Protestant Mainline Decline

A New Set of Eyes: Discovering God’s Vision

by Billy Doidge Kilgore

A few years ago, I interviewed with a search committee for an associate pastor position. As I was answering their questions, a well dressed and refined elderly woman asked me a sharp, direct question. "What do you have to offer this church?" Feeling caught off guard, I scrambled to think of something to say. After hesitation on my part, she said, "I bet you could offer us a new set of eyes." Around the table I heard snickers, because some thought she was making a joke about the graying of the congregation.

To the contrary, she was making a serious observation. She went on, "As a young adult, I bet you could help us to see our ministry from a new perspective. If you are given the opportunity to be our associate pastor, I hope you will use your unique experiences in life to help us better understand how to minister to the world around us." Sensing her wisdom and authority, I nodded my head and agreed. Her words still stick with me today, as I think about what it means to be the Church. God's people are at their best when they are eager to see the world through the eyes of others. Jesus spent a great deal of his time inviting those who gathered around him to see the world through the eyes of others, especially the poor, downtrodden and marginalized. Our faith grows and deepens as we step into the shoes of those who are different from us.

Do you think it would make a difference if your congregation made the effort to see the world through many different eyes? I am not asking you to look at the stereotypes that our culture often uses to describe groups of people, but to make an effort to stand in the shoes of individuals who are often complex and multifaceted. Ask yourself what life is like for a young adult, a gay or lesbian person, an unemployed person, a homebound person, a person outside the Church, or a person of another ethnicity. I am willing to bet that if a congregation empathizes with those who are different than their average member, it would reshape their ministries for the better. 

A large part of our struggle as mainline Protestant congregations is our unwillingness to see the world through the eyes of others. Recently, I met with a group of faithful church people who happened to be significantly older than me. As a young adult in the Church, I have grown accustomed to my interests and concerns being underrepresented in church meetings. After I finished introducing myself to the group, a middle-aged person said to me in a dismissive tone, "How old are you? You don't look old enough to be a pastor." This individual's tone suggested that not only did I not have the experience to be part of the group, but I did not have anything of value to offer. As I tried to remain calm, I thought to myself, "Yes, you're right. The last thing the Church needs is the voice of a young adult at the table. It is doing such a wonderful job of attracting people my age on its own!"

I wonder if this condescending remark could have been avoided if this person had dared to see the Church through the eyes of a young adult. This individual's limited perspective is part of a larger mindset that is driving young adults away from our congregations. The reality is that young adults have much to offer. In case you are wondering what a young adult sees when they look at your church, let me offer you some perspective. Often, we see churches that are either trying too hard to attract younger generations by turning the church into entertainment centers with large screens, high-energy bands and perfectly constructed stages, or congregations that are not trying at all and seem content to pretend we are still living in 1955. As a young adult, I don't want to participate in either one of these congregations. Instead, I am seeking a congregation that is willing to engage the 21st century, foster deep relationships, minister beyond its four walls, and dare to share God's love with everybody.

I believe that if the Church wants to thrive in the 21st century, especially amongst Generation X and Millennials, it must boldly look through the eyes of others. It is in the intersection between those currently in the pews, and the needs, interests and dreams of those outside the church walls that we will encounter the living God and discover the future vision many of our congregations desperately need. Then, the Church will have no other choice but to let this holy energy spill over our walls and into the world.

Billy Doidge Kilgore is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and affiliated with the United Church of Christ through an ordained partnership. Billy blogs at ourdeepestselves.com.

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.

I Don't Think Jesus is the Same Thing as a Big Mac

By Dr. Mark Poindexter

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.       

