Mainline Decline

Growth . . .

By Rev. Shane Isner

In the course of my workaday, church pastor life, I have occasional opportunity to chat with consultants.  Rarely is this by choice.  I’ll be at the office when a call comes in, “Can I speak with the pastor?”  “This is he,” I say.  The pitch begins.  “I’m Ms. Johnson, and I want your church to grow.”  

Well, how very nice of you, I’m known to think; services are at 10, and all are welcome.  But that’s not the growth Ms. Johnson has in mind (names changed, of course, for propriety’s sake).  She’s not offering to join the church.  Instead, she has a program to sell, a great opportunity: Five proven principles for making your church get bigger.

Typically, the call ends quickly, and not only because our church can’t afford it.  Frankly, I’m skeptical of most church consulting programs I’ve encountered.  First, it often sounds too simple, too easy.  Five basic principles, three stress-free program changes, just clearly articulate the church’s vision and values.  And then, so the narrative seems to suggest, all will be well and all will be lovely.  Again, I’m unconvinced, though I realize my response is slightly unfair.  No consultant I’ve spoken with actually promises quick fixes.  They’re typically honest about how challenging it is for churches to discern and define their identities.  They understand, usually, that modern religion isn’t paint-by-numbers.  Nevertheless, if there truly is some secret to explosive growth, I haven’t heard it.  Perhaps that explains why each consultant markets different products and plans.

That gets to my second reason for skepticism, derived from several plans our church previously crafted under outside guidance.  Invest in youth ministry, paper the neighborhood with invitations, within two years hire a family minister, within five years build a bigger sanctuary because, obviously, you’ll be bursting at the seams.  Some of those ideas proved useful, I’ve heard (these were tried before my arrival).  But they weren’t sustainable, and community life became challenging (as it always will!), and these old plans now read to me like records of failure.  At least, that’s how some experienced it.  So another plan was crafted, with different ideas, but those didn’t pan out as dictated either.  The deflating sense of “we can’t do this right,” however, returned in force.  And it hurt.

Thus my disinterest in the church growth guru industry.  I’m cognizant, though, of what my wife would say (she, the statistics master and early career church consultant), “Your experiences with consultants don’t define all consulting.”  Truth!  That got me wondering recently about what kind of planning or consulting would stir my soul rather than stoke my suspicions.  An idea emerged, that I’m sure wise consultants have sold before, but it’s new to me.  

You see, I realized that I get annoyed when churches talk about getting bigger, and call that growth, as if the two are obviously the same.  But are they?  My wife says, rightly, that focusing on numbers matters, but also that counting the right numbers matters even more.  The church-growth-as-getting-bigger project has the benefit of simplicity; only one number matters- How many people attend your church.  This provides clarity for decision makers.  Do what adds more people, avoid what keeps them away.

But suppose you’re convinced- like me—that a church can get bigger, but not truly grow.  Or it can stay the same size, and grow wildly!  Then, measuring “growth” would include different numbers than simply how many attend weekly, right?  Obviously, attendance numbers matter.  A lot.  It’s hard to grow in discipleship, spiritual depth, faithfulness when people aren’t coming, with their energy for worship waning.  Still, isn’t a church growing when its attendance is stable but its frequency of Bible Study increases?  When it uses more funds for feeding hungry neighbors?  When its sermons more consistently address issues broader than solely church concerns?  When members talk more about authentic family struggles than budget or building troubles?

I’m unsure how I’d transform that insight into a consulting process; I’ll leave that to my brilliant wife!  But I find the question interesting.  And I’m anxious to hear others’ answers.  What’s the difference between church growth and simply getting bigger?  How would you measure that?


Rev. Shane Isner is the pastor of a small Disciples of Christ church in the northwestern suburbs of Minneapolis.  He serves on several community non-profit boards, is the chair of his region's Commission on Ministry, loves his wife and his dog, and Jesus.  And the church!

Stop Taking Attendance

By Evan Dolive

At a church I used to serve there was a well intentioned person who after every service would tell me how many people were in attendance.  “We had 47 today, Preacher,” he would say.  I could hear the disappointment in his voice when he would have to tell me a low number like 35.  A smile beamed across his face when we had more than 50.  No matter the number, he would tell me without fail.  

In every church that I have ever visited or served there has been an emphasis on the number of people that attend the morning worship services. 

After years in the ministry I have come to the conclusion that the church needs to stop taking attendance, immediately. 

For many churches the process of collecting attendance is to get an accurate accounting of people in worship, to measure how many people occupy space in a pew.  Some churches have note pads in the pews so people can fill out their information and place it in a designated area.  Others have a volunteer to manually count the people in attendance.  No matter how small or big the faith community is an attendance is taken.  Some congregations publish the number of people in their church bulletins or have it on a sign in the sanctuary to compare last week to this week. 

For too long churches have measured their ‘success’ and ‘failures’ on the number of people that darken the door on 11am on Sunday morning.  The quickest way to get people to wring their hands in worry is to tell them that numbers in worship have dropped.  Visions of the church closing its doors will run through people’s minds inciting more and more anxiety.  

It’s no secret that the church in the American culture is not where most Christians would like it to be.  The church was once the central hub of the community is now a place where people go on Sunday mornings if they want to.  The church has been in a decline for some time and I believe this has caused us to become more inward focused.  As the church began to experience decline numerically the church’s reaction was to try making everyone left happy including the ministers, elders, deacons, lay ministers, organist and even the custodial staff.  The boat was not rocked, things stayed the same, a course was laid in and no deviation would be acceptable.  

I believe that this is the wrong approach.  One time when I was interviewing with a church for a position they inquired if I had any plans that would help the church grow numerically.  The answer I told them I believe with all my heart and prompted a bevy of puzzled looks.  I told them that I was not a ‘numbers guy.’  I did not measure the success of the church in how many people showed up on Sunday morning.  Is Lakewood in Houston, the largest church in America, a “more successful church” because they average several thousand people each week?  No.   Most churches just want bodies in the pews and babies in the nursery but this is the wrong approach.  

