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The church is a lot like a school

School Church

students laity

faculty ministers

Or, maybe the church is more like a corporation

Corporation Church

articles of incorporation constitution

boards deacons

shareholders meetings & conventions business meetings & conventions

mergers ecumenism

strive for market share church growth movement

emphasize customer service emphasize seeker sensitivity

search for CEO’s search for pastor’s in much the same way

giant corporations putting small mega-churches

businesses out of business with

greater selection and value

And while corporations are enjoying great prosperity, the story for the church is quite different:

A new study released by the Barna Research Group shows that while substantial changes have occurred in people’s values and lifestyles during the Nineties, commitment to Christianity has remained relatively unchanged during the decade. Although individual measures of Christian belief and practice have undergone significant change during the past nine years, the net effect has been one of stability.

Using a scale that evaluates the commitment of American adults to Christianity on the basis of 18 factors ñ eight faith practices and ten beliefs ñ the research shows that there has been relatively little change during this decade, and the limited change that has occurred indicates a deterioration of commitment. The data demonstrate that the bulk of the decline in Christian commitment has been in faith practices, not in beliefs. The largest drops in activity from 1991 to 1999 were experienced regarding worship service attendance, Bible reading and prayer. The only beliefs from among the ten tested that experienced similarly significant declines during the same period were the notion that the Bible is totally accurate in all that it teaches and people’s understanding of who God is.

The research shows that the population at-large rejects many beliefs that are embraced by evangelical Christians. For instance, most Americans do not believe in salvation by grace, alone; that the Bible is totally accurate in all that it teaches; that they have a personal responsibility for evangelism; that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life; or that Satan is a real being who can influence people’s lives.

In a similar vein, the data show that a minority of Americans engage in practices such as attending church services in a typical week; reading the Bible; attending a Sunday school class; participating in a small group or cell group; or volunteering to help their church.

George Barna, president of the research firm that released the study, pointed out some of the paradoxes highlighted by the statistics. "Sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of the true spiritual character of our nation. More than four out of five adults call themselves ’Christian,’ but these figures raise questions about what that term means for many people. Seven out of ten adults say they are ’religious,’ but that term covers a lot of territory. Clearly, being religious is not synonymous with being a committed Christian. Those who suggest that Americans are becoming more conservative, more traditional and more religious should recognize that these data describe a nation that is not becoming more biblically-informed, more spiritually mature or more authentically Christian."

The pastors of America’s 324,000 Protestant churches may have some doctrinal differences, but they share a common self-image when it comes to describing their churches. Most pastors say that their church can be accurately described as "evangelistic," "theologically conservative," "evangelical," "seeker-sensitive," and "consistently engaged in serving the needy." Gone are the days when most pastors would describe their church as liturgical or theologically moderate.

In spite of this portrait painted by pastors, it is a picture at odds with other measures of the faith and religious practices of the people who populate Protestant churches. If the true nature of a church is best reflected by the beliefs and religious activities of its adults, then the description of most churches would be substantially different than that conveyed by pastors. Specifically, America’s Protestant churches would best be described as theologically moderate, non-evangelical, believer-sensitive and isolated from the needy and disadvantaged.

And the view from the pulpit must somehow be reconciled with the fact that, even by pastors’ own report, in the past year the average number of adults attending Protestant churches has declined; church financial support has dropped; and self-reported attendance among adults is less frequent than in the past.

Religion continues to be a major topic of interest and involvement for most American adults. However, the annual national tracking study of religious behavior and beliefs conducted by the Barna Research Group reveals that the much discussed and anticipated spiritual revival is not discernible through common measures of spirituality.

The measures examined every year by Barna include church attendance, Bible reading, Sunday school attendance, involvement in small groups that meet for religious purposes, volunteering at a church, and whether the person can be defined as a born again Christian or evangelical Christian. For all seven of those measures, the responses from a national sample of 1006 adults were statistically identical to the responses from the 1997 survey. When compared to statistics for 1991, church attendance and Bible reading are at lower levels of involvement. The other five measures are essentially unchanged from their levels of seven years ago.

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