Staying With My Religion

By Dr. Mark Poindexter 

The Spirit and Place Festival is an annual multi-day event in Indianapolis that takes place every November and is presently occurring.  The festival's mission is to “catalyze civic engagement and enduring change through creative collaborations among the arts, humanities, and religion.”  During the ten days of the festival there are a variety of activities including lectures, panel discussions, workshops, concerts and art shows. A few years back, I attended a workshop on creative writing in which I learned some practices that I still utilize.  The Spirit and Place Festival is a welcome part of autumn in Indianapolis.  I once met a couple, both of whom are artists, who moved to Indy after coming from out of state for a couple of years to participate in the festival.

The theme of this year’s festival is “Risk: New Connections, New Directions.”  In advertising this theme the festival website reads:

What issues need strategic risk-taking? How can we surf the space between safety and danger in ways that stimulate community vitality? What risks can we take during Spirit & Place to galvanize change for pressing social concerns?

Since I believe risk is a strong component of faith, I was glad to see this theme and scanned the many opportunities that were available.  When I looked, there was open space in every event except one, an event titled: “Leaving My Religion: The Risks and Rewards of Becoming Non-Religious.”  This event is being led by a former pastor and author of several best-selling books on religious themes.   After twenty-five years as a pastor, he has decided that the religious life is no longer for him.  The event is titled after a new book he has written with the same name, which offers a guide for those who have decided that the religious life “no longer works for them.”

I have to admit, I found it quite ironic that the Spirit and Place festival, which counts a variety of faith traditions among its supporters and which “embraces religion in the values of compassion, fairness, hospitality, and service that fuel our life in community” would host an event such as “Leaving My Religion.”  (It is also listed as a Risk prize finalist. This means it has the possibility of winning a $2,500 prize awarded by the festival committee.) I also have to admit that I was not surprised, but was very sad, to see that this event had sold out. With the fastest growing segment of American religious affiliation being the “nones,” that is, those who don’t affiliate with any religion, it is little wonder that this event had no seats left.

The reason religious faith is on a decline in America is a complex matter that has many different contributing factors.  There are the cultural matters that include America’s hyper-individualism, consumer mentality, and a 24 hour, 7 day-a-week busyness, that does not lend itself to participation in much beyond one’s self and family.  There is also the rise of “scientism,” the mechanistic world-view that the only things that are “real” are things of material substance.  “Scientism” should not be confused with science. It is instead the belief that the “only valid” way of knowing is through the scientific method.  A world view that fails its own test, because it cannot be proven that the scientific method is the only way knowledge is acquired.  This is simply to say that there are cultural matters that have impacted the decline of religious faith.

But the cultural factors should not preclude the church from taking a hard look at itself and how it has contributed to the religious decline.  There is no shortage of books or studies which show that many people view the church as an anti-intellectual, anti-science, homophobic, judgmental group who condemns to hell those who don’t hold the same beliefs we do.  We might want to argue with that perception of the Christian faith, and I know it doesn’t square with most of the Christians I associate with, but we have to admit that where there is smoke there is fire.  And the truth is, many people have experienced a brand of Christianity that is a close description of the above. 

Well, the thoughts in the two preceding paragraphs need a whole lot more time than I am able to give them in the space provided here. Let’s just leave it at this, there is no one reason for the decline of religious faith in America – there is a complex, multitude of reasons for why this has happened. 

What I want to offer over the next few weeks is an alternative to “Leaving My Religion: The Risks and Rewards of Becoming Non-Religious.”  I would like to offer “Staying with Faith: the Risks and Rewards  of Sticking It Out.”   My intention won’t be to critique the reasons for the decline beyond what I have briefly mentioned above.  I simply want to offer to you why I have stayed with the life of faith, even when it didn’t seem to “work for me.” I want to share with you the places that I still find great beauty in the religious community.  One pastor is sharing with others why he chose to leave.  I want to share with you why I have chosen to stay.  I want to state why I believe that the life of faith still has much to offer our culture and our world, it’s most important offering being a word of hope. 