I would rather have fifty people in church on Sundays that went out and touched a hundred people’s lives, than have a hundred people in church that only touched fifty.  

The church has become too worried about having more people than the other churches in town.  The church needs to stop looking inward and start looking outward.  There is a world that is in desperate need of a Savior right outside the walls of the church.  The time we spend in meetings or around the pot luck lunch table talking about how big the church was in 1947 is wasting everyone’s time.

I have to admit that even I can fall into this number trap.  It can be disheartening when a minister prepares a sermon or the choir works diligently on a piece and only a handful of people are there to experience it.  I have to remind myself that the people who are in attendance are there to experience God and worship and that is it.  God can use all sizes of churches and faith communities to promote God’s message of love, peace, joy and reconciliation.  

I want people to experience God in the same way that I do but I am not beholden to a number.  

Let’s start taking a new kind of attendance, one that is centered on the other, not bodies in the pew. 

 

In Christ,

Rev. Evan 

 

Rev. Evan M. Dolive is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He currently serves in Beaumont, Texas. He is currently writing a book to be published by The Pilgrim Press (publishing house of the United Church of Christ).  For more information about Evan visit www.evandolive.com. Follow him on social media at @RevEvanDolive and fb.com/evandoliveauthor. 

Professing Hope: 5 Ways to Strengthen our Life Together

By Beau Underwood

In a previous post I offered a few opinions - perhaps even got a bit "preachy" - on the state of congregational life within Mainline Protestantism generally and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) specifically. The impetus was the struggle of congregations within a denomination seeking and needing to discern anew God's call within a rapidly changing American religious landscape. You would not need to apologize for reading those words and curtly responding with an answer along the lines of:

Okay, so now what? All this idealistic language means very little given the realities of our congregational and denominational life. How is any of this relevant? What can any of us actually DO? You do realize that simply announcing a refuseal to acquiesce to the status quo does not actually change anything, right?

Hence the need for this second post, focusing far less on theological exhortations and ecclesiastical admonishments. 

These are my provisional thoughts on how we might join God in the continued transformation and needed revitalization of our churches. Assuming present realities will not change overnight, this is an attempt to offer ways that you, me, and the guy down the street can contribute to solutions. Nothing here will be new or profound, but if this serves as a reminder of the basics or helps someone think about old things in new ways then my goal will have been achieved. Above all, this reflection is rooted in the conviction that our individual lives and our life together as Church should reflect the hope we profess (Hebrews 10:23).

1. Tame the Tongue - Our language needs to change. Cries of despair often dominate discussions. Many congregations sound like the liberated Israelites wandering in the wilderness who, fearing for their safety and facing starvation, long for returning to enslavement in Egypt. Nostalgia for an idealized past is rarely helpful in imagining the future. 

Perhaps the only thing worse is when business parlance is injected into the narrative of decline. Then the conversation is all about "the bottom line," "declining revenues from fewer giving units," and the need to "change our business model." The last assertion usually implies a belief that a new, young, and energetic pastor/CEO can turn the company/congregation around.

This language is neither faithful nor compelling. It betrays the absence of hope and a lack of trust in the God who provides the manna from heaven when we find ourselves in the wilderness. When bad news of seemingly greater proportions dominates daily headlines and cynicism towards religion, government, and anything that has existed for more than five minutes abounds within the broader culture, the Church cannot afford conformity. 

Our actual words and conversations must reflect our belief in a God who makes all things possible. Transforming congregations has to begin with rediscovering the neglected language of faith. Our words should point towards the God who liberates from bondage and rescues from death. Speaking life is essential to congregational vitality.

2. Commit to a Community - American Christianity has long been described as a religious marketplace (that darn business language is so hard to avoid!). When one church stops meeting our needs or when we get angry at a leader or conflict erupts the faithful quickly depart and show up at the church down the street. Oftentimes people stop attending church altogether - despite claiming they still "belong" to the congregation - or worship infrequently because it involves "too much work" or is "too demanding." 

Now I'm the first one to say it is okay to sit in the pew in the back of the church and just take in worship, if that's what your spirit needs right now. But my larger point is that bring part of a community involves commitment. Caring for each other and supporting others through the ups and downs of life requires the investment of energy and time. Congregations can be unwieldy, messy, and even ugly organizations. If churches excluded sinners then all the pews would be empty. 

I'm always deeply saddened to talk with leaders who are no longer connected and accountable to communities of faith. Especially in a denomination like the Disciples that claims to prioritize the mission and witness of local churches, making a commitment to participating in the life of a community - in the good times and the bad - is absolutely imperative. 

When leaders fear an exodus of members at the smallest hint of unhappiness, the incentive is to avoid hard conversations and play everything safe. Risks are not taken and creativity disappears. This is a recipe for decline and death. But when leaders know they have the trust and commitment of the group then a wide range of possibilities will emerge. New ideas can be discerned and tried. Failures become learning experiences instead of opportunities to assign blame. Successes lead to robust ministries that allow congregations to serve neighborhoods and communities in new and needed ways. It all starts with a group of people committed to the Gospel and to each other.

3. Put your Money where your Mouth is - I have a confession to make that is unknown to even most members of the church where I serve: last year my wife and I fell short of our financial pledge. It was entirely inadvertent. We made a commitment at the beginning of the year, dropped checks in the offering plate when we remembered to grab one out of the drawer before leaving for church, and got a letter at year's end showing our giving and realized we had not fulfilled our promise. 

Major oops.

Like many other millennials most of our financial transactions our handled electronically. We rarely carry cash or write checks but church was one of the few places we kept up the "old traditions." While our paychecks were deposited directly into our bank accounts and the mortgage payment automatically withdrawn, the church offering still required intentional action on our part. This was mostly done to help the church avoid losing money to a credit card processing fee, but it ended up costing the church anyways! 

