It feels like yesterday.
I was standing in the back of our church auditorium, watching our volunteers duplicate sermon CDs for people wanting to purchase them for review or to give to friends.
For some of you, that brings back fond memories of simpler times. People came to church for community and content. To draw a crowd and create interest in your church, you could grow if you could create connection and community and offer helpful, practical content. That’s perhaps a bit too simplistic, but the basics are accurate.
Times have certainly changed.
The Great Content Commoditization
I love the internet. While writing this post, I’m using it to check my grammar and spelling.
I also love how the internet has brought people, content, and ideas directly to our fingertips. We no longer need to attend a conference or a church service to hear helpful content.
In fact, we are overwhelmed with practical, helpful content of every variety.
This overpopulation and accessibility of content have commoditized sermons and speeches. This certainly doesn’t mean that people are actually listening to more and better content, but it does mean they can. The ability to get content without leaving my house, car, or phone makes going to a physical church location for content unnecessary and unappealing.
Content matters, but it’s not a draw.
It’s All About Community
Yes, but… Like content, community has also changed dramatically over the past few decades. And we cannot blame the internet. Research shows that social media makes us all more lonely, but it feels a little communal. Especially if you’ve found your tribe or “people.”
But there is more to this story. With the rise in kid’s sports, vacation travel, time spent at work, and such, people can find community just about anywhere they go.
Like content, the availability of community doesn’t mean that people take full advantage. Or that these versions of community are healthy and substantial. In many cases, these communities are counterfeit, superficial, and often temporary. But they are available. Readily available.
Therefore, people don’t see church as necessary for finding connection and community. They have that in other places that don’t take up extra time.
When community is already incorporated into a person’s routine, they are unlikely to add church community in addition to what’s already part of their life.
Yikes! Sounds Like Bad News.
It’s certainly troubling. The old methods of attracting people and growing disciples are changing. But that’s nothing new. We’ve always had to adjust our “going into all the world” and “making disciples” to accomplish the Great Commission in our culture.
The question is, how should we adjust?
If we cannot rely on community or content, then what’s left?
Community + Content
Here’s an idea. If most versions of community found within our lives are marginal, and most people don’t engage with practical and helpful content alone, what if we combined the two?
In Hebrews, we read, “…and don’t neglect gathering together, as some are in the habit of doing…” If you’re a pastor, you know this passage because you’ve preached it a lot in the past three years.
In these first-century churches, people gathered for a purpose. They helped each other, supported each other, discussed ideas, considered the teachings of Jesus, and read a letter or two from Paul.
They built a community around things like content.
What if we brought this approach to our churches today?
This is the gist of small groups, right? Well, yes and no. And, like church itself, a group meeting can just become another commitment in a laundry list of things we all have to do.
I can see three options for this combination to thrive:
1. Weekly Small Groups with a Monthly Larger “Church” Gathering
What if we encouraged a new type of group ministry that functioned as the primary church experience and only offered a larger gathering monthly? If that sounds ridiculous, I’m with you. Kind of. But let’s think about it before dismissing it.
The content needs community and conversation. Church community needs not just to be one more thing added to our lives. Can we combine the two? Could small groups meet all over a city or town in homes, watch some content created by the local church, and then discuss it as a group? Then, you offer a monthly larger experience for worship, communion, baptism, etc.
I know. What about the kids? I don’t have all the answers. But I know what we’re currently doing isn’t working great.
2. Incorporate Discussion into Church Services
This idea may sound weird, too. Perhaps it is.
It is readily apparent that driving to a physical location to sit mostly in silence while listening to a person talk is not compelling today. We need to create a communicative and communal experience for people.
What if we allowed people more time to process and discuss during the service? What if we stopped sitting in rows and sat around tables?
Again, something else may work better, but what if?
3. Offer Discussion Groups on Sunday Night
This is the safest idea. It’s also the least disruptive and potentially the least effective.
Here’s the idea: You hold relatively normal Sunday morning services but adjust by including some space for connection and contemplation. In your sermon, offer some questions for people to consider, and then allow them to attend discussion groups later in the day. Or right after church. You can provide childcare, too.
I know. This isn’t all that compelling. But maybe it would work in some context. I don’t know for sure. But it’s an idea.
Don’t Dismiss Disruption
Whatever you do, do something. Try something.
People seem more lonely than ever with access to more community than ever. What our world offers doesn’t work. But what our churches offer doesn’t feel appealing enough to reverse church decline.
Something has to give. Let’s start experimenting with ideas before it’s too late.