While living in Chicago, my family and I were members of Loop Church, a Christian Reformed congregation on the south side of downtown. Begun as a church plant in the late 1980s, it didn’t find a permanent space until 2010, moving into a neighborhood teeming with growth and possibilities.
Although the neighborhood had been an industrial area, a dramatic shift in the surrounding blocks happened in the last decade or two. Gleaming towers of condos and apartments were built in the South Loop, making the area primarily residential.
A number of churches have begun to sprout in the space of about five city blocks. Long-time Catholic and Presbyterian (PCUSA) churches are being joined by a host of entrepreneurial new fellowships. In addition to Loop Church, there’s a Presbyterian Church in America church plant, a Chinese church, a nondenominational church, a Christian Reformed plant targeting the hip-hop generation, and a Vineyard Church. About 10 blocks further is a satellite of Willow Creek.
This eclectic mix of churches is representative of the North American landscape today: centuries-old denominations, newer growing denominations, networks and satellites, and independent churches.
We hear over and over that denominations are dying. Variations on this theme include recalling times gone by when major denominations were a powerful presence in society. Before jumping aboard that bandwagon, though, we would do well to ask a few questions. Are so-called mainline denominations dying? What about others? Are the perceptions of denominational decline correct?
Membership trends among mainline denominations are disturbing. Between 2012 and 13, for example, membership in the PCUSA declined by nearly 90,000 (about 5 percent); 224 churches either left for other denominations or dissolved. Similar trends are reported by other mainline denominations in Canada and the United States.
But a recent article by Ted Campbell in The Christian Century looks at the data from a different perspective. Campbell notes that during the 20th century, combined membership in a group of nine mainline denominations never accounted for more than 17 percent of the U.S. population. In other words, for more than 100 years, mainline denominations have not been nearly the imposing presence we seem to believe they were.
Other reports show that there has been growth among more conservative evangelical denominations in both Canada and the U.S. as well as among independent churches. Rather than concluding that denominations are dying, it would be better to conclude that the church landscape is changing and broadening, for it includes not only denominations but also denomination-like networks, megachurches and satellites, and independent churches.
I see this as an era for enterprising efforts and experiments. Does that five-block area in the South Loop of Chicago need all of those churches? Some might say no. But consider: there are thousands of people in that neighborhood who aren’t in any church on Sunday mornings. And if they all started to stream through those doorways, the seats in this handful of churches would be insufficient to handle the deluge. We must be ready for the harvest, and I’m pleased to see a diversity of options through which the Spirit can work.
Also, we need to be aware of trends. The 1914 CRC Yearbook lists nine churches that had begun the year before. Three were in cities (Hoboken, NJ; Holland, Mich.; Ogden, Utah); six were in rural areas (including one in Cramersburg, Saskatchewan). One hundred years later, in 2013, 11 churches had begun. All started in metropolitan areas. Why?
According to the World Health Organization, 100 years ago 20 percent of the world’s population lived in cities; three years ago the figure passed the 50 percent mark, and it keeps growing. The world’s peoples are flocking to cities.
The migration to cities is just one trend. Other trends also demand attention. Closely related to the movement to urban areas is the diversity of people that those areas include.
The world around us is changing. What about us? Are we ready to embrace this wave of newcomers?