After discovering our error, we immediately rectified the situation by signing up for online giving. Now a monthly gift is made directly to the church with no action required on our part, providing greater cash flow predictability for everyone.

Why do I bother to share all this? Because ministry requires resources and stewardship is essential to discipleship. One of the most common laments in our congregational and denominational life is necessity of "doing more with less." This is the reality at least in the short-term, but it should not lead to resignation. Every member of the community should be encouraged to support the ministry in whatever ways are possible, including through regular financial gifts.

This also applies to our membership within a denomination. If we value the witness and work of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) then it deserves our financial support. After setting up our monthly gift to the congregation, I immediately arranged for a monthly gift to also be made to the Disciples Mission Fund. You can do the same by clicking here

4. Explore the Bible - Biblical literacy in many churches is shockingly low. As Christians we don't know the stories that have guided our ancestors in the faith. How can our beliefs orient and shape our lives when the basics remain a mystery? The result is a shallow spirituality that quickly breaks down in moments of challenge or crisis. 

Not only is understanding the Bible fundamental to Christian life, but in and through Scripture we find critiques to the conventional wisdom of our day and reminders that God's priorities are rarely the same as ours. Scripture casts down our 21st Century idols through ancient, enduring wisdom that forces humility upon us.

If we want to tell our story in ways that bring new life to our communities, we must first locate ourselves within the overarching story of what God is doing in the world. It is impossible to understand ourselves as Christians without understanding the narrative(s) of the Bible. There are numerous ways, new and old, to accomplish this but this core aspect of our life together cannot be ignored. In a time of religious ignorance, teaching the faith through the comprehension of our sacred texts is a non-negotiable. 

5. Share the Good News - Evangelism is a dirty word in many Mainline Protestant churches. This is a sad indictment of our convictions and a major contributor to the decline of our congregations. There are some terrible, offensive, and overbearing ways of sharing faith. Many of these have been and continued to be practiced by far too many Christians. But we cannot throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. 

Christian faith is the best lens I've discovered for understanding and living within a complex world. It has been a source of profound truth, beauty, wisdom, and peace. I have seen the ways that God has redeemed and changed the lives of people who discovered Jesus and made the choice to pick up their crosses and follow (Matthew 16:24).

We have so much to share with the world. Claiming to be Disciples of Christ means nothing if we aren't offering good news to the poor, release to the captive, healing to the hurting, and wholeness to the broken (Luke 4:16-19).

St. Francis of Assisi famously said, "Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary." In a hurting world that is drowning in despair our churches must be beacons of hope. As scary as this sounds to so many of us that requires letting others know about the new life we've found in Jesus Christ and inviting them to into it. Any serious attempt at being "a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world" necessarily involves showing and telling a fragmented world that wholeness is possible and helping people find it.

What other ideas do you have professing our hope? Let's get the church talking. 

Finding Resurrection: A Response to the Latest Yearbook and Directory Numbers

By Beau Underwood

There’s a new book out by my friend and yours, Derek Penwell, that every mainline pastor, leader, and member needs to read (note: Derek did not ask me to say this). If our denominations and churches aren’t willing to dream new dreams, think in creative ways, and take a leap of faith in living out the Gospel in today’s context then the handwriting is on the wall regarding our fate. 

His analysis and exhortations come at a particularly relevant time, given the release of the Disciples’ 2014 Yearbook and Directory and its report of substantial decline in membership and participation. It is hard to find a silver lining in these troubling trends. I agree with much of Derek’s own commentary about how we should approach this news but let allow me to make one important addition (as Derek clearly does, since this is the blog he edits that I’m writing on):

We might just be close enough to death to witness resurrection

This is the paraphrase of a statement I heard Rev. Bonnie Perry, an Episcopal priest in Chicago, make to a gathering of students during my days at the University of Chicago Divinity School. The idea – in case it isn’t obvious – is that confronting existential crises can often lead to new life. By trying to save or life and protect ourselves we will inevitably die, but by sacrificing ourselves for the sake of something greater we tap into a life far greater than our own (Matthew 16:25). 

This is the reality facing the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). If our focus is on stopping the bleeding in terms of attendance numbers and financial giving then we are destiny is sealed. Narcissism, pessimism, and anxiety are not compelling virtues for churches. Being consumed with ourselves only guarantees more of the same. But if we can shift our eyes away from the mess and devastation that is the current reality and imagine a different, more faithful future then our hope for resurrection can begin to replace our fear of institutional death.  Specifically that requires:

Casting a vision and telling our story – Congregations unable to articulate their mission or offer a clear identity within a community are doomed. If you cannot express who you are and where you’re going, it is impossible to get others to join you on the journey. Like so many confused teenagers, we have an identity crisis. Modeling faithful discipleship in our contemporary context is an incredible challenge that many of our congregations have simply failed to do well.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Polls looking at spirituality in the United States consistently reveal people hungry for connecting with transcendent realities. People know there is a truth beyond what they create themselves or what shape their individual lives take but finding requires the existence of a viable alternative to existentialism. 

Simply put, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) needs to find a story that invites people to discover where they fit within The Story. There are so many people dying to find a different way of life. If we belief Jesus transforms lives then we’ve got to re-commit ourselves to sharing this vision of how the world should be with a world desperate for something other than what is. 

Embodying what we profess – If the only problem was helping the spiritual but not religious connect with a community then telling our story and opening our doors would solve all our issues. However, the greater problem is what people find when they walk into our sanctuaries. We’ve often over-promised and under-delivered. People get excited to hear what we profess to be but then discover our actions fail to match our lofty words. 

If we dare claim to be “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world” and a denomination offering true community, deep spirituality, and a commitment to justice then we better be ready to back up our words. Concerns about congregational decline has resulted in an emphasis on church growth with little attention to the community we’re asking people to join. Christian formation – helping people understand that faith is a way of life – are words rarely heard in many of our congregations today. We need a better understanding of what it means to be “Disciples of Christ” and a commitment to embodying that understanding in thought, word and deed.

