Lessons of Church Decline and Renewal

The Episcopal Church is not the only mainline protestant denomination with declining membership.  It is a disease as common as the common cold. But it is going to take more than clever ads trying to attract disaffected Roman Catholics to get the church growing again.

But so far, the mainline churches have not found a remedy for the disease.  Is the church boring?  It is relevant in the lives of the faithful? These are questions being asked, but we know from greeting newcomers that there still is a yearning to find a way to have Christ in our lives.  We still feel the call of parents of young children seeking to  give them a solid Christian foundation upon which to grow and develop lifetime values.  We still feel the need for solace and renewal in the voice of one who has lost a spouse or child.  We hear the pleas of those who are lonely, sick, troubled, and adrift.  There is a yearning for spiritual healing, renewal, community and hope that can not be found anywhere else.  The job of the church and each of us as part of the Body of Christ is to give it to them! This is the mission of the church today and tomorrow as it has been for a millennium.

Stopping the decline in church membership and attendance is not about abandoning the values of the church or its caring for the faithful.  It is about finding news ways to connect with them, to reach out to them, to be with them in a world of constant change. It is making them feel loved not just welcomed.  It is asking them to help us not just show up and watch.  We become the Body of Christ by being busy doing God’s work not just sitting there each Sunday transferring body heat to the wood pews.

News reports surface regularly of more bad news about the decline in church membership, average Sunday attendance and participation.  The latest from the Southern Baptists with the message to quit denying reality and wake up, people! The story in the Baptist Press by Ed Stetzer is from a guy who knows a thing or two about church growth and church planting.  His prescription is a mixture of doing more of everything the Southern Baptists have done:

  1. A need for mission deo to get out there and do God’s work in the vineyard
  2. A need for diversity
  3. A need for a new generation
  4. A need for renewal in church planting.

The article is plaintive and sad because even though Stetzer is talking about growing the church his prescription is more recommendations on trying home remedies that have not yet cured his patient.  You can’t just go through the motions.

“We don’t change until the pain of staying the same grows greater than the pain of change. May the truth break our hearts, drive us to our knees and compel us into the mission.”

In an equally pessimistic blog post by Jay Vorhees, a pastor in a declining United Methodist congregation, he laments that each day he hopes for a kind of Lazarus miracle that will somehow result in the Holy spirit breathing new life into a failed body.  He says he tries to tell his congregation the truth but often they don’t want to hear it.

These two examples are part of the reason churches are ‘in a rut’ today.  We don’t want to come to church to be depressed.  These examples focus on the past not the future.  They see things that are bad not the joy in the church.  They relate to people in the ways of yesterday not the ways of today or the aspirations for a joyful tomorrow.  For them things happening are depressing.

The church is about joy!

Contrast these first two examples with a paper written by a young Presbyterian pastor on social media policies and his own experience when his congregation told him it would not buy him a smart phone.

“When I graduated from a Presbyterian seminary and took my first position as a part-time pastor in a small rural church, I expected my days of heavy social media use would soon end. Before I arrived, the congregation rejected my request for a smart-phone, and when I finally did move into my office I found a large stack of ancient cassette tapes on my desk. Surely my days of frequent networking on Twitter, Facebook, and blogs were over. Surely I would soon experience the loneliness many rural pastors feel, disconnected from their colleagues due to geography and lack of communication. But, to my surprise and joy, I was dead wrong.

Within a few months of beginning my time as pastor at a small rural church, I had found a supportive and very helpful community on Twitter with which I interacted daily. I explored Facebook groups and several online chat platforms with ministry colleagues. My blog became a valuable ministry tool for conversation and collaboration. Even a status update on Facebook could bring comments of support and encouragement (e.g. a book suggestion, a website recommendation, a word of caution or calm, even a prayer). I also found, to my surprise, that my congregation had a Facebook page of its own that I could update and use to connect to those in our community (Facebook, 2010). Furthermore, as I continued my practice of blogging on the church, ministry, and contemporary issues, as well as posting any sermons I preached, I slowly found that members of my congregation enjoyed reading my blog — and especially consulting the sermons they heard on Sunday mornings. Though they would rarely comment on posts online, many members have told me in person that they peruse my website often. In person, then, we discuss my blog posts or the comment of another read posted online.”

Do you feel the difference in tone and the sense of optimism rather than pessimism in the voice of Pastor Adam Copeland.  Maybe he was just young and not yet grounded in the ways of the established church.  Maybe he didn’t realize he was not supposed to adapt the technology and social media customs he acquired in college to his work as a pastor.

But a funny thing happened in a stogy old congregation resistant to change—-Adam connected with the people in the pews in ways they could scarcely have imagined.  He got to know them, and they him.  They bonded and worked together and prayed together—isn’t that what church is supposed to be about?

The technology did not change the church.  It changed the attitudes of the people about the value and meaning and potential of the church for their lives.  And that makes all the difference.

5 thoughts on “Lessons of Church Decline and Renewal

  1. This is a fine article about a subject very near to my heart. The church in general and the Mainline denominations in particular have been losing not only numbers, but also are witnessing a decreasing influence in our culture. In a very real sense, the church has become marginilized, especially in its non-Evangelical/Fundamentalist forms. I am a United Methodist and, although we don’t notice it as much in the Bible Belt where I live, our denomination has been on the wane for at least four decades. The church has so much positive potential and so much to offer, but if there is indeed going to be a renewal or even a Reformation, it is going to take great tolerance within the church and a plethora of new wineskins, more relevant to our rapidly changing culture. Keep up the good work, it is sorely needed.

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