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It’s Not Thinning the Herd; It’s Fragmentation

Updated: Oct 2, 2020


“Just create a venue,” the worship pastor jokingly said. I was attending a denomination’s national gathering of worship leaders and pastors in Charlotte in 2011. Venue services, as they are called, were the new fad. Larger churches, who wanted to increase attendance in their local community, would utilize multiple rooms and time periods within their own building on a Sunday morning to create several different services. The partially-simulcasted sermon would largely stay the same, but the music and other service elements would differ. As worship leaders from across the country brought their struggles to the table, asking for advice, the concept of venue services was mentioned so frequently that it was seen, tongue-in-cheek, as the answer to all worship leader problems.

At the time, I jumped on the bandwagon. This isn’t satellite like Joel Osteen, I thought, because we’re all in one building. And I kept hearing stories about uber-conservative fringe groups that would only attend church if certain hymns were played and specific service elements were observed, or a elderly lady lovingly trying to appeal to her grandchild with a contemporary church service within the same building. Yes, it’s a concession to consumerism and human stubbornness, I thought, but more people are coming into the building and hearing the Gospel, and that’s a good thing.

That same year, the plausibility and legitimacy of legalized homosexual marriage skyrocketed. Believing in the traditional view of marriage went from an accepted view to backwards and worthy of cancel culture very quickly.

Several Christian leaders that I respect were accepting that latter reality, up to and including Obergefell in 2015, even with some sense of relief. Why? Because being a Christian and regularly attending a church that espouses the traditional view of marriage now had a social cost. The “Christians in name only” who didn’t want to be potentially seen as homophobic and bigoted, for example, would no longer attend church or claim the faith in the public eye. And, over the next few years, this showed to be true. Mainline and affirming churches’ attendance declined, while churches maintaining the traditional view of marriage held steady. Coarsely, this could be called a proverbial thinning of the herd.

Then came 2020.

By 2020, the separate services (particularly the ones with generational differences) had become separate churches altogether. While attenders of both services may have believed the same crucial theological tenets, socio-political stances and cultural expectations separated them even further. By 2020, such divisive issues came out from the under the rug, making it difficult for any culturally-heterogenous church to play nice and maintain unity. The pandemic brought out undercurrent views from quarantined Christians onto social media, putting every aspect of life not into biblical interpretation, but political categories.

In daunting 2020, church leaders want to maintain congregational unity as best they can, along with some attractiveness to their church, if possible. In order to do so, beyond the difficult hurdle of how to even gather each Sunday, church leaders don’t even talk about, for example, politics or race relations. Even when truth on such matters needs to be said.

This isn’t a thinning of the herd. It’s fragmentation. It happened for a number of reasons, and we should have seen it coming. We neglected the objective to build mature churches, instead looking to build bigger ones. We’ve been unable or unwilling to acknowledge our own weaknesses and shortcomings. We’ve built churches around what makes prospective and/or tithing congregants comfortable, and we’ve thus avoided acknowledging or addressing discomforting truths.

Now, all we’ll have left is a fragmented Church, comprised of culturally-homogenous and self-isolated congregations, or heterogenous gatherings with a fake sense of unity. The New Testament ideal of an ethnically- and economically-diverse congregation that is unified in its theological, social and political views? Impossible (except, maybe, for multicultural churches, who are accustomed to being uncomfortable with service elements, hearing unsettling truths, and are attuned relationally to many more socio-political issues).

Please tell me I’m wrong. I would love a hopeful and encouraging rebuttal.


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