Being a Disciple pastor for the past twenty-five years means that I have been a pastor during the time of the “mainline decline.” A time when our congregations have been dwindling in numbers of people and amount of resources. Smaller congregations have led to struggles in denominational structures as well. There are no longer funds to support the structures that were erected over the years. Back in 1991, when I first returned to Indiana, we had five full time ministers in our regional office. We are now down to two full-time and one 2/3 time; effectively half of what our ministerial staff was twenty-three years ago. Most people reading this article are familiar with this “mainline decline.” There is no need to review the multiple opinions/causes for what has happened. I simply want to tell you about a decision I came to as pastor who has spent his career in the midst of this decline.
In the beginning of my life as a pastor, I spent a lot of time attending Church Growth seminars designed to help congregations turn the decline around. These events were most often designed to help congregations understand how to become “seeker friendly.” The appearance of the building and proper signage were often topics of discussion. Workshops about marketing strategy involving how to advertise the congregation were usually on the agenda. I once attended such a workshop where we spent a good portion of time talking about how McDonalds continually develops new commercials to entice people through the golden arches. I suppose the point was it didn’t matter if the product was a Big Mac or Jesus, what mattered was how fresh was the advertising. Of course, how to introduce contemporary worship and use the latest technologies were subjects taught to packed rooms of pastors all hoping to turn around their declining congregations. Saddleback and Rick Warren, Willow Creek and Bill Hybels, Southeast Christian and Bob Russell were the mega-churches and celebrity pastors who were cited as success stories. Somewhere along the way, however, it occurred to me that most of what I was encountering in these seminars was about how to numerically grow an organization and not how to be the church, the living body of Christ in the world. The diagnosed problem was the declining number of people in the pews and the declining funds in the offering plates. So everything was developed to turn around that situation. Success was measured with increasing numbers.
Well, over time, the decision I made was that I didn’t want to spend any more energy trying to become a church marketing expert. There is something that is quite unsavory to me when Jesus and a Big Mac are lumped together. I decided that as a pastor the most important thing I can do is help the church to live as the church. That is, to focus on being the living body of Christ in this world; spending our energy on living as a community of grace and love. Seeking to be the kind of community that others would want to join – not because of our slick advertising campaign, or because we have the best praise band, or because we have theater seats or a family-life center (gym), but because we care for each other and seek to care for all others. Because we try to practice radical hospitality where everyone is truly welcome – which, in my experience, is quite different than being seeker friendly.
The congregation I presently serve has experienced the effect of the decline. Thirty years ago, back in the early 80’s, the church averaged close to 350 in attendance for Sunday morning worship. That would fill the pews for two services. Now we hover right around 200 people on Sunday morning which means there are a lot of empty seats in both services. We have spent some time recently talking about what that means for the future, especially as we have reaffirmed our commitment to stay downtown in our small community. I try to be honest with the folks. I could tell them that if we tried “this program or this marketing strategy or this new worship idea” then we would see things turn around. But the truth is, most of the congregations I know who tried all the “church growth strategies” continued to decline. So I try to be honest and tell folks that I don’t know what the future holds, but I know that our focus should simply and only be on living our faith as completely as possible. Our energy needs to be spent on ministries of compassion and justice, of caring for the weak, feeding the hungry, providing shelter for those in need, welcoming the stranger and the one who is different. Our focus in worship shouldn’t be on musical performance or technological wizardry, but the common human need to realize we are part of Something bigger than ourselves.
A blessing in all this for me has been that I think the folks in this congregation also believe that this is the way we should proceed. The decline is real and it means decisions, sometimes difficult ones have to be made, but there seems to be a focus in the church on living our faith as authentically as possible for as long as possible. Recently, a young leader in our congregation said, “If we die staying faithful to who we understand God has called us to be, isn’t that what following Jesus to the cross is all about.” I thought that was a pretty good observation.
Now don’t get me wrong. I love to see new faces in the pews. When they come they even get a visitor letter, a welcome packet, and a doorstep visit with chocolate chip cookies. (The Church Growth seminars weren't all bad.) We work hard at making those new folks aware of the many ways that are available for them to get involved, the various learning and service opportunities. But I try not to be anxious about it all anymore, that anxiousness takes away from the energy that is needed to live as the body of Christ in this world. That’s where I want all my time, energy and resources directed. For the truth is, that is where I have found life. Honestly, that’s where I think the church will find it too.