The church is reforming. Unlike the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s, which was primarily about the theology of salvation, the current reformation we find ourselves in is about the nature of what it means to be the church. We believe the core issue at stake is the priesthood of all believers (POAB). The main reason the church in North America is losing its impact and driving its ministry leaders to despair is we’ve neglected to practice this central aspect of what it means to be the church. As a result, this new reformation demands that we not simply try to patch holes in our broken systems but reconsider so much of what we do in ministry and how we are the church overall.
Priesthood of All Believers
The POAB is the understanding that all followers of Jesus have a ministerial calling and a calling to evangelism, to sharing the gospel and reaching the lost. Yes, Martin Luther and other reformers articulated a POAB during the Protestant Reformation to confront those who had a monopoly on ministry. Yet since the Reformation, the church for the most part has paid lip service to the POAB while not putting it into practice. Staff, ordained clergy, and other authorized leaders do most of the work. We must remember afresh that the POAB was the new reality God ushered in at Pentecost. As we see in 1 Peter 2:9, all followers of Jesus make up a royal priesthood, not only certified personnel. As Paul articulates in Ephesians 4:11-12, the Lord gives ministerial gifts to equip all the saints for the work of ministry, not to do it on their behalf.
Changes in the Church
In the Western world, most people for centuries assumed church was normal, but for the most part, this is no longer the case. Europe went first, and now North America is also becoming a post-Christian, secular, and syncretist society. Those who were filling the pews no longer assume church membership and sense much less of a need to show up, even in historic Christian strongholds like the American South and Midwest where we have both lived.
Since society is changing around us, inherent flaws in our church systems are now a lot clearer to see. The Covid-19 pandemic served to speed up this process of exposing the weaknesses, too. Churches are not growing but are plateauing at best or shrinking and shutting down at worst. Christianity is no longer impacting culture like it once did. And pastors and ministry leaders are feeling the pressure more than anyone else. Almost every recent statistical report on the state of the church demonstrates these realities.
For instance, more Protestant churches closed than opened for the first time in U.S. history in 2019 (source). In 2020, for the first time in U.S. history, fewer than 50 percent of Americans identified as having a church affiliation (source). As of 2021, only 9% of self-identifying Christians had a biblical worldview (source). In January 2021, 29% of U.S. pastors thought about quitting full-time ministry in the past year. By November of the same year, that number shot up to 38%. Just a few months later in March of 2022 that number increased again to 42% (source).
Changes in Church Leaders
The data points about the state of pastors are interesting because pastors of all people feel the flaws in the systems the most. Still many ministry leaders are trying to fix these broken church systems without addressing the core problem of a neglected POAB. It’s an impossible situation because in many ways the structures they’re operating in are the very things causing the problems. Trying to activate the POAB with consumptive events and programs centered around experts is like polishing brass on the Titanic while it’s sinking. Or, to use the words of Jesus, it’s like pouring new wine into old wineskins. “And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, ‘The old is better.’” (Luke 5:39)
Between the two of us, we’re working with more than two dozen current and former pastors stepping away from the prevailing model of church as we know it. These people long to see a movement with the masses empowered. This includes a former denominational leader in Michigan who left behind attractive professional opportunities to start something that looks more like the Bible. A former megachurch youth pastor in the Southeast who recognized what he was doing was largely toxic. A church planter on the West Coast who was helping multiple churches and realized the status quo wasn’t going to complete the task. A pastor in Texas who was going through all the typical church planting assessments, and God gave him a better vision. A pastor in the Midwest who is at a college church and is now realizing the prevailing structures aren’t going to reach the young adult demographic. This list could go on, but all of them are counting the cost that they need to step away from what they know in order to do what is needed.
New Paradigms Bring Growth Opportunities
People like this have turned from a ministry marked by the few and are learning to make the POAB a reality. Whereas in their former roles they felt responsible for the success or failure of their ministries, now they are focused on equipping all the saints to be the church and do the work together. These people are not alone either. For years now, there has been a rise in disciple-making ministries, church planting movements, organic/micro/simple church, etc. These are the growing pains of a new reformation. We’re midstream in that reformation now. We’re still in the early stages, but it’s inevitable and here to stay. The church of the future in North America will not and should not look like the status quo that is centralized around a minority holding the power of ministry, but one that is much more decentralized, authorizing and releasing all the saints for the work of ministry. We are actively and joyfully embracing this reformation. Will you?
Neal Karsten has been walking a journey of intentional disciple and simple church multiplying since 2013. Along the way Neal has learned a lot through trying, falling down, reorienting, and trying again. There has been a lot of refinement, and by the grace of God, a work has emerged throughout Michigan. From this movement, seeds have been sown into other cities, states, and countries. He realizes working toward multiplication is a journey for everyone.
Matt is a movement pioneer laboring in Springfield, Massachusetts and throughout New England. He started intentionally working to see movements in 2019. Before going into this work, Matt was in traditional pastoral ministry for 10 years. Matt’s dream is to see another Great Awakening with the hopes that it is the final one before Jesus returns. Investing in pioneering leaders who take ownership of their cities is his main strategy for seeing that vision fulfilled.
Connect with Neal and Matt at pastortopioneer.com.