mainline decline

2017: What The (White Protestant) Church Must Do

By Rev. Mindi

I read this post shared by an Episcopalian friend this week, and along with some online conversations on “what is the future of the church?” with declining attendance and resources, I’m wondering what has happened to our ecumenical movement? What has happened to our movement for unity?

As an American Baptist pastor married to a Disciples of Christ pastor, I can tell you that not much really separates us. We all do baptism pretty much the same way. We do communion the same way, albeit Baptists tend to only do communion once a month. We aren’t opposed to doing it every Sunday, we just make it out to be more work than it really is. We have some common roots in history. We have faced some of the same struggles on inclusion and diversity in recent years, and as both denominations have taken steps to truly live into God’s ways of love and justice and the teachings of Jesus, some of our more conservative kindred have gone out the door, or have simply stopped talking with us.

And it’s not only American Baptists and Disciples, but Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, Congregationalists (and other UCC-ers), and the list goes on. While we vary in our ways of baptism and communion and vary in our liturgical rigidness, when we start talking about issues of justice, Black Lives Matter, inclusion of transgender and lesbian, gay, bisexual and other queer folks, and welcoming refugees and immigrants, we have so much in common. I regularly have conversations in ecumenical gatherings of clergy (especially fellow clergy in a similar age range to me, but not always) about the same issues facing our churches. The same issues facing our communities. The same longing to follow Jesus and being held up by resources.

So why oh why oh WHY ARE WE NOT WORKING TOGETHER? Why are we still separated on Sunday mornings? Why is (as the author of the blog post I shared stated) Sunday morning still the most segregated hour, decades after Martin Luther King Jr. called us out on it?

I know I am not the first to say it, but as a response to white privilege and white supremacy, perhaps those of us in the traditional white protestant churches, as we face closing down and shrinking numbers, need to go join a Black church. Perhaps we need to listen to someone else preach on Sunday morning and tell us how to be involved in the community. We can do this within our own denomination to start with.

Secondly, we can join with our kindred down the street. While many of us have “full communion” with other denominations or allow for those of other ordination standards (or none at all!) to preside at the table and at baptism, we do not move beyond those relationships (as again, the author of the blog post I shared stated).

As we enter 2017, the future of the church doesn’t lie in us keeping to ourselves on Sunday morning. If we do that, we will continue to shrink, decline, and close. Those of us who are white Christians need to especially consider giving up our power and ownership of space to join with our Christian kindred of color to truly follow the ways of Jesus (who wasn’t white, as we keep pointing out but fail somehow to truly comprehend). We might find that the church isn’t declining, but thriving, if we give up our own vision of what the church is supposed to look like, and join in God’s vision:

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God, and to the Lamb!”

~Revelation 7:9-10

Getting Depressed By Yearbooks, Again (Sort of)

By Jeff Gill

Being a bit of a history geek, I was tracing developments a century ago in the congregation I serve. This had me reading through old Yearbooks, 1914, 1915, 1918, 1923 (they’re all easy to find on Google Books, just look for Christian Church, American Home Missionary, and Yearbook as search terms).

It was kind of, well . . . depressing, in an unexpected way.

Perhaps you remember Derek last year talking about getting his new Disciples Yearbook:

He was, at least at first, a little bummed out. The numbers (with the help of a stats geek friend of his) are cratering for the objective measures, at least, for our institutional life. We’ve gotten a newer Yearbook in the last few weeks, most of us, and the rate of descent is still, in Tom Wolfe’s description of the Mercury astronauts returning to earth, that of a ring of car keys flung onto a parking lot pavement. Anyhow.

Statistically, things 100 years ago were quite different. “Men and Millions” is the big thing back then (yeah, yeah, we’ll come back to that in a moment), and the relatively anonymous writers of most of the content, speaking quite self-consciously as the voice of our Brotherhood (okay, okay, I’m getting to that), are optimistic about being able to mark those millions in almost every category, if not now, then by the end of the decade or so. Remember, this is when a) “The Christian Century” was mainly our sandbox as a publication, and b) we were quite sure we were IN a Christian century. That theme’s been done, but it’s worth noting again.

Today, we have a million of just about nothing. A quarter mil in worship on an average Sunday, maybe realistically half a million members, but that’s probably not true today and won’t be tomorrow. Say 450,000 tops.

As “Men and Millions” was firing up to bring together the multitudinous, various, fractious programs of missions and education and “church extension” (as we called our building campaign and church planting program back then), there is clearly excitement in those long-deceased voices speaking from the page.

“Chief among the benefits accruing to the Society from the Men and Millions Movement is the wide and sympathetic hearing its work was given. Never have the great claims of the American Christian Missionary Society been presented to such multitudes as from the platform of the movement… The Joint Apportionment Committee was devised by the General Convention to mollify evils of competition growing out of multiplied missionary agencies. The Society has from the first championed the work with enthusiasm and its representative has served the committee this year with devotion. The present apportionment plan has failed to correct both the missionary myopia and the ‘lopsidedness’ in our churches. It begins to appear that if the churches are to be apportioned at all, the work should be done by a committee close enough to the local churches to be conversant with their ability… The remarkable results of the ‘Emergency Drive’ of the Men and Millions Movement not only revealed the large financial ability of the Disciples but points the way to better methods of calling it forth. Here again appears the wisdom of the county unit policy in our organizational scheme. The Joint Apportionment Committee is recommending through the Men and Millions Movement, The World-wide Every-Member Canvass, for an all inclusive budget for all the missionary, educational and benevolent agencies, to which the Society gives hearty approval.”