Recognizing change will not “come from the top” – For the Disciples the whole concept of “the top” is an idea that lacks meaning. We intentionally vested power within congregations, which has been both a blessing and detriment. In theory, this hands off approach should spur innovation and allow for congregations to learn and share with each other in ways that allow all to thrive. Sadly in practice congregational autonomy is often an excuse for ignoring the sage advice of others, unfaithfully refusing to change, and insisting on doing things “our way” even if it means sapping the life of a congregation’s witness. There are many struggling congregations whose plights were entirely avoidable, but they invited their own death by ignoring the changing realities of their contexts and refusing to seek out or listen to the wisdom of others.

We certainly need leadership from the General and Regional Church because this church is strongest when every manifestation is working together. But given the challenges we face, any time those leaders spend on projects or initiatives that are not directly or indirectly related to revitalizing struggling congregations, supporting thriving churches, and starting new communities of worship is a waste we cannot afford. There are luxuries we should no longer indulge because they represent little more than re-arranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship when our leaders need to be bailing water, patching holes, and guiding us to safe harbor.

But blaming denominational leaders for our struggles is an exercise in avoidance. It is far too simple an answer that denies any responsibility we have for changing our behaviors and contributing to solutions. The bottom line is that change has to start in our churches. We need pastors and lay leaders focused on strengthening their communities, preaching the Gospel, and serving God’s people in our contemporary context. There is no panacea that will be emanating from Indianapolis and to expect one is foolish. 

In a conversation with a denominational leader whom I greatly respect, I once made the theological mistake of saying “God needs our church.” He quickly corrected me and stated, “God doesn’t need this church. God will have always have a Church wherever the Gospel is preached, compassion is offered, and justice is pursued. But if our church remains faithful to that call then God might not be through with us yet.” 

I remain committed The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) because we have a distinctive witness that the world desperately needs to hear. The challenges facing us our immense but if we can move past our laments, remember who we are, and embody the faith we profess then I believe the God of Hope still has more ways to use our work than we can possible imagine. 

We’re closer to death than we’d care to admit, but I believe in the power of resurrection.

On nights and weekends, Rev. Beau Underwood is the Assistant Pastor at National City Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Washington, DC. During the week he directs the communications and advocacy at Sojourners

7 Things to Remember after Reading the Latest Crappy Membership Numbers in the Yearbook

By Derek Penwell

Holy Crap! It’s All Falling Apart!

I received my copy of the Disciples’ 2014 Yearbook and Directory yesterday morning. After lunch I picked it up, as I always do upon first receiving it, to look at Douglass Blvd. Christian Church’s entry—just to make sure, you know, that they got everything right. It’s not like the folks who put the Yearbook together have ever gotten it wrong (at least with regard to the congregation’s I’ve been involved in). But it’s a habit. So I looked.

Sure enough, our information had landed in this big fat book just the way we’d sent it. But after taking a look at DBCC’s entry, I glanced around at the other churches in Louisville. Then, I looked for my friends’ congregations. I looked for congregations I used to serve. Habit.

Then I started noticing something that hadn’t really ever caught my attention. I realized that I was looking at, what at least struck me as an inordinately high number of ellipses where numbers are supposed to be. Total Membership: … ; Participating Membership: … ; Average Worship Attendance: … ; Local Operating Receipts: … —well, you get the picture. Nothing. No report.

So, I started going through region by region, just glancing. Same thing; which is to say, an awful lot of nothing. And I felt the dark edges of panic curling at the edges of my consciousness.

Then I started focusing on Local Operating Receipts (i.e., the amount of money a congregation has received to pay for things like salaries, programming, maintenance, utilities, insurance—that sort of thing). And in the places where there were actual numbers, and not just dots, I realized how many congregations are getting by on relatively little money, given all those financial responsibilities I just named.

Then the panic really started to crowd my mind. What about all those young ministers—seminarians and recent graduates? Where are they going to go?

What about my friends who are looking to move to another church, most of them because they have to for one reason or another? Where are they going to go?

And then I thought, “What if DBCC gets really ticked at me, or just gets tired of my sarcasm and flippancy, figures they’ve heard enough of my dog and pony show? Where would I go?”

A sudden cloudburst outside my office window put an exclamation point on—what had already become—a grim afternoon.

A Conspicuously Creepy Coincidence

Just then—in what I would never presume to attribute to God’s providence, but which seemed at least like a conspicuously creepy coincidence—a good friend of mine sent me an email, saying that he’d just gotten done poring over the same new 2014 Yearbook and Directory. Unlike me, he did more than an anecdotal survey; he started crunching numbers. He sent me the accompanying spreadsheet. (By the way, if you ever get a “conspicuously creepy” and coincidental email from me, you will never be able to type the sentence in reference to that email: “He sent me the accompanying spreadsheet.” Just so you know.)

He noted that, year-over-year, our loss of Total and Participating Membership sits close to 20%, but that our Average Worship Attendance is only a little over 4%. That is a shocking loss to absorb in a single year!

He then went on to point out that over the past ten years the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has declined by 35% in Total Membership, 38% in Participating Membership, and 28% in Average Worship Attendance (it’s on the spreadsheet). Obviously, you don’t get to have many more decades like that and expect to survive.

We had some email discussion about what might be at the heart of the this precipitous decline, but that’s a topic for another day. The upshot of the conversation, though, was something like: “So, Mr. Post-Denominational, with the book being released on Friday, maybe you ought to have something to say about this.”

See, this is the “conspicuously creepy” part: The whole time I was looking through the Yearbook, getting a little freaked out, I kept thinking to myself, “So, Mr. Post-Denominational, you wrote a book on this, about how just this kind of information shouldn’t freak the church out. And here you are kind of freaking out, doing the same thing you tell other people to quit doing.”

So What?

