Unchurching the Churched

Burk Parsons of Ligonier Ministries interviewed Dr. Michael Horton back in 2009.  Horton is a professor at Westminster Seminary in California, host of the White Horse Inn, and author of books such as Christless Christianity and The Gospel Driven Life.  I’ve been an admirer of Dr. Horton’s work, but when he was asked about what the greatest ecclesiastical threat facing the church today I’m not sure I entirely agree with his answer.  In a nutshell he said –” unchurching the churched.”   Here is his statement in full:

No one has to be convinced that evangelicalism has about the lowest ecclesiology since the Quakers. It is an ecclesiology based on the individual’s decision for Christ, rather than God, from eternity past, making a blueprint for the church and executing it in His Son by His Spirit. And so it’s easy if the church is just sort of created by a collection of deciders and choosers, to turn the church into a market, into a shopping mall of consumers. The whole idea of church office is an increasingly foreign idea to a lot of younger evangelical ministers. I was raised in Baptist churches, where the evangelical preachers still had a strong sense of office in the church; they would often speak about the importance of that office, but I don’t hear preachers speak of church office anymore. I hear “every believer is a minister, we’re all ministers … every sheep is a shepherd.” Basically, the pastor has become the chief motivator and coach and planner for events, and that’s a big concern I have. Maybe the greatest concern in this milieu that I have is that we’re losing a sense of the catholicity of the church. We’re carving the church into niche markets and setting generation against generation, and socio-economic group against socio-economic group. As such, we are increasingly unchurching the churched.

In an age when the faith of young Christians is going to be tested more than ever before, they are the least equipped to meet those challenges because they have not been integrated very well into the life of the living church. They have been in children’s church, youth group, then in a campus ministry, and they never had to join a church. And we wonder why according to one study eighty percent of those raised in evangelical churches leave the church, they don’t join a church, they don’t even go to church by the time they are sophomores in college. Well, you have to ask the question: are they really leaving the church, did they ever belong to it? How many Sundays did they actually spend with the communion of saints in public prayer, public reading of Scripture, public preaching, partaking of the sacraments—did they ever meet with an elder or pastor? If these things are not a part of the normal experiences of young people, they’re not really connected to the church. They might be connected to their circle of friends from the youth group. They might be connected to their campus ministry support network and their campus leader, but they’re not part of a church. Why then are they being blamed for not going to church by the time they’re sophomores in college?

I agree with his concern about creating “niche” markets within the church.  I also understand his concern about the pastor being the “chief motivator and coach and planner of events.”  The pastor should be about the business of ministry of the word and prayer.  He also should be a shepherd.  I wonder how he reconciles this with the pastor’s role of “equipping the saints for the work of ministry,” (Ephesians 4:12)?  Also what does this look like in larger churches?  Should we have large churches?  Should we have children’s and youth ministries?


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  1. Caron says

    I agree with him on all points. In particular, I’ve tried for years to get our church to integrate children, but I’m always shot down.

    • says

      I’m not a huge fan of children’s church. I can see for pre-K kids and younger, but once they hit first grade kids should be able to sit in service with their parents. The pastor though also has to keep in mind when he prepares that there are kids and youth in the service. I can tolerate kids church, but what I absolutely hate is the concept of teenagers having their own service. I’d never go to a church that encourages that.

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