EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a series of forthcoming articles.
Curt Richter, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, conducted a somewhat morbid experiment in the 1950s. He put wild rats in a container of water and forced them to swim as long as they could before drowning. Most of the rats swam for only a few minutes before they gave up and sank.
In round two, however, Richter made a small adjustment to the experiment. After a short initial period when the rats would be left alone, he would come in and remove them from the water then put them back. These rats swam for hours. One even swam for almost an entire day before it sank. The difference, according to Richter, was simple—hope.
“After elimination of hopelessness,” Ricther wrote, “the rats do not die.”
Past growth of the American church
The growth of the American church is one of the great success stories in Christian history. People think the United States was a Christian nation at the founding of the republic, but that is revisionist history. By most accounts, fewer than 20 percent of the population were connected to a congregation immediately following the American Revolution.
Early in the 19th century, however, a highly democratized and deeply American style of religion began to catch on, beginning a period of growth lasting for a century and a half. By the 1960s, the United States had one of the highest rates of religious adherence of any nation in the world.
And then things changed.
Decline of the American church
For half a century now, the American church has been experiencing numerical decline. Yet, even amidst the doom and gloom, there are certain places where congregations aren’t sinking; they’re swimming. What’s the difference?
During the past few months, the Center for Healthy Churches has been involved in a project at Belmont University helping churches find new ways to thrive in the 21st century. I say “new ways” because, for many churches, the old ways aren’t working any longer.
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Our initial research is telling us there are seven different traits of churches that are finding ways to thrive despite the institutional decline of American Christianity.
At the top of the list is this one simple thing—hopefulness.
Hope for the American church
Congregations that believe they can make a difference in the lives of people and the world around them aren’t simply watching the death of Christendom as if there is nothing that can be done. These congregations are creating new forms of congregational life and new ways of partnership that are creating newness of life in individual adherents and in the communities in which they minister.
Furthermore, these congregations aren’t finding such hope by imitating the latest and greatest strategies from the largest churches around them. They are mining a virtuous mixture of the deep wisdom of Scripture, the timeless resources of their particular traditions and their own unique congregational DNA.
Every existing congregation has a story of a season of ministry that not only made a meaningful impact on the world but also revealed the passions, gifts and strengths God placed within that congregation.
What about your congregation? When is the last time your church looked around and saw possibilities rather than problems? When is the last time your church decided to jump into the deep end of the pool rather than fearfully treading water in the shallow end?
The congregations that are thriving as Christendom dies around us are the congregations focused on the possibilities of a vibrant future rather than fearfully trying to maintain the present or recreate the past.
Matt Cook is assistant director of the Center for Healthy Churches, from whose blog this article is adapted. The views expressed are those solely of the author.