On Being a Disciple/disciple Today

By Mark Poindexter

The 4,034 people who attended the recent General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Orlando, Florida composed a group that was more than 60% smaller than the 10,492 that attended the first General Assembly in 1968.  It was less than half the size of the first assembly after I was ordained, the 1991 Assembly in Oklahoma City which had 8,774 registrants.  The attendance at the General Assembly reflects the decline that has happened within the life of the Disciples of Christ and the majority of our congregations over the past several decades.

In the Indian region, where I have been in ministry for the past 22 years, our regional staff has been reduced during this time from a Regional Minister and four full- time associates along with several full-time support staff to one full-time Regional Minister, several part time ministry partners and three part time support staff with the regional office being closed on Fridays.  And honestly, with 13 congregations leaving the denomination since Indiana’s most recent regional assembly where the decisions to remove the language that prohibited folks who are gay and lesbian from being ordained, more cuts to staff are very possible.  Another place where the reality of the decline has been experienced in Indiana is in the camping program which over the past 20 years has seen a decline of about 50% in the number participating in this program.  That decline, of course, involves the loss of financial resources which are used for the maintenance of the camping facilities.  And some of our facilities are in need of great repair.

The reality of this situation has been with us for quite some time.  It has been part of the landscape of doing ministry the entire time I have been involved in congregational leadership.  When I first started as a full-time pastor back in 1989, there was a lot finger pointing and blaming going on about the decline.  Some claimed it was because we were too liberal.  Others claimed it was the price we paid for being a church that tried to speak and act prophetically.  Some pointed to the fact that we tried to create a structure for our denomination just like other denominations, instead of being true to our roots of local congregational autonomy.  The Church Growth movement became big in some circles of clergy and a lot of us became immersed in the culture of church marketing.  I did my fair share of finger-pointing and blaming – for which I am deeply sorry.  I also worried a lot about what I needed to do to help stop this decline and “get the church headed in the right direction.” 

Well, I have come to understand that the numerical decline of our denomination and much of the church in America is a much more complex matter than I originally thought.  Though the matter of our faithfulness or unfaithfulness may well be a part of the decline, so are societal factors such as the American consumeristic mentality.  Thus, our devotion to “church marketing.”  

I don’t intend to list all the reasons that I think this decline has happened.  For this piece it is simply enough to say, I have come to the realization that the decline has many causes that are complex and multi-layered.  

What I want to say here is that I no longer worry about the decline.  And I no longer look for someone, or some attitude, to blame. The truth is, I see this time in the history of the church (and since I am writing as a Disciple – the Disciple Church) as an opportunity, even a gift to us, for us to do some deep reflection about what it means to be the church today.  Maybe this gift has even come to us from God.

Over the past couple of decades of my congregational leadership, I have seen myself move toward a simpler, but I believe a more authentic expression of Christian faith.  It is not rooted in creed or doctrine, or Designs or Preambles either.  It is rooted simply in Jesus – his life and the life he calls us to.  I no longer find myself looking for programs or strategies about how to turn things around.  Studies about target audiences or demographics don’t get a whole lot of my time.  My time instead is given to trying to understand the life of Jesus the best that I can – the fullness of it, his teachings, his death, his resurrection, his living presence throughout history, his impact on the structures of the world.  And then to live as fully as possible the life he calls me too – a life of unconditional love, grace and forgiveness; a life which cares for all but especially the people on the fringes of society; a life which is willing to speak truth to the powers of the world.  This simpler, but for me much more authentic way of understanding our faith, has played a very important role in my congregational leading.  At the church I presently serve our vision statement is “To be a church that thoughtfully and faithfully follows Jesus.”  It has been a blessing to hear that phrase used in elder’s prayers at the Table, in Moments for Mission during worship, in Sunday School discussions, and in the conversations that we are presently having about how to the church in this day and time.  

I believe the life of Jesus and the life he calls should be the central focus of the church in this time.  Communities of faith in which we center our life together in  love for God and all whom God loves, which includes neighbor, stranger and enemy, is our most important, and to me only authentic, evangelistic tool.  