Duly chastised about my own hypocrisy, after I said I’d write about the latest distressing news, I quieted my mind for a moment and composed myself. Here’s what I think:

1. Responding in fear is fine. Saying “Fear not! God can bring life out of death” isn’t saying that you shouldn’t ever be afraid. Fear is an instinctual reaction to stimuli in the environment. You can’t stop the initial irresistible urge to respond in fear any more than you can force your salivary glands not to start cranking out spit when you walk past a Krispy Kreme, and you get a whiff of that fresh batch of deep fried goodness that’s just come out, with all the gooey (What is that stuff? It’s not really frosting, is it? Icing?) slathered all over … Sorry, where was I? Oh yeah, fear.

2. Living with fear is an affront to the gospel. Saying “Fear not! God can bring life out of death” is calling for a more permanent orientation to your environment. It says that while I can’t resist the instinctual fear of the moment, I will not live there. I will not let the fear define my embrace of the present or my hope for the future.

3. Some of this is on God. This is God’s church … all of it. It’s not my congregation, not my denomination, not my Protestant mainline. As such, God gets to take the credit and the responsibility for what ultimately becomes of it. When it goes well, Christians are prone to saying things like, “God has blessed us,” or “We give God the glory.” But when things go in the toilet, very rarely do I hear Christians say anything so honest as, “We worked our butts off, but God saw fit to curse us,” or “It sucks being us right now, we’re happy to give God the blame on this one.” I suspect I’ll get nasty emails about this, but if we’ve done the best we know how to do and the whole thing caves in over the next ten years, that’s on God. I know that sounds kind of harsh, but you don’t get to have it both ways: Good = God; Bad = our screw up.

4. The church is a tool of ministry. The church is not the gospel. The gospel is the gospel. For good and for ill, the church is the current framework through which the gospel is embodied (or is not embodied) in the world. Whereas the good news of the reign of God is necessary, the church is not. The church is a delivery system for the gospel. Whatever happens to mainline Protestant denominations in general, or individual congregations in particular, God’s determination to reign over a just and peaceful world is inexorable. In the end, God will get what God wants.

5. There are different kinds of growth. The kind of growth that makes the work congregations do interesting often eludes the people doing the evaluation because those kinds of growth defy quantification. That is to say, there any number of areas of growth that are qualitative, which—because evaluating them is impossible to reduce to statistical representation—means they get overlooked as meaningful indicators of health. By what algorithm, for instance, do we judge whether our people are being better parents? Children? Partners? Spouses? Friends? Bosses? Employees? Students? Just because the numbers aren’t what they used to be doesn’t mean that God isn’t doing some amazingly cool things through us right now.

6. There are different kinds of decline. In the same way that not all growth is good, not all decline is bad. Sometimes having people move on in order to find a place that better meets their spiritual needs is healthy. Nobody should be in favor of running people off just because they disagree. However, there are issues of justice about which a failure to compromise is a faithful response. Again, if we’re living out our commitments as faithfully as we know how, then we’ll have to believe that God is there leading us in the midst of it all, and that God’s present in the fallout as well as in the success.

7. If these numbers actually do signal some kind of death, so what? We’re followers of Jesus, so death is what we do best. We know what those laboring under a perpetual cloud of fear cannot know: God’s favorite artistic medium is corpses. Resurrection is nothing but the cosmic joke of ripping life from the cold, firm grasp of death. How can a people who gather every week around a table that reminds us of the ultimate nature of our commitment, that institutionalizes our embrace of powerlessness, be afraid of death? How can we Disciples of Christ, who were founded upon the revolutionary claim that our highest desire is “that this body die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large,” have our sphincters clench up at the thought that we might cease to exist?

So, the numbers look bad.

If you want to be afraid, be afraid. Believe me, I completely understand.

But if you somehow think that living with that persistent hand-wringing fear is going to help you through the next ten years, and wind up on the other side with everything you care about still intact, then I don’t know how to help you.

It’s an exciting, if sometimes harrowing, time to be the church. But when has that ever been anything other than the case?

Are Mainline Denominations Dying?

Get together with a group of mainline ministers and sooner or later somebody is going to say, “I’m not even sure our denomination is going to be here in ten years.” I’m not sure why the event horizon is always a round number, nor am I sure what ecclesiastical tea leaves help generate this number, but it seems to be a mathematical constant.

“Ten years? Are you sure about the number?”

“Well, you know what I mean. Sooner rather than later.”

Mainline denominations typically occupy the center of discussion about decline—particularly decline in church membership. For years it was argued that the trends indicated that liberal theology was to blame, driving members away. But lately, even more theologically conservative churches have experienced a decline in membership. The Southern Baptist Convention, a widely conservative denomination characterized by consistent growth during the period of the mainline membership slump, has just posted a third year of declining membership numbers. The latest figures for 2010 indicate that church membership across the board in the SBC has fallen off by 1.05%.

My own denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), has flailed about in uncertain waters for years. Since 1968, when the Christian Church restructured, officially becoming a denomination, it has lost 901,449 members (57%) and over 2,108 congregations (36%). By comparison, between 1965 and 2005, the United Church of Christ lost (41%) of its members, while the Presbyterian Church (USA) lost 46%. And though since 2006 the decline among Disciples has slowed considerably, losing only 1% of its members and .5% of its congregations, the continued downward trend has many Disciples worried about the long-term viability of the denomination.

Let’s be honest, the statistical trend is frightening. Last year alone, membership figures for mainline denominations were down across the board: United Methodist Church (-1.01%), Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (-1.96%), Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (-2.61%), Episcopal Church (-2.48%), American Baptist Church (-1.55%), United Church of Christ (-2.83%).2 Sadly, when I go to Google and type in “mainline denomination,” the first suggestion Google provides is “mainline denomination decline.” 

But I don’t even think looking at the numbers is the right way to think about it. If all we’ve got is ten years, then let’s use the time to do things that are so radical, so amazingly unthinkable that after ten years we’ll all be either so energized that we want to sign up for another tour, or so exhausted that we’ll all keel over and won’t have to worry about it anymore.

