Terrell Carter, a bi-vocational pastor and full-time professor of practical theology at a Baptist seminary, will release his eighth book, “Learning to be the Church in a New World: Understanding and Overcoming the Challenges to Organized Faith in the 21st Century,” this month through Pinnacle Leadership Press.
Carter researches trends within churches in America to understand how religious life has been shaped and supported, especially in black communities. He then uses this information to inform what he teaches students who hope to be future pastors and leaders, as well as how he leads the congregation he serves.
“This book came from several years of research that was based on the question: ‘Why have so many churches in America become smaller since the 1980s?’” Carter said. “Although multiple megachurches exist, the reality is that most churches in America have less than 80-90 people that attend on any given Sunday.”
His hope is to help people of faith understand the changes that have been occurring to, and around, churches in America since the mid-20th century, as well as provide hope and strategies for Christian congregations that are seeking ways to remain connected and impactful within their communities.
“Even a casual observer can tell that there are multiple challenges facing todays churches. Some of those easiest to identify are the fact that fewer people are attending churches in general, and the people that do attend are typically older,” Carter said.
“Having a congregation made up of older members isn’t a bad thing. But it does mean that younger people aren’t participating in traditions that have shaped our families and communities for generations.”
One of the reasons for declining numbers is the fact that many people don’t feel like churches still positively influence communities as they used to.
“Unfortunately, when some people think about church, they think about past transgressions of leaders who stood up on Sundays and told them how to live their lives but weren’t personally maintaining the standards that they were holding everyone else to,” Carter said.
“They also are turned off by what they see as some church’s focus on political issues that divide people instead of drawing them together around God’s love for all people. And, people consistently frown upon what they consider an overemphasis on giving tithes and offerings as a symbol of a person’s spiritual maturity.”
Carter said that another reason for decline is a general changing view about how a person can hear God speak to them.
“In the past, the pastor, minister, or deacon was the person who primarily held knowledge about God, and they were entrusted to share that knowledge with their congregation. Now, that knowledge, which previously was only available to a select few, is available to anyone with a computer or smart phone. And the information that is available speaks in a way that everyone can understand,” Carter said.
“You don’t have to be able to read Greek or Hebrew to be able to understand what a passage in the Bible means because someone who has been classically trained has likely shared their knowledge on the subject on the internet and has made it free for everyone. So, when a preacher says, ‘God has told me to tell you…’ a person can pull out their phone while that minister is speaking and verify what they are saying.”
But Carter said the church has an opportunity to address these challenges head on and help a new generation of people meet God right where they are.
“Although many people prefer that their spiritual relationships exist outside traditional church walls, that doesn’t mean that they are enemies of the traditional church. They simply see faith in a different way,” Carter said.
“They see faith as being bound less by a particular day and time and more by how that faith is lived out on a daily basis. To them, faith should lead to tangible positive impacts in other people’s lives, not only more people in a building on a particular day of the week.”
Carter sees similarities between the current state of the church and a passage found in the Book of Acts.
“If we hope to be in relationship with people who understand the practice of faith to look different from long-held tradition, it would benefit us to find ways to be in conversation with them so we can understand them better and figure out what ways we can work better together. It’s similar to what happened in the Book of Acts,” Carter said.
“As the new church was growing, some people believed that everyone had to be circumcised. They eventually found out that people who hadn’t been circumcised were still showing the same signs and gifts as those who had been circumcised. Church leaders agreed that God was able to work both through people who followed tradition and those who didn’t. I think we have the same opportunity now. God is able to use people who follow tradition and those who don’t. It’s our privilege to talk to each other so we can better understand how God is using each group to bring about the kingdom.”