Jesus’ table practices, the writings of Origen and the Agape Feasts of the second and third centuries, there is nothing very “new” about Dinner Church. This model, seemingly forgotten to history, has found a new life in the hyper-secularized city of Seattle.
In his book Dinner Church: Building Bridges by Breaking Bread, Verlon Fosner tells the story of how his traditional Pentecostal Church went from dying of attrition to being reborn as a network of 12 (and counting) community dinners. These communities are aimed at those who likely would never come to a Sunday gathering, either because of work schedules or the cultural, and often socioeconomic, distance.
These are generally located in what he refers to as “sore neighborhoods,” usually made up of “the lower third,” or the third of the population that earns below a middle-class income. They meet in community centers and other common gathering places.
They also noticed that the dinner church approach is often appealing to isolated people, such as people who have divorced and are separated from their families, as well as “humanitarians”—people who are passionate about serving those in need but do not (yet) identify with Jesus.
Not only do dinner churches reach different people, but compared to traditional approaches to church planting, they’re cheap! According to Fosner, one dinner church is being opened a week. Non-staffing expenses (food and rent) generally run about $1000/month.
Dinner Church is inspired by Jesus’ words in Revelation 3:20, “Behold I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.” As Fosner says,”The only question remaining is, ‘Who is going to set his table?'” Could it be that setting a table for sinners, seculars, and strangers to have dinner with Jesus might be one of the great callings of the church? What if when Jesus was telling Peter to “feed his sheep,” he wasn’t speaking metaphorically, but was actually directing him to a physical table?”
Connect with Dinner Church Collective
Verlon and Melodee Fosner are the founders of Community Dinners and the Dinner Church Collective. They’ll be leading a workshop at Awakenings 2019 titled “The Dinner Church Movement.” Here’s how they describe it:
The Apostolic Era used the dinner table as their primary form of church for the first three centuries. That historic sociology of church is making a strong comeback in the past decade. Interestingly, secularized populations are again flocking to these Agape dinner tables to eat & talk about Jesus.
2. The Underground Network
Originating in Tampa Bay, Florida, the Underground Network is both a network of over 200 local microchurches, a simple church engaging in worship, community and mission, and a platform of services that launch and serve these and more microchurches.
The vast majority of the Underground’s time, resources, energy, and programming are spent in creating and sustaining a fellowship of missional leaders. Those leaders are treated as church planters, trusted with the fullness of autonomous and contextual church ministry.
Some of the microchurches that have either originated at the Underground or joined for support and fellowship include.
- The Well: A group dedicated to creating spaces in which to forge community with the poor. This includes a weekly meal, affordable groceries, community meals, a mobile unit distributing material goods, and a bicycle co-op.
- Flourish: A community where nurses and healthcare workers come to be loved, encouraged, empowered, and sent out to be the hands and feet of Jesus in their profession.
- Burning Bush: a network of artists and creative professionals serving and helping each other play their part in the body in ushering an era of intentional, missional diversity and creativity within the community.
When asked why Underground is thriving, Lucas Pulley, Director of Tampa Underground Network, says:
[We are] an entirely calling-driven network, with a thick theology and culture of calling with no room for consumers or spectators. The Underground does not start ministries, we only react to launch and serve leaders who are called by Jesus, believing in and activating the priesthood of all believers.
The result is a community of “called leaders” who are “more passionate, creative, and resilient than recruited volunteers.”
This approach is also key to Underground’s financial viability. Rather than being sustained by a budget entirely based on giving, Underground staff and micro church leaders are responsible for funding their own ministry, whether that be through personal support raising or social enterprise. Any giving from within the network is used to help fund key offerings the network provides, such as coaching and training events.
When asked why the Underground is a useful approach to church and mission today, Pulley identifies three key trends the Underground addresses: disillusionment with consumerism, the rising creator economy, and local contextualization.
Part of the appeal is generational. According to Pulley, attractional forms of church which had been effective for Boomers and Gen X fail to address the disillusionment millennials and Gen Z feel with consumer freedom or their desire for meaning and community.
There is also the growth of “creator economy,” often fueled by the new possibilities provided by the internet, which has created an explosion of entrepreneurial energy in broader culture. The Underground believe this means that the Church should respond by giving even more room for “apostolic gifting and mass empowerment!” According to Pulley:
The best people to serve and lead [within] a certain population are those “on the ground” with the freedom to contextualize, resulting in the eradication of hierarchical operating structures.