Mainline denominations are dying. If the trends hold true, as they have over the past forty years, we’re careening toward a post-denominational world—a world in which the structures that supported progressive theology, a social justice orientation toward faith, and institutionalized mission and administration is crumbling before our eyes; a world in which the printed media that has supported denominational ministry (publishing houses, curricula, magazines, journals, etc.)—over which denominations could exert control—is being overtaken by electronic media (ePub, blogging, social media)—over which denominations exert only minimal control; a world in which mainline cultural ascendancy and domination isn’t only a relic of the past, but no longer even a desirable goal for the future.

The purpose of this book, however, is not to lead cheers for the death of mainline denominationalism. But neither is the purpose to help mainline denominations hang onto dying systems just a little bit longer. My purpose is to help mainline denominations and their congregations get a correct read on the situation, embrace death as a liberation from having to “succeed,” and learn how to live.

After all, the gospel is first about failure and death—because it’s only losers and corpses who’ve got nothing left to lose. Why a people who remember the failure of the crucifixion and celebrate the victory of resurrection in the Eucharist every Sunday should have its sphincter seize up every time it thinks of death is beyond me.

Embrace failure as a road to success—even God did.

[Note: This is an excerpt from my book, The Mainliner's Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World, by Chalice Press, which will be in bookstores on August 15th—though I know people who've received it already via online orders (*winks slyly*). You can order it here and here and here. If you're a blogger and would like a review copy, email me at dlpenw01@gmail.com.]

Walking in the Desert Isn't the Worst Thing to Happen to the Mainline

By Terry Smith

The mainline is dying. That’s no surprise to anyone. Conservative denominations are growing though. In America, the only steadily growing denomination is the Assemblies of God, a conservative evangelical Pentecostal denomination. Many mainline denominations (my beloved Disciples of Christ, included) are grasping at straws to stop from fading into obscurity.

But, “obscurity” isn’t the worst thing that could happen to the Disciples of Christ and other mainline denominations. The worst thing that could happen to us is that we flake on our call to be the prophets in the wilderness. The worst thing that could happen to us is that we manipulate people into joining our churches with fear-driven sermons. The worst thing that could happen to us is that we stop being the voice of justice in the wilderness. The worst thing that could happen to us is not spending 40 years in the desert, but the worst thing that could happen to us is that the fear of the desert drives us to compromise our beliefs.

Walking in the desert isn’t the worst thing that happened to the people of Israel. Not everyone made it through the desert though. Not everyone has what it takes to follow the cloud of the Lord and survive off manna from Heaven. Let those who need to survive off their bastardization of God. Let them make God into an American and Jesus into a Republican, but do not let us compromise our beliefs and the message God has given to us for fear of the desert.

It is in the desert that we learn to trust God, because we have to. And it is then, when we have no other choice but to trust God and each other for our sustenance that true community happens. And on the other side of the desert, the Promised Land stands and our giants of church debt, tradition and pride will have to be fought to find hope in the Promised Land. But the desert isn’t the worst thing that’s ever happened to the mainline or the people of Israel. The worst thing that happens to us is when we stop being the JUST people of God and start relying on the religion of the state to sustain us.

The Problem With Assuming That It's the Millennials' Fault for Abandoning Religion

By Derek Penwell

[Note:This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post.]

I used to work with a guy who had a gift for breaking up with girls. He was so genuine and kind that afterward the girls would invariably leave feeling affirmed and cared for, like George Clooney had just fallen apart on them, relating how unworthy he was of their affections. Masterful. He was the ultimate “it’s-not-you-it’s-me” guy.

If you’re going to get dumped, that’s the kind of person you want lowering the boom, isn’t it?

But most people can’t pull off that level of empathy. Most people struggle between the poles of blame, between “your fault” and “my fault” -- all too aware of the other person’s problems, but also painfully suspicious (if not quite aware) of their own complicity. It’s normal.

Then there are the people at the other end of the spectrum, unencumbered by the decided disadvantage of ever entertaining the possibility that they’re wrong. This is the “it’s-not-me-it’s you” person. These are the folks who believe that no problem is too big or too complicated that -- with the application of a little intellectual candlepower -- it can’t be successfully blamed on somebody else.

Now this shedding of responsibility can come in two different forms. The first type is what I call “the slippery blame-caster” -- able to weasel out taking responsibility for anything that goes wrong by deflecting it onto someone else. This is the person who always seems to be standing behind you when the boss is around, pointing a finger at you when she thinks you’re not looking.

The second type I’ve labeled, “the belligerent blame-thrower” -- unfailingly staking out the moral high ground, convinced that culpability must lay with someone of obviously inferior moral fiber. This is the person who is sure you’ve screwed up somehow, but hasn’t quite figured out your tricks yet -- because you’re a slacker, and who else would do something like this?

I find the belligerent blame-thrower much too regularly in the church. Something goes wrong and this person’s default posture is “it’s not me; it’s you.” I knew a leader at one church who -- if he showed up late for something -- wouldn’t think of apologizing for keeping you waiting, but would proceed to blame you for giving bad directions, or changing the time, or failing to remind him.

I thought about that guy the other day as I was reading an article about whether Millennials are leaving religion because of the treatment of LGBT folks. The author cites a recent Public Religion Research Institute survey entitled, A Shifting Landscape: A Decade of Change in American Attitudes about Same-Sex Marriage and LGBT Issues, which indicates among other things that (31 percent) of Millennials say they are leaving religion over LGBT issues. Interesting, but come on, we pretty much knew that, didn’t we?

No, what I found particularly difficult to wrap my mind around emerged as I read the last part of the article. Turns out that, at least when it comes to appearances, fully 7-in-10 Millennials “believe that religious groups are alienating young adults by being too judgmental about gay and lesbian issues.” That is to say, (70 percent) of people born between 1980 and 2000 believe that the church is hostile enough to LGBT issues that it’s driving people away.

