Thomas Cook and the American Church

The American church is not immune from global forces in spite of the presumed American exceptionalism. We’d be wise to keep an eye on the big picture—in this case the drop in Christians in New Zealand and the collapse of 40 low-cost airlines in Europe.

At one level these seem to be totally disconnected events. The bankruptcy of Thomas Cook Travel Agency, the venerable 178-year-old firm specializing in vacation packages, on Friday left 150,000 people stranded across the globe. The crisis was so dire that the British government stepped in to provide charter flights in order to return its citizen’s home. Operation Matterhorn as the effort has been named is the largest peacetime repatriation effort in history. There are multiple reasons why Thomas Cook went bankrupt, but the most obvious one is that the travel agency did not adequately respond to the Internet, which allows individuals to bypass travel agencies and easily make their own travel plans.

Likewise, European low-cost airlines lack the flexibility to adjust to inevitable external challenges from the uncertainty of Brexit to rising airline fuel costs. Last year 40 of these airlines went bankrupt.

Just released is new polling data from New Zealand that indicates that people with “no religion” has officially surpassed the number of people who identify as Christian. The 2018 census data show that today 48.59 percent of New Zealanders have “no religion” up from 41.92 in 2013. During this same period people with Christian faith has fallen from 47.65 percent in 2013 t0 37.31 percent today.

Many Christian institutions today are being propped up by low-cost strategies like the European low-cost airlines. Liberty University has about 15,000 students on campus and another 110,000 enrolled in their online programs. The online program is subsidizing the University. When a company makes its value proposition solely on the basis of cost, it loses its flexibility to respond to outside forces. Many have questioned the quality and meaningful educational outcomes of these online Liberty courses. The fragility of the University’s financial future lies behind the public relations politics over its leadership and governance.

It will not be surprising to see 40 major Christian institutions, perhaps starting with its colleges and universities, falling into bankruptcy in the coming decade. Cutbacks now are already common—now presented under the guise of wise curricular consolidation. Few want to face the harsh demographic facts. Most of these evangelical institutions cannot sustain a 10 percent drop in their market. And when it comes to Gen Z’s disinterested in Christian colleges and universities the number is much higher than 10 percent. And there will be no UK government to step in to pick up the pieces. There is no Operation Matterhorn in the offing. It is time for the American church to face the music of its slow decline as it approaches the tipping point of crisis. The cracks cannot be papered over or denied much longer. There are lessons to be learned here.

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