Church Decline or Growth: Pick One!

I want to tell you several sad stories of church decline and one about hope.

The Episcopal Church has been losing members each year since 1988.  At our average annual decline rate of -3.3% per year, the Diocese of California will have 50% fewer members, pledge units and average Sunday attendance in 2022 than it did in 2000. The Diocese of California’s experience mirrors the national church.

But the Episcopal Church is not the only mainline protestant denomination with declining membership.  It is a disease as common as the common cold.

The next sad story I want to tell you is from the Southern Baptists and the message was quit denying reality and wake up, people!  The story in the Baptist Press by Ed Stetzer is from a guy who has written extensively on church planting.  The article is sad because as Stetzer puts it:

“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 the United Methodist Church it is the same sad story told by Jay Vorhees, a pastor in a declining United Methodist congregation. He says each day he prays for a kind of Lazarus miracle in which the Holy Spirit breathes 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.

We can’t change the past, but God gave us free will so we can change tomorrow for ourselves and for the church if we respond to God’s call to us. That is what we are trying to do in the Diocese of California with our Church Growth Program.

Join the Church Growth Program

Bishop Marc Andrus asked for lay leadership help across the Diocese of California to get the church growing again.  The Executive Council at its August 2011 meeting adopted the Church Growth Program as a “Congregations Up!” strategy to transform the Diocese to focus squarely on the following goals:

  1. Grow Church Membership and Average Sunday Attendance
  2. Grow Church Revenue by attracting new members, new pledges and endowment
  3. Focus Diocesan operations on Support for Congregational Growth.

Three teams have been created to develop an action plan in each area over the next 120 days.  You can read about those teams and how you can get involved at the Church Growth Program website at http:/churchgrowthprogram.com. You can also follow our progress online at the link above and I ask you to pray for us as we do our work.

I promised you a happy story to balance out the sad ones I began 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 tells a story of hope:

“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 moved into my office I found a stack of ancient cassette tapes on my desk. Surely my days of 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, I found a supportive and very helpful community on Twitter with which I interacted daily. I explored Facebook groups and chatted online 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. I also found, to my surprise, that my congregation even had a Facebook page of its own that I could update and use to connect to those in our community.

As I continued my practice of blogging on the church, ministry, and contemporary issues, as well as posting sermons I preached, I 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 have told me in person that they peruse my website often. In person, we discuss my blog posts or the comment of another read online.”

Do you feel the difference in tone and the sense of hope and 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 habits he learned in college to his work as a pastor.   But a funny thing happened in a small rural congregation resistant to change—-he 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.  They felt connected to the church in ways they had not experienced before—and that makes all the difference.

Gary L Hunt, Convener, Executive Council Membership Growth Team
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4 thoughts on “Church Decline or Growth: Pick One!

  1. The young pastor learned a valuable lesson…change can come but the people need time to get to know you first. He desired a smart phone from the get go and was turned down. But after awhile his congregation came to see the value of his online ministry. A big part of our problem with change is trying to make it happen too soon. Although some people will never be ready for it, many of our people will respond favorably if given enough time.
    Terry Reed
    Small Church Tools

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