Tuesday, September 14, 2010

How to Stop Church Decline

A few weeks ago the United Methodist Church in the U.S. published the results of a survey intended to solicit ideas for how to stop the decline in Methodist churches. The “actionable” results were:
  • Small groups and programs, such as Bible study and activities geared toward youth.
  • An active lay leadership.
  • Inspirational pastors who have served lengthy tenures at churches.
  • A mix of traditional and contemporary worship services. 

Hmmmm. Small groups? Active lay leadership? Inspirational pastors? Mix of traditional and contemporary? This is new and cutting edge? Did we just take a time machine back to 1979?
And what I found most interesting about this survey is that it's chief aim seems to be protecting the viability of the institution. It sounds like they’re trying to stop their decline rather than build disciples of Jesus; recouping their losses rather than being good news people. It’s all very churchy rather than Jesusy (with apologies to Anne Lamott).
It’s not my intention to pick on the UMC. Most mainline churches (and a growing number of evangelicals) are in the same boat. We’re trying to survive as an institution and so we’re searching for a magic formula that will stop or even reverse the hemorrhaging and move us into a sustainable future.
However, I’m not convinced there is ONE formula, a magic pill that will make us thrive again. Each congregation is different. Small group ministry works well in one church, but can’t get off the ground in another. Some pastors with long stays in a congregation build strong legacies to be passed to the next generation, where other long-tenured pastors rest on their laurels and snooze their way to retirement. 
But then again, maybe we’re all asking the wrong question: “how do we grow?” Maybe God doesn’t want us to grow. At least not yet. Perhaps God wants us overfed, culturally coddled, western Christians to sit on the sidelines for a while to remember what it feels like to be a minority. 
It could be that God wants us to finish the transition from Christendom to Post-Christendom, and change us from the inside out, before adding crowds of people to our numbers. 
I think God might be worried that we haven’t yet learned the lessons of history, and with revived numbers, we might be tempted to re-visit the sins of cultural captivity, where we prostituted ourselves in exchange for political power, and lost our distinctive, prophetic, voice. 
But in the meantime, I think our job as Christians is to make disciples of Jesus, doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God. And we’ll see where the road takes us.
(h/t to Greg for the heads up on the Methodist survey)


Father Anonymous said...

You hit the nail on the head. Two nails, actually -- both the "time machine to 1979" and the "churchy not Jesusy." Two things that won't help anybody (except the occasional consultant who gets paid to preach them) are repeating the same formulas and worrying about our [dying] institutions instead of the spiritual lives of our people.

rustcp said...

So are we heading to the "Israel in Babylon" scenario in today's church?

It may not be for the worst, if a renewed commitment to God is the result. At the time of exile, the temple was destroyed, but a new or renewed commitment to the covenant was made by the exiles. The institution was gone, but a people rose up to follow God.

Maybe the church of our fathers needs a major disruption to renew Jesus' Church.

Kevin Powell said...


Yeah, the "Israel in Babylon" image is a useful one to describe what's happening to the North American Church. Without our institutional strength to rely upon, Christians will re-discover how to take more responsibility for their (our) faith lives. The church will be smaller, but stronger.

Father Anon,

"...repeating the same formulas and worrying about our [dying] institutions instead of the spiritual lives of our people."

Exactly. Too often church leaders are more worries about keeping their jobs and place in the society than in helping people become more faithful followers of Jesus.