While these approaches are useful today, Pulley is quick to point out:
The Underground is built to adjust and adapt to any cultural moment, not just 2019 but 2030, as well. Because we’ve embraced a very simple definition of Church (minimal ecclesiology), and made powerful church planting and church leadership accessible to every single person in every place, the city-wide network is wired to rapidly adjust and contextualize to a rapidly changing world.”
Connect with The Underground Network
Lucas Pulley on Twitter (Director of the Underground Network)
Keisha Polonio on Twitter (Tampa Associate Director Coaching Director)
The Underground at Awakenings 2019
Join Keisha and Lucas for a workshop at Awakenings 2019 titled Every Disciple a Priest, Every Priest a Parish: Lessons Learned from Mobilizing Over 200 Microchurches in Ten Years.
Here’s how they describe it:
Come, hear and interact around the story of Tampa Underground, an organic network of over 200 microchurches in Tampa Bay, interweaved with an organizational structure designed to launch and serve microchurches. We’ll explore how to help cultivate a calling-driven culture, the complexity of flipping an organization so the big exists to serve the small, and how to allow both the organic and the structural coexist toward a wild ecosystem of apostolic energy.
3. The Blended Ecology
When Michael Beck arrived at Wildwood United Methodist Church in Central Florida, there wasn’t much left. A handful of octogenarian “senior saints” were keeping the lights running, but not much else. Inspired by John Wesley’s call to “make the world his parish,” Beck cast a vision that they would not just gather among themselves, but they would find ways to be the church within the community.
Three years later, 300 people can be found on Sunday mornings meeting in three vastly different and diverse gatherings. Besides Sundays, there are 15 fresh expressions of church, such as smaller, contextual gatherings in dog parks, tattoo parlors, and running trails.
Beck refers to this new organism growing out of his old Methodist church as a “blended ecology.” The church was originally driven by a “single economy,” revolving primarily around the inherited Sunday liturgical gathering. As they multiplied into various fresh expressions throughout their community, the church became a “mixed economy” with a traditional gathering and satellites. As this approach has matured, both forms, the inherited church and fresh expressions, have grown into a single “blended ecology” where different forms serve and enrich each other.
When asked why his church is thriving, Beck is quick to point to the “pioneers:” the apostolic leaders working to start new forms of Church. Whereas many pioneering leaders find themselves frustrated in traditional models of Church, pioneers within a blended ecology “have turned their common passions and practices into new forms of church. They are fully released as the priesthood of all believers.”
Besides being contextual, these fresh expressions are also affordable. They often meet in public places and are led by unpaid volunteers.
While Wildwood still maintains it’s traditional Sunday gatherings and many of systems of their denominational heritage, Beck is trying to lead his church in ways designed for mission in 21st century America. The goal of this blended ecology is to enable local churches to “cultivate the center that releases experimentation on the edge.”
Another story of blended ecology comes from Grace Church in Cape Coral, Florida. According to Senior Pastor Jorge Acevedo:
[The church] has been on a 22+ year journey figuring out how to join Jesus in his mission in the world. In the earliest days, it was simply innovating around worship, student, children’s, missions ministry. Today, it’s figuring how to do ministry in Athens instead of Jerusalem … We were red hot to reach our community with more than just worship and discipleship opportunities. Our congregation has been profoundly outwardly focused in our ministry to the poor, marginalized and addicted of our community.
Additionally, Grace Church has felt the need to transition from a “come to” church to a “go to” church. The shift began with the economic downturn in 2007. They had more and more opportunity to serve their neighbors’ tangible needs. However, after serving hundreds of thousands, they noticed that very few of those served had assimilated into the church. As the economy recovered, Acevedo also noticed that many people were using their newly revived incomes for hobbies and vacations that took them away on the weekends.
Grace Church sold some of their property and relocated their compassion ministries to neighborhood locations:
By moving our ministries into the community, we have built long term, genuine relationships with or neighbors. From the elementary school staff to the families who bring their children there, Grace Church has built a relationship of incarnational integrity with them because we “moved into the neighborhood.”
