Last Sunday in my sermon, I wrote about Jesus overturning the tables in the temple, and noted that much of western Christianity is waking up the day after the tables have been overturned. Our prominence at the centre of society is long gone. Now we are dealing with the reality of numerical and financial decline. These days church leaders are looking to experts, programs, and books that will help us figure out what on earth is going on, and why so many have just stopped coming to church.
As a millennial and a pastor, I regularly hear church people bemoaning the loss of young people. This is evident to me in the fact that I have been pastor to only a handful of people my age. The ‘Nones’ are the new buzz group that concerned church leaders want to reach. Church people want to understand why so many of my generation are opting for something other than church attendance and how that can be changed.
The other group current church people long for are the lapsed members I regularly hear church people wanting to “bring back.” Programs like Back to Church Sunday are popular. Mission and discipeship gurus are all over the place, helping pastors, church leaders and lay people figure out how to lead churches, how to figure out what on earth we are supposed to be doing as the Body of Christ.
And yet, with all the focus on our decline as Christians in the West, particularly, mainline Christians, important truths are rarely spoken about. There are realities that I think many of us can see, but we don’t want to admit are significant in our apparent “decline.”
1 Measuring decline by numbers causes us to lose sight of our mission.
I admit, when I see a new face in church, or get asked to do a baptism, I am inwardly excited. New people, larger numbers of faces in the pews, increased giving. These are all easy indicators of success. Except they aren’t. Jesus didn’t say, “Go therefore and get bums in the pews and money in the offering plates in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
When churches measure our ministry by these numbers, our real purpose of preaching the Gospel and administering the sacraments becomes a selling feature. When our goal is full pews and offering plates, word and sacrament become the means of filling pew and offering plates.
“Success” takes on a different definition if we stop using numbers to measure it. Preaching the gospel is preaching the gospel whether it is to 2, 20, 200 or 2000 people. Oh, and yes, I have heard that accusation that this notion is just something that pastors of small dying churches cling to… yet if our success is measured by numbers we have lost sight of what the Gospel actually does in our lives.
2 Many of our sacred cows are causing our decline. (ie. Sunday School & VBS, Bible Study, programs, music groups, church committees)
There are always very important, very special things that churches do that we are simply unwilling to let go of. These programs or activities began as life-giving endeavours for congregations, but over time have lost their ability to meet the needs and purposes of congregations. I know churches full of seniors in communities that are populated with folks predominantly of retirement age who insist on having Sunday School. There are committees and programs that have become defunct or purposeless that churches refuse to axe, even though they become a struggle keep up and don’t achieve their founding goals.
As we cling to sacred cows we fail to see the unintended consequences that are hurting us. Sunday school was intended to teach kids the faith, but has allowed parents to abdicate responsibility of teaching faith in the home. Instead of empowering us to live out our baptismal callings, committees on Stewardship, Evangelism, Learning, or Support (among others) let us leave this important work to a committee that meets once a month. Programs allow us to turn basic practices of faith like studying the bible, evangelizing through relationship, ministry to children, youth, families or seniors into very compartmentalized sets of behaviour rather than natural activities of faith.
We so often hold onto things that are actually hurting us because of deep-seated senses of obligation or loyalty. We get so stuck wanting to not disappoint those who went before us that we fail to make our communities ready for those who will come after us.
3 God just might be calling us to die.
So many churches (and people for that matter) live and behave as if they are going to last forever. We make choices as communities as if our current state is going to be our static condition for the rest of time. We don’t have urgency… or the urgency of our conditions causes us to respond with flight or fight or freeze responses. We freeze up and choose to do nothing in the face of crisis, even when we understand that doing something – anything – is necessary.
What if churches had “Bucket Lists”? What if we made decisions about what we choose to spend our time and resources on knowing that we will one day die? Instead of working so hard just to stay afloat in perpetuity, what if we looked at all the things we could do before the end. There are not many churches closing these days because they made bold choices, gambled their resources and failed. There are lots of churches slowly petering out, after years of just getting by.
Admitting that God might be calling us to die means changing the way we see death. We so often see death, especially the death of a church, as failure. What if we saw death as a natural part of life and ministry? What if death was expected for our churches? Maybe all those mission and vision, discipleship and evangelism gurus might not seem so important anymore.
4 Our problem isn’t lack of mission, it is wrong mission.
Most mainline churches in North America were started less than 125 years ago. A lot were founded in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. Communities of the faithful saw a need for a worshipping church in their midst. So they gathered members, raised funds to build buildings and call pastors. Energy was high, excitement was infectious, people came because the purpose and mission was clear.
And then buildings were built, funds were raised, pastors called and programs started.
But the mission didn’t change.
Most of the gurus or consultants that church leaders are seeking today have the same message: we have lost sight of the mission. If this were true, I don’t think there would be enough to keep the members that most churches still have from dispersing to the wind.
I think churches still have a strong sense of mission – build the building, raise the funds for pastors and programs. We accomplished those things decades ago, yet we still are trying to organize ourselves around them. Maybe it isn’t breaking ground, but it is making sure the carpets are new, and light fixtures clean, and shingles are replaced. Maybe it isn’t calling that first pastor, but it is making sure the budget can afford to pay for a pastor.
We are still trying to band together around those fledgling goals of starting a new church, even though we achieved them years ago. We don’t realize how people who want more than buildings and funds for pastors and programs are put off by our single-minded concern for those things.
5 We have let worship become entertainment instead of community forming.
Whether it is mega-church contemporary worship or cathedral mass, whether it is a small community gathered for song and prayer or simple liturgy… our attitudes about worship have been transformed by the world around us. Our consumer culture has been turning us into creatures seeking to be entertained, distracted, and looking for things that appeal to our preferences.
I have heard many faithful church members, who are generally concerned about growing in their faith, slip into talking about worship as if it was a menu of food to choose from or different acts of a play. We enjoy sermons, we like music, we appreciate readings.
We have stopped participating in worship. We have stopped seeing the role of the congregation as integral to worship happening. While most church members wouldn’t agree if asked, we act as if worship could happen without anyone in the pews. We approach worship like theatre that doesn’t need an audience, but that no one would put on without an audience.
Worship should be the ritual action of faithful Christians. Worship should be a way to grow in faith as individuals and as community through prayer, song, word, and sacraments. The things we do and practice in worship prepare us for life in the world. We practice confession and forgiveness, we practice sharing God’s story and our story, we practice washing and feeding and tending to the world around us. We practice reconciliation and prayerful concern for the world around us. The things we do in worship should shape how we live out our faith. Our desire to be entertained should not shape worship.
Admitting the truth to our decline.
Admitting the truth of our decline is not an easy business. When the mission, discipleship and evangelism consultants come by to tell us how to fix ourselves, the hand-wringing that results is easy. But talking about these truths about our decline and how these realities shape us is not easy stuff… in fact, it is nearly impossible.
The fact is, more churches tend to slowly die, rather than truly change and find new life. This shows that admitting these truths in order to change them is harder than dying. Most of the time we will choose to die.
But that is okay.
The flawed ministry that we are doing despite of and in the midst of these truths is not unfaithful ministry. In fact, working with dying, flawed, wrong missioned churches and people is exactly the kind of work our God gets up to in the world. And that is also where we are in trouble. Whether we like it or not, admitting these stark truths about ourselves as we die, is all too often just how God chooses to bring us into new life.
And that is the most important truth of all.
As always thanks to my wife, Courtenay, for her editorial help and insight. You can follow her on twitter @ReedmanParker