The “De-Churched” and the Future of Missional Emerging Congregations

For years, the mega churches, seeker-sensitive churches, and the gigantic lecture hall arenas of our day have all targeted “the unchurched.” Many of these evangelical churches have performed surveys and research asking their surrounding target market “why don’t you go to church?” As a result, many of these churches have been accused of marketing the gospel and/or changing church to appeal to the unchurched. Amidst all the criticism, these churches have countered, “We have attracted the unchurched into a place where they could receive the gospel.” But could they actually be doing something else?

I have no doubt that many people outside of the gospel have been introduced to salvation in Christ through the various mega churches. I have no doubt a lot of people have been introduced to the gospel who other wise probably would have not. But alongside this activity to His glory, I think I can make the case that something else has ALSO been going on which is falling short of the mission of Christ and may help us understand the way forward for the missional emerging churches of the future?

What is this something else that is happening that falls short of the mission of Christ which might yet also provide a way forward for missional churches of the future? Well, alongside these good things happening at the mega-church centers, I contend they are also “de-churching” people in N. America. I know the term “de-churched” has been used to label the people who have left the church to seek Christian life outside organized church structures. I know it has been used in various other ways. But I would like to propose another more ironic meaning for this term, i.e. a de-churched person is someone who is taken from a church context in some way or another and attracted to a large mega church whereby he/she is trained into practices that are not church yet the person is somehow led to believe this indeed is church. The person is “de-churched” in the sense that he or she is trained out of any habits or practices that were transforming practices of the Body of Christ. The person now goes to an activity which they believe to be church. But now they no longer live in and participate in “the mission” of the church. The person in other words has been de-churched.

Now, I know this is not true of large percentage of people who have come to the mega church. Yet according to Barna and Stark and others, large numbers of people have come to the mega church from small churches attracted to the glamour and production values of the large church. Or they were “catechesized” in the smaller church, haven’t gone to church for a long time, and then they come back to “going to church” through the mega church. These were people formally participating in some ways in “being known” by other people in a church, in liturgical worship or traditional worship where the pastor knew you and you participated. There were a lot of things wrong but at least they were part of something that participated in some of the “marks” of the life of a Body of Christ. There was mission going on at the former small church where you could not help but be part of in one way or another. Now many of these same people, and sons and daughters of these people, have become habituated into coming only to a morning seeker service or “information-bearing” service, which entails little participation in the Kingdom of God. They passively observe the Kingdom sitting in their seats as a member of the audience. There is little getting to know one another, little if any participation in the Kingdom of God. Now they sit uninvolved, unknown, segregated, isolated, and living a life unto themselves. Yet they have grown to understand that this is church. They once (perhaps subliminally) knew what church was, even if they rejected it at age 12. Now they have been linguistically and habitually trained to think something is church, which is not. This phenomenon I would like to define as “the de-churching” of America.

G. A. Pritchard in his 1996 study of Willowcreek referred to these de-churched people as “the Churched Larry problem.” He said this about Willowcreek:

An average of 13,220 individuals attended each weekend service during the year that I studied. Children attending “promiseland” comprised 2,074 of this number. Thus, an average of 11,146 adults attended each weekend service. Over the course of this same year, an average of 3,828 adults attended the weekday (midweek) New Community service. The gap between these two totals is a huge 7,318 adults who attended weekend services but did not attend weekday services.
The bulk of this two-thirds majority is what I would call “churched Larrys,” since 91 per cent of those attending the weekend service state that their highest value is a “deep relationship with God.” … This group of churched Larrys affirms their deepest commitment is to God and yet they do not attend the weekday services, substantially give of their finances, volunteer their rime in serving at the church, or have strong relationships in the church. (page 268-269)

Pritchard goes on to detail that the astounding evidence suggests only a third of the people who attend Willow actually do much more than attend a seeker-oriented service. That was 1996. Is that still true today?

What I contend is that surely we must not discount that WillowCreek and other mega churches have a great ministry of evangelism and even discipleship to many. But that in the process there are large numbers of people, 1/3-2/3rds of th4ese congregations that are being habituated into thinking church is something akin to tuning in, or attending a large mass gathering and that is it. Could it be that these de-churched be the ones the missional church might reach out to? Many of the emerging church peoples are no other than the sons and daughters of the “de-churched” seeing through the hollowness of this practice that their parents now call church. Could it be that the de-churched be people that the missional church movement could reclaim for the founding of true missional communities?

At our church, in the shadow of two of the largest mega churches in the country nevermind the mid-west, we commonly hear a few phrases from people who join in with our community. They are phrases like – “I went there for ten years and did not know anyone … I wanted to go to a church where I knew someone.” “I went there month after month, and what I got was more “to do” list application points for my Christian life … I wanted to worship where I could participate in an engagement with the living God.” And oh yes BTW, we have also heard, “I did not know you could be an evangelical and not vote Republican.” These are maybe all signs of people resisting being “de-churched.”

More and more… the dechurched people of the mega churches are getting a sense of something wrong. These discontented de-churched get that the mass distribution of Christian life is not possible. Instead, Christian life is participation in worship, community, engagement of the poor, the hurting, the marginalized with the full salvation of Christ, the sharing of our respective burdens in Christ, the transformation of our souls towards an orientation towards God’s mission in the world, the participation in global holistic mission. Could these “de-churched” be the basis for the re-seeding of missional congregations by the Holy Spirit? Again, I have no doubt the mega churches in United States are doing many good evangelistic things. And one of those things may be the providing of the beginnings of missional congregations with the disenchanted “de-churched.” Maybe it could be time for missional congregations to openly invite “the de-churched” to be “re-churched” missionally speaking. Some may say this is sheep stealing. Some may say that this is an example of a small church being jealous of the big ones. I must confess, this very idea might encourage a competition between the mega churches and the missional congregations. I fear some may suggest going to the mega churches huge parking lots and putting flyers on car windows seeking the de-churched to become part of missional church. I steadfastly plead for the resistance of any “capitalistic competition” between churches in the new post-Christian, post modern contexts of N. America. It is key for our witness for Christ. Instead of all this, let us missional emerging congregations be persistent in pushing the missional issues in conversations with our Christian cohorts, and let us be patiently present, waiting for God to do what He is doing with the “de-churched.”

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