On the other end of the age spectrum, however, only “roughly 4-in-10 (43 percent) members of the Silent Generation believe that religious groups are alienating young people, while nearly as many (44 percent) disagree.” That is to say, after looking at the decline experienced by American religious groups over the last fifty years,1 a larger portion of the Silent Generation responded to the trend by protesting, “It’s not us; it’s them. We don’t know why they’re leaving, but we’re pretty sure it’s nothing we did.”

I find this stunning lack of self-awareness on the part of older generations of religious people troubling. Notice I didn’t say that I find the inhospitableness of older generations troubling (although, the survey numbers do suggest that the older you are the less likely you are to be welcoming of LGBT folks). My problem has to do with the apparent inability of older generations to understand how they appear to others. Saying, “Well, I’m not intolerant of LGBT issues, and I’m tired of getting blamed because people misunderstand me” misses the point.

Pro tip: If you don’t consider yourself anti-gay, but you find yourself expending energy repeatedly defending against charges of homophobia, you probably ought to consider the possibility that maybe you’re not just being misunderstood.

This penchant for viewing the problem of the exodus of young people as unrelated to anything you’ve done is very near to the heart of the problem.

Case in point: One of the commenters on the article, a man who appears to occupy the graying edges of the age spectrum, implied that Millennials leaving religion because of anti-gay bias is their problem: “Saying, ‘I am not going to church anymore because of their hostility to gay and lesbian people’ is akin to saying, ‘I don’t eat seafood anymore, so I am not going to eat in any restaurant.’”

Now, the commenter may be right that young people have just misunderstood the message that religion presents on LGBT issues, but that misses the point. If you desperately want young people to help you stem the tide of religious decline, blaming them for not coming to your aid because you’re misunderstood, only soothes your own sense of inadequacy by blaming someone else for it.

“It’s not me; it’s you” is the death rattle of the isolated.


    __________
  1. 1. While I’m thinking first about the majority of those religious groups associated with Christianity, Judaism is also experiencing difficulties around declining membership. ↩

In Defense of Growth

By Jeff Gill

(This article first appeared in the Newark Advocate.)

Should congregations and denominations want to grow?

To some of you, this may sound odd. Isn’t that what every organization and institution wants to do?

In fact, there are some cogent arguments against growth, and some of them are rather wide-spread these days. As is often noted, growth for growth’s sake is the ethos of the cancer cell, and simply to grow and multiply is not, itself alone, a healthy thing.

And while consumerism today is often in pursuit of an ever-expanding market share, and that much desired next-quarter profit report going up, up, up, that kind of expansion and increase may be destructive not just to the environment, but to the participants.

So it can be within religious traditions. I once was asked about goal-setting, and a church officer thought about his workplace practices and said, without rancor, “shouldn’t we just tie your pay to Sunday attendance?” I answered, hopefully in the same congenial tone, “that’s an interesting argument, and if I went out and rented a bus and offered a free lunch, I’ll bet I can double attendance over the next month. What do you say?”

The idea died for lack of a second.

And in truth, if you just want to pile up more bodies and pack rooms, I am entirely in sympathy with those who question the long-term sustainability and immediate justification of using pop culture and shock value to fill seats.

Even the previous pope, Benedict XVI, said something about a smaller church being a faithful church, more focused and more authentic. Size isn’t everything. I’d agree with that.

What I find myself leaning back away from, though, is the tendency to valorize shrinkage as a sign of faithfulness; a trend to point at growing churches and to presume “they’re just using tricks and fads” without checking out the content and formation going on there more creditably. A dying church is by no means a more committed congregation, nor are all booming worship centers preaching a gospel I’d recognize or impacting the lives of attendees in any meaningful way.

For many religious bodies, the 21st century is a confrontation with challenges. Worship attendance is down, membership is dropping for many denominations whether oriented as liberal or conservative (so-called in any case, since there are always variations within), and the authority of religious leaders and teachers is small and shrinking whether you think that good or ill.

Which makes it tempting to make a cult of contraction. It’s happening anyhow, so let’s make it a good thing, a sort of reverse Chicken Little (“hey look, isn’t it GREAT that the sky is falling?”). And growth, increases in attendance and membership and giving and serving, is rare, so why make it a standard?

And I am acutely aware of my own need for caution here. We are blessed at the congregation where I serve that we have a solid history, a strong ministry under my predecessor, a not-so-old building which isn’t needing major repairs or suffering from decades of deferred maintenance, and plenty of passionate leaders. So we are in a position to grow where other similar churches may be ministering and serving with twice the effort for half the outcomes. I see it all around us.

Yet I want to say a word on behalf of growth. We’ve heard Jesus’ command to “Go therefore and make disciples” and are doing so, which sets us up for “baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” and that way we get some wonderful opportunities for “teaching them to observe all I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20 is where our marching orders come from.)

Growth is how we can tell if we’re sharing a good news message that is reaching people. We aren’t reaching everyone, maybe not even everyone we should, but if we weren’t seeing any response, I think it would tell us we are going about it the wrong way.

Likewise, we have financial struggles like most churches, but not so much that we can’t share out from our fellowship a tenth and more of what we receive, and live out as community what we teach to persons and families. A shrinking church can’t do that, and even if we sold the property and rented space, we’d be hard pressed to maintain that outreach.

Growth may not be the only sign of God’s active presence, but I believe it can certainly be one of them.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him where you see growth in your own life at knapsack77@gmail.com or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

I Understand Why Others Are Leaving: This Is Why I'm Staying

By Dr. Mark Poindexter

Recently, a parishioner who happens to be a former congregational pastor sent me something that he found in the magazine Christianity Today.  It is actually a piece of information that I came across in The Christian Century as well.  It is a quote from John Longhurst on research about why people are leaving the church (CC: April 16, 2014, p. 9). 