So the decline for me, though it has been painful in many ways and has brought consequences that have to be dealt with, has also been a gift.  It has brought me closer to Jesus and for that I can be nothing but grateful.  None of us can know what the future holds in regard to the denominational life of the Disciples of Christ – but the present journey of being a Disciple has resulted in me focusing more on being a disciple, a follower of Jesus.  Maybe that’s what (who) we should have always been focused on.

                       

 

Church Buildings and Plastic Couch Covers

Growing up I had a friend whose family had a formal living room. I’m not sure why they had a formal living room, since they got just about as much use out of it as the crawl space under the stairs, which always seemed prone to flooding. But having a formal living room was a big deal … I guess in case the President or K.C. and the Sunshine Band stopped by to visit.

And while the President and Mr. Sunshine Band would have been welcome to sit on the plastic couch cover, ordinary human beings were not. It was a place set aside for some ultra special event that everybody believed might one day occur, and for which no one wanted to be unprepared. And so it languished in all its Teak-paneled and shag-carpeted glory, its uncomfortable looking orange couch and lacquered end tables gathering dust.

Not that it looked like a great place, either to play or relax, but I always harbored a secret desire to sneak into that living room and start moving the macraméed owl wall hangings and the vases filled with big glass balls around. I knew such hijinks in the forbidden room would be stroke-inducing to the people in charge, but dang, it felt like it needed to be done.

I suspect the need to have a perfectly preserved room (even if it looked like a touching/creepy homage to the Partridge Family) stemmed from the desire of working class folks to have nice things. Many of the folks in that generation had come of age in the aftermath of the Depression, World War II, and then the cultural pre-pubescence of the 1950s. Having nice things for certain social classes in this generation was still a relatively new phenomenon. Like domestic police, the impulse to “preserve and protect” seemed a natural response to the rapidly shifting political and cultural forces reshaping the American landscape.

“Get out of the living room!” and “You better not spill anything on the good furniture!” became the new suburban rallying cries. Some rooms were for everyday, and some rooms were for … well, never.

I preferred the family rooms of my youth to the living rooms—the former to be used, dirtied, broken, and restored, the latter to be encased in harvest gold amber, and to be later excavated by post-apocalyptic anthropologists looking to explain the domestic habits of late twentieth-century bourgeoisie.

Unfortunately, not only were the aesthetics of this time ecclesiastically enshrined in church buildings [Seriously? Burnt orange upholstery on the pews?], but so were the attitudes about church buildings as special places to be protected against all human encroachment, preserved for some special purpose at a distant point on the horizon of time.

Look, I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be places in a church that are set apart as holy space. The sanctuary probably shouldn’t double as the gym for the Day Care during the week. The baptistry probably shouldn’t house hidden jacuzzi nozzles for staff parties. We probably shouldn’t eat our Cap’n Crunch out of the offering plates. Fine.

Let me be clear, I’m thinking less about the use of particular rooms in the church than about the church building itself. In many people’s minds the church building has become the plastic-wrapped living room that should be safeguarded against the invasion of sticky-fingered people bent on messing it up.

But what if the church building was recast as a family room, to be used, dirtied, broken, and restored?

What if we turned loose of the idea that churches are antiques to be collected, rather than tools to be used to accomplish some purpose?

What if we took a chance and let the community use our space as a gift to those with whom we live and work, instead of defaulting to suspicion of motives or fear of what might happen?

Declining mainline denominations have these huge legacy buildings, sucking up more and more of our resources. What if we said, “We’re going to think about this building as a launching pad, rather than a saddle?”

We’re going to make mistakes. It’s going to get messed up. Somebody’s inevitably going to spill something on the plastic couch covers; somebody’s going to move the owl hangings and leave beer can rings on the lacquered end table.

So, fix it … or learn to love beer can rings.

People visit museums; they don’t live in them.