"A growing number of people are leaving the institutional church for a new reason. They are not leaving because they have lost faith. They are leaving the church to preserve their faith. They contend that the church no longer contributes to their spiritual development. In fact, they say, quite the opposite is true. The number of "post-congregational" Christians is growing. David Barrett, author of the World Christian Encyclopedia, estimates that there are about 112 million "churchless Christians" worldwide, about 5 percent of all adherents, but he projects that number will double in the next twenty years!" (pp, 4,5; links added).
While this phenomenon has probably always existed to some extent, Western individualization is likely providing the popular philosophical underpinning to make the decision to practice the Christian faith apart from a local church community more common.
As the development of online resources has contributed to the continual decline of the cost of information, Christians are less reliant than they've ever been on their local church for information about the Scriptures, theology, or the spiritual life.
Furthermore, as online technologies have served to facilitate geographically-agnostic interaction, any Christian in the developed world can reach out to other Christians much more easily outside of the settings and opportunities provided by the local church.
Yet, as I've earlier implied, while the church errs when she ignores opportunities provided by online contexts for community, there are still limits to that online community. There are, of course, still advantages to be had with face-to-face interaction.
And so, even though some of my post-congregationalist friends might vehemently disagree with me, I continue to believe in the value of the local church and am hopeful that in days to come many of those who've been disenfranchised will find their way back in.
I mentioned here before the faithmaps online discussion group that I ran for five years. Some of the folks in our community where those who were frustrated by their local churches. Some of them felt that they couldn't get the questions answered from their local church; others felt they couldn't even ask the questions. Still others were bitter – very bitter – about their local church experience and had given up on the institution.
But these folks had two desires that I believe were planted in their souls by God. They yearned for God and they desired community. The Internet provided them with the anonymity that enabled them to safely reach out to others for community.
So whereas online resources and online community can be seen as enabling the post-congregationals, it also provides those who love them with a means to interact with them in a non-threatening way.
But here's where things get tricky:
Pastors and others within local churches who wish to reach the post-congregationals have to be very, very sensitive in their approach. These folks smell solicitations and agenda a mile away and, once they do, you'll never hear from them again. The only thing that has the remotest chance of cutting through their skepticism is genuine humility and love.
Leaders have to have the humility
- to admit that they've made mistakes,
- to recognize that they've sometimes acted in ways that have driven off ex-attenders,
- to realize that the ultimate goal is most certainly not simply that these churchless Christians come back to their church, and
- to understand that these people love Jesus too.
Once these attitudinal adjustments have been made or confirmed, then there are a number of helpful online contexts that could be created to serve as a bridge to those who've become disenchanted with the church:
- blogs – This is probably the least effective because some post-church folks will be disinclined to read the musings of pastors. Nevertheless, especially in very large churches, a blog provides congregants and former congregants another avenue to hear from pastors in a churchless setting. Moreover, comments to posts give these same people unique opportunities to communicate with the pastor. Another disadvantage, however, is that blogs inherently privilege the communication of those who own the blog. The one blogging, in other words, is the "star" of the blog and all others "merely" comprise the audience. Those who used to go to church might feel that being relegating to mere commenting status marginalizes them.
- online discussion groups – As I indicated above, I can say from personal experience that this type of forum attracts some who are interested in Christian discussion and community but feel alienated from the church. I believe that one reason folks were attracted to our faithmaps community was that we weren't associated with any local church. And so whether to advertise such an online community as being associated with a church or not is a strategic decision. If you don't announce the association, any mention of your church should only come after a community member asks. One needs to be careful not to offer a bait-and-switch.
(You can read more about how to do online discussion groups and some of the technical options here).
- a presence in an online virtual world, such as Second Life – There are other metaverses out there, but this is the one that's the most popular. Perhaps the most famous church application within Second Life is that of Lifechurch.tv's which is discussed in this recent Leadership Network white paper. Maintaining the anonymity available through the other options mentioned here, enabling individuals to create three-dimensional avatars to interact with other people in an online virtual world can be a great, non-threatening way to provide post-congregationals with an opportunity to connect.
- classic social networking tools (e.g. Facebook, MySpace, , Orkut, Friendster, etc.) – Right now, MySpace and Facebook are getting most of the press. Because of their rising popularity, these are excellent environments to create groups that might connect with churchless Christians. The downside is that on some of these sites, members are getting tired of incessant invitations to join "yet another group."
I do not believe that the church has the option to ignore the post-congregationals. Yet I also don't believe we can shove "church" down their throat either. What we can do is to reach out to churchless Christians, model Christ's love for them, and provide open doors.
The rest is up to them.