Acevedo happily admits that “we are not really innovators, but are early adapters.” They have committed to learning from missional endeavors in the UK and the US, and to repurposing their existing space for different types of ministry. In all of their efforts, they try to embody three core values: being unashamedly God-centered, passionately people-focused, and strategically team-based.
The move toward a blended ecology has come from empowering what Beck calls “pioneers” and Acevedo calls the APEs (apostles, prophets and evangelist) to start new forms of church. Whereas many pioneering leaders find themselves frustrated in traditional models of church, pioneers within a blended ecology “have turned their common passions and practices into new forms of church. They are fully released as the priesthood of all believers.”
Recently, a staff member at Grace Church asked Acevedo for “permission to be gone on Sunday mornings and go and see where “Aslan is on the move.” While this meant a core team member was away for their major attractional moment of the week, the result was something new, in a new space, with new people. That staff person now meets on Sundays in a mostly Spanish-speaking flea market, where they pray and minister to mostly young, poor Latinos who otherwise might never have found their church community.
Connect About the Blended Ecology
The Blended Ecology at Awakenings 2019
Michael Beck will be releasing his new book on the Blended Ecology, Deep Roots, Wild Branches at Awakenings! Stay tuned for more information.
Jorge Acevedo will give a plenary talk entitled Making Church Vile Again. The missionary impulse of the Church pushes her to reinvention and ingenuity around strategy. In this session, we’ll consider the ways the Spirit of God has and continues to launch the local church out into the edge of her missional calling and vocation.
4. Campus and Community Ministry
The Center for Faith and Leadership
Among the storied forms of church and mission struggling to maintain its place in a changing culture is the denominational campus ministry center—a staple at many colleges and universities. Campus ministry groups have traditionally thrived by providing a place of connection between like-minded students with similar backgrounds. With incoming students less likely to self-identify with a specific denomination or any church at all, these groups are often forced to reimagine their identity.
In 2012 the Baptist Student Union at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia was rechristened as The Center for Faith and Leadership. Directed by Carey and Gannon Sims, they have expanded their scope to include the needs of their surrounding community. They summarize this posture by saying:
Our front door is open to the campus, and our back door opens to the community.
The result has been to create an atmosphere which encourages students and young adults to use their creativity to serve others and to seek new means to connect with their neighbors. They use the language of “research and development” to encourage an environment of experimentation.
Some of their experiments, many of which have been instigated, designed, and led by students, include:
- Link: A mentoring community for homeless youth.
- Will’s Place: A local food truck and catering business that got its start during a weekly meal for students and young adults.
- Uptick Entrepreneur: A nine-month discipleship experience and monthly meet-up that brings together local business owners and aspiring young entrepreneurs who desire to impact their community through local enterprise.
Despite all of their activity, the methodology remains relational. “The Center is a place where friendships rooted in Jesus are changing the world,” says Gannon Sims. “We’re thriving because of a constant focus on friendships rooted in Jesus, and our values of mutuality, intentionality, and hospitality in relationships reflect this.”
Luke Taylor, Ministry Associate at the Center, believes that there are many people who want nothing to do with church and others who are never going to be attracted to the sermon-centric approach to most churches. Instead, “the Center is recreating church for the way they need it. It is by no means trying to take the place of church, but it is meeting people where they’re at and inviting Jesus into that place.”
Connect with The Center
The Center at Awakenings 2019
Join Carey Sims and fellow campus minister Welford Orrock for a workshop at Awakenings 2019.
Structures are as Important as Issues
Often the conversation around the mission of the church can circle around issues. Questions about the Church’s response to race, politics, poverty, gender, generational gaps, and current events will always feel urgent.
What can get lost in this is questions of structure. In fact, even the most thoughtful and prayerful engagement of difficult issues will never get communicated if churches do not operate in expressions that make sense in their context.Even the most thoughtful and prayerful engagement of difficult issues will never get communicated if churches do not operate in expressions that make sense in their context. Click To Tweet
With churches struggling and closing across the country, these four examples show that established churches can shift, and new, missional expressions can thrive in our changing world.
What thriving examples are you seeing?
We’ve convened Awakenings 2019 and are devoting major attention to “conversations about the missionary expressions of the church invited by the future we are moving toward.” Register now to learn from these practitioners and others.