Evangelicals are leaving the church because they are angry.  Roman Catholics are leaving because they feel betrayed.  And mainline Christians? They’re leaving because they’re bored.

That quote appeared on a page that featured a bar graph about the “Decline of Institutions” with all the appropriate sociological descriptions for each age group – Millennials (18-33), Gen X (34-49), Boomers (50-68), and the Silent Generation (69-86).  The Builders (WW II generation) have finally fallen off the graph. So there exists only one group (Silent Generation) between my group (Boomers) and the end.  I hope the Silent folk hang around for a long time to come – I just hope they can find something to say.   Of course, the graph shows that the younger groups are much less inclined to participate in the institutions that the older groups have given much significant time and energy.  It is most likely that anyone reading this post is at least somewhat aware of “institutional decline.”

Over the past few weeks, I have also come across a number of stories of people of faith leaving the church because they have felt as if the church was hindering the growth of their faith. Their experience of church was one in which they did not find the presence of Christ. The sense of the Sacred was absent for them within the institution.  I read of one person who said that she was actually leaving the church so that “she could find Christ.” The telling of these stories almost always include the painful way that folks have been treated by others in the church.

Well, having been part of the “institutional church” for most of my life, (I have a problem with the way “institution” is most often used and understood in description of the church, but that’s another article) I thought that I would tell you why I have stuck it out.  I have written earlier about why I stayed with the life of faith, but this different.  This is about why I have stayed in the church.  First, however, I want to say that I recognize and honor the reasons others have chosen to leave.  I’ll readily admit that some of the ways church has been practiced can leave people with feelings of anger, betrayal and boredom.  I’ll acknowledge that some people and groups of people have been treated awful by the church – that the place of love and grace has been toward some a place of judgment and exclusion.  Let’s be honest.  The church has its fair share of people who can be real jerks (substitute any four-letter description you feel led to use).  After thirty years in ministry, I’ve met plenty of them.  They are people who, for whatever reason, believe that their obnoxious behavior toward others is something that Christ does not need to transform.  Such folks can cause significant damage to an entire congregation if they get into a position of leadership.  And they do get into leadership positions because too often the church simply looks for folks who are willing to say “yes,” instead of folks who are truly gifted to lead.  So for those who have been mistreated or seen the church mistreat others and feel betrayed and angry enough to leave, I understand.  And for those who are simply bored with the fact that too many times the church focuses on matters that don’t really matter, I get it.  I know why you have left.  Truth is, I have been close, very close, to walking out the door with you.  But I haven’t and here is why.

Yes, there are some real jerks in church. I know some by name.  But I have also found a lot of really good people in the church too.  People who are seriously concerned about doing what is right and striving to follow Christ in this day and time.  I was just in a meeting with one of the saints of our present congregation.  An 89 year old man by the name of Hoby.  Hoby is one of the kindest, gentlest, most honorable people I have ever met.  He still gives leadership in our church in many ways and presides at the Lord’s Table.  He greets everyone with a deep sense of humility and genuineness. He has a gentle, welcoming hug that embraces all.  Not too long ago, in a meeting around an important matter that involved some significant change for our church, I heard this wise old gentleman say, “Well, we better listen to what the younger folks are saying because we want them here.”  The meeting went silent after Hoby spoke, because everyone knew he spoke the truth.  Throughout my time in the church I’ve met a lot of folks like Hoby – John Ross, Bob and Barb Miller, Bob and Anna McDaniel, Rich Davis, Doc Martin – just to name a very few. I could name many more.  People who have blessed my life.  People who have helped me to experience the presence of the living Christ.  People who have helped me to remember the Sacred reality of life and given me and my family the opportunity to give and receive love.  Such folks help to balance out those who aren’t as kind or caring, or just plain mean.  I don’t let those folks zap my energy or take my attention anymore.  If that starts to happen I think how blessed I have been to have people like Hoby in my life.  The place I met Hoby, and all the others like him, is in the church. 

Another reason I have stayed with the church is because, as much as I love sports and good weather, I need something else to talk about.  I want to talk about meaning and purpose and what really matters in life and the church has been a place for me to do that.  In the church we can and should talk about such things as what is right and what is wrong and how we arrive at our conclusions.  We can and should talk about our own mortality and what that means for how we live.  We can and should talk about what it means to care for each other and all others.  We can and should talk about overcoming prejudice and not living in fear of one another.   I need some depth in life and maybe because I as a pastor have pushed the envelope at times, the church has been a place where that desire for depth has been explored.  Not too long ago, I was leading a class and some of the folks were sharing from a very deep place about their own lives and I can remember being moved to tears.  Not so much by their stories, but by the fact that a safe place had been created where they felt it was okay to share that part of themselves.  I understand why some folks have left out of boredom.  Too often the church steers away from important matters because they are either afraid that someone will be offended or because they don’t want to deal with the different opinions that can arise.  But if we don’t talk about matters of importance, I don’t know what it is we are to spend our time talking about. 

Finally, I have stayed in the church because, honestly, I don’t know where else to go. I crave human community and a sense of connection. I desire to live life in such a way that I feel like I am making a difference and, for me, that means following Jesus and being a part of that group of people who are seeking to follow him as well.  If I were to leave the “institutional church,” I would look for another group of folks who were on this same path and once I found them – that would be church too.  I’ve decided to stick it out in the church, because I think, if I left, I’d just find church somewhere else. 

So, that’s why I’ve stayed.  Folks like Hoby, who truly loves Jesus and strives to love others.  Such people in the church have fed my faith, immensely more than others have diminished it.  Because I get to have conversations with people on topics that matter.  And then, after our conversation, roll up our sleeves and get to the work that matters.  And because I don’t know where else I would go.   So, I’ve stayed with the church and I think it has been a good decision for me.  It has helped me to be a better person and helped me to work toward a better world. 

But I want to make something clear, though I have stayed in the church, I have not given the church my heart and I won’t.  My heart, the deepest part of me, belongs to another.  And I will explain what I mean by that next week.