Mainliners

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.]