Why I Am Hopeful for the Neighborhood Church in America
by Bart L. Denny, Ph.D., Th.M.
If you’ve read much of my blog, you might think my outlook on the Church (capital “C”) in America is pretty negative. Not so! I hope you’ll see in my writings that, in my view, the Church must face some stark realities. I think I can. Further, in light of the world as it is and not as we would like it, we must step up to the plate to meet these challenges, or we will see more decline and further decay. We will reach fewer of our fellow Americans with the life-transforming Gospel of Jesus Christ. But for now, I will focus on the many reasons to hope for a bright future for the American Church—especially for small, neighborhood, and rural congregations.
Reason #1: Most people are open to spiritual conversations. Americans may be dropping out of organized religion, but that doesn’t mean they’ve all become atheists. According to research that the Christian publisher LifeWay conducted in 2022, two-thirds of Americans are open to conversations about faith. It’s not that people don’t want to hear about spiritual matters; Christians won’t engage in those conversations. Maybe we’re still caught up in the old, arm-twisting, say the sinner’s prayer form of evangelism—which never felt all that natural to me anyway. What if we followed Jesus’ example instead and engaged in spiritual conversations? What has Jesus done in your life? After all, it’s the Holy Spirit’s job to change hearts—not ours. We’re not out to close a deal but merely serve as instruments in God’s hands.
Reason #2: Neighborhood churches are making a comeback. And that may be a trend that’s here to stay. Dr. Sam Rainer demonstrates a curious shift in the American Church in his forthcoming book. For several decades, beginning in the 1980s, growing churches relocated away from neighborhoods and built large campuses near major highway intersections. These attractional churches featured a vast selection of high-quality ministry offerings, hoping to appeal to as many—believer and seeker alike—as possible. No, the megachurch isn’t shrinking. But Rainer shows that many, especially in the so-called Millennial and Gen-Z age demographic, are moving from the megachurches of their parents and back to the neighborhood church. Those making the move seek the life-giving relationships, close-knit Christian community, and service opportunities that are the neighborhood church’s strong suit. No, you shouldn’t expect these younger adults to simply show up one Sunday morning, children in tow. And your strategy should not center around poaching members from the nearest megachurch. Indeed, plenty of people in your neighborhood—de-churched, unchurched, and unreached—will find that sense of relational connection appealing. Instead of stealing from someone else’s aquarium, fish from the pond in your backyard. Leaders and members of neighborhood churches should figure out how best to play to the unique strength of smallness with intentionality in their communities.
Reason #3: Many seminaries now offered focused emphasis and training in church revitalization. Indeed, if I hadn’t been so close to finishing the “Ministry Leadership” cognate within my Ph.D. in Christian Leadership program at Liberty University when they introduced the Church Revitalization cognate, I would have been chosen to do the revitalization program. Liberty’s School of Divinity also offers a D.Min. focusing on Church Revitalization.
The Lynchburg, Virginia-based school is far from the only school offering such programs. Besides Liberty, Piedmont Divinity School, Northwest University, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Gateway Seminary, Midwestern Baptist Seminary, Southwestern Baptist Seminary, Gordon-Conwell Seminary, and Reformed Theological Seminary—to name some of the more prominent ones—are among the many schools with programs, cognates, or courses dedicated to church revitalization.
Other programs, such as the Church Revitalization certificate available through Church Answers, provide focused, practical ministry training for revitalizers—with a price tag far lower than a master’s or doctoral degree.
Reason #4: Most importantly, Jesus promised to build his Church.
No, I get it; Jesus’ promise was for the Church throughout the ages, not individual, local congregations. To the contrary, in Revelation 2, Christ promised the church at Ephesus that, if they didn’t shape up, he would remove their lampstand. Presumably, that meant he intended to close them down since they had already ceased being the Church. But throughout the New Testament, the Savior’s love for his church is evident—and until that heavenly universal worship service depicted in Revelation 5 takes place, the Church will express itself locally. If we let the local church be his Church instead of ours, I believe Christ will cause it to prosper—because Jesus promised the gates of Hell wouldn’t prevail against his Church.