I’ve been reading quite a lot of statistically based books lately. This is usually not my cup of tea, but the research helps me to understand trends in such a way as to be better at leading my congregation. As you might have guessed, Thom and Sam are related. Thom Rainer is the president and of LifeWay Christian Resources, the co-author of
These statisticians have written a book that examines the trend of church drop-outs. What their research shows is that the American church is in decline, and the largest group of people dropping out of church is young adults aged 18 to 22. Seventy percent of this age group are dropping out of church while only 30% are staying. Consequently the conclusions they draw and the suggestions they make are aimed at what churches can do to stem the tide of back door users in this age group. Even so, the material can be applied across age brackets when church leaders are trying to invigorate their churches.
The book is divided into two sections: Part 1, dedicated to the research itself explaining “why people are leaving the nonessential church”; and part 2, relating “how essential churches close the back door.” The dire picture that the statistics paints is one that causes the first part of the book to seem rather on the negative side.
What we are exposed to in part one is the stark reality that the American church is in decline. It is not really all that surprising with books like unChristian opening our eyes to the fact that the up-and-coming generations are finding more and more things to be disenchanted with about the church. Even so, the Rainers present some interview material that shows that the exodus of young people really has less to do with people getting mad at the church than it does with life change. What the authors discovered in polling and interviewing church dropouts was that these young adults just got out of the habit of going to church because it wasn’t an “essential” in their lives.
The authors offer these top ten reasons for 18 to 22 year olds ceasing to attend church:
- Simply wanted a break from church.
- Church members seemed judgmental or hypocritical.
- Moved to college and stopped attending church.
- Work responsibilities prevented me from attending.
- Moved too far away from the church to continue attending.
- Became too busy but still wanted to attend.
- Didn’t feel connected to the people in my church.
- Disagreed with the church’s stance of political or social issues.
- Chose to spend more time with friends outside the church.
- Was only going to church to please others.
Part two of the book is actually the more helpful part of what the Rainers write. When you read the book don’t skip the foundational material of part one, but for the book to be useful, you’ll want to get to part two as quickly as possible. In part two we find the positive side of the message—even though young adults are leaving the church in record numbers, they tide can be turned. And it is, the authors argue, in essential churches. What makes an essential church? According to the book, an essential church is one that:
- Simplifies: Getting the Structure Right
- Deepens: Getting the Content Right
- Expects: Getting the Attitude Right, and
- Multiplies: Getting the Action Right
There are two cautions that I would place when reading this book. The first is mine alone: Beware the temptation to approach the material with an attitude of “churchiolatry.” While reading the concerns about the exodus of young adults from the church it is easy to begin thinking that the church is the most important thing. Understanding that scripture dictates the importance of gathering with fellow Christ followers, and understanding also the gravity of the fact that Jesus himself created the church for believers, it is easy to make the creation more important than the Creator—especially when we know (or at least think we know) the best way to express church.
The second caution is one that the authors themselves render when offering the suggested answers to what an essential church is and how you can lead your church to be one, and I concur: Beware of the temptation to use the material in part two of the book to create a “cookie cutter” church. All churches have their own personality, so apply the information according to your situation. All churches are also found in unique situations, so approach the process of becoming essential with your location in mind.
The book itself presents some valuable information in a very readable manner. If you can overlook the overuse of the word plethora (I’m reminded of a certain scene in The Three Amigos), you will be able to use this resource toward turning your church into a
[I will give a copy of Essential Church? to the first reader to correctly answer the following question in the comments section of this post:
In the second part of Essential Church? the authors use one word rather extensively. I mention a movie in which this word is an interesting joke. What is the villain's name who uses the word and the important question that he asks?]