Recently, hubby and I watched a television program about The Range Wars that took place in Wyoming during the late 1800’s. Cattle barons had taken over government lands as grazing land for their herds and, when The Homestead Act was passed, these lands were given to private individuals by the government. These homesteaders built fences around their property and, at times, rustled cattle from the large cattle owners. Eventually, this resulted in what became known as The Range Wars.
In an attempt to drive out the homesteaders and to stop the flood of settlers, the cattle owners lynched a couple of homesteaders and then hired assassins to kill the rest. For a while, it looked like the cattle owners had won since they had powerful allies. The local newspapers twisted their reporting to support them and, at one point, the President got involved and helped to free a group of assassins. The deck seemed stacked against the homesteaders and it looked like the cattle owners were sure to win. Of course, we know today that their victory was short lived. Homesteaders continued to settle the entire West and eventually the old way of life ended.
I began to think about how we tend to fight change. When our way of life is threatened, we’ll fight to maintain the status quo but often all we accomplish is to postpone the inevitable. When a group is firmly entrenched with power and money on its side, it’ll do anything it can to preserve its way of life This in my opinion is what I see happening in the modern day church.
George Barna in his book “Revolution” concluded that "The number of Christians attending local church in the USA is declining rapidly. Today, 70% of Christians attend traditional churches, but this will sink to 30-35% in 20 years." He further predicted that "The number of followers of Jesus who do not attend a local church will grow from 30% to 70% in the next 20 years."
That can be scary statistics for those who are firmly entrenched in the current system of institutional church. Like the cattle barons, they often resort to extreme measure. While they can’t hire assassins to physically kill those who are leaving, they do use the power of the press to twist their reporting to frighten believers by calling them rebellious and telling them the dangers that await them if they leave the fold. Magazines like Charisma that support their way of life have devoted major portions of some issues to describing the danger in an attempt to scare those who leave.
I believe the popularity of the internet has been a major catalyst for these changes and I also believe that despite all attempts to stop them, these changes will accelerate and continue to grow until the old way of life is ended. As happened after the range wars, the cattle barons still continued to raise cattle but their power and their ability to control their environment dramatically decreased. I believe we’ll always have some form of institutional church. Some people enjoy them and thrive in that environment. However, I believe over time, we’ll begin to see more and more believers who are thriving outside of an organized structure.
Eventually, it became obvious to the cattle barons that they were fighting a losing battle and that their only option was to coexist with the settlers. I think the church is faced with the same decision. There’s room for both groups, however, conditions will continue to change. As Jesus is building his Church, he will place some members outside of a local body and they will thrive there. Others, he’ll continue to send into an institutional system. I think the key for us is to remember that it’s his Church and he can build it anyway he wants. Our responsibility is to find the method that works best for us and to not look down on others who have chosen another method.
I love the variety of the church that we have today. I still go on Sunday mornings and have no desire to stop going. However, the vast majority of my friends don’t go. I love the richness of our fellowship as we share life from our different perspectives.
It’s a great day to be a member of the Church. No longer do we have to be bound to a religion that requires us to conform to an outward standard for acceptance. We’ve now been given the freedom to decide how we’re going to relate to the Church that Jesus is building and I’m thankful that I can freely follow him wherever and however he leads.