It goes on like that, pages and pages of it, in between the charts and lists and tables.

Sure, it’s dated language. Very Roaring Twenties, the religious side of The Great Gatsby, the not-so-creepy side of Elmer Gantry. But allowing for all that, the thing is: it’s so hopeful. So optimistic. And so certain that things will go a certain way.

And it’s not that they’re just affirming a status quo or a social quietism, either. Recommended reading lists for Sunday school teachers include Jacob Riis, author of “How the Other Half Lives,” and social gospel theologian Walter Rauschenbusch. The wording is most emphatically dated, but the passion is present to minister in minority communities of a wide variety of settings, from Bohemians in Cleveland (no, not those Bohemians) to Philippinos in California.

What the authors of this material don’t know, or are averting their eyes from, is the looming shadow of World War (the book “Preachers Present Arms” came to mind repeatedly); the racism and slavery behind what is called “Negro poverty” is unmentioned, although lynching is decried and economic opportunity is called for; and the eruption in 1920 of the “Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy” may have begun in Presbyterian circles, but it was clearly visible to Disciples leaders of the day: not so in these pages.

In the authorial tone of the century old Yearbooks, even though self-evidently written by many different hands and with an assortment of styles, the Stone-Campbell churches are one. The Restoration Movement, even though by 1906 clearly divided already between the “a capella” and instrumental branches, is spoken of as a single unified force whose drive and capacity will only flourish as that unity of purpose and action is focused.

The fracturing, of course, was already going on, between cooperatives and independents, progressives and traditionalists, northern and southern ways of being church and doing missions. The role of most minority groups was still, even with the best of intentions, that of being the object of mission efforts, not as autonomous subjects themselves; the role of women was . . . well, it’s complicated, but the Yearbook’s narrative still seems to have much in common with Matthew 14:21, telling us about great things, “not counting women and children.”

Really, it’s amazing how much unity we had for how long, given the depth of the divisions that soon would be revealed. And it’s also got to be the case, I believe, that the shock of what the institutions of our “Fellowship” (or Brotherhood) realized they had supported through the war-fervor against “the Huns” (oh yes they go there, and they go there hard, “threat to civilization” and all that, “enlist now, young men”…), all of which had to have made many if not most of our leaders say “we have to stop pretending.”

Because the tone does start to change in the late Twenties. You can blame it on the Depression, but it starts well before October of 1929. There’s plenty to praise and congratulate one another about in those years, but the relentless boosterism, the almost-manic sunny optimism, recedes. We lose some optimism, but get a bit more realism in our outlook. Sharing good news into America, across the world, is going to be hard, and we probably won’t figure it all out by 1999. The Disciples are starting to come to grips with just how fractured the world is, and that as a movement for wholeness, it’s going to take more than just a plea for unity based on the New Testament model that, frankly, we ourselves didn’t all agree on in detail.

Like Derek, I got depressed, but this time it was from reading those warm, cheery, happy, sunny, not just hopeful but utterly certain Yearbook reports from 1915 and vicinity. Then I had to think about it a while. And as he ultimately realized last year, in the end, we are as Christians, as Disciples of Christ, given a very particular gift, and that is to preach the Gospel to our particular context, in this specific era. (He said it with seven points and different language, but that’s how I took it.)

Who knows how our reports and Mission First! plans will look in 2115. It’s actually kind of helpful to ask that question of my own calling, this congregation’s mission, our denominational issues today. After smiling at the insouciance of 1915’s vision of the future, what will my take on where we’re going right now sound like in a hundred years? And does that tell me anything about what’s really moving towards wholeness in my plans if I ask it from that point of view?

That’s not exactly taking God’s perspective, but it’s getting closer.

It Was Like This When I Got Here

Rev. Evan Dolive

**Also posted on Sojourners** ( 

A lot has been written about the decline of the mainline church over the years. There are numerous theories have been passed around. Nearly every pew-sitting faithful Christian in America has her or his own opinion. As a minister I have heard a lot of these complaints from the masses; the request is simple. They want the church to be the center of social and political life as it seemed to be in the 1950s and 1960s. They want the pews packed with people, the nursery overflowing with babies, and the church to have the same level of particularity that it did years ago. The church today finds itself having to share time and attention with the rest of the world. Because of this (and numerous other factors), the church for the most part has seen the number of people attending the hallowed halls of a church house begin to decrease.

In an effort to find a culprit for the shrinking size and popularity of church, a scapegoat has been named and they are "young people today” — a catchall term for people under the age of 35 (or thereabouts) who have seemingly left the church en masse.

They are vilified as the sole reason and cause for the church to not be busting at the seams with people. If only those "young people" could just stop being so selfish on Sunday mornings and just come to worship God at 11 a.m. like people have been doing for years, the world might be a better place.

Maybe you have heard some of these gems before:

"Young people today don't care about religion ... unless they can find it on an iPhone."

"Young people today weren't made to come to church and that's why they aren't here."

"I know young people today like contemporary music but I don't care for it."

"Young people today would rather sleep than come worship the Lord."

"Young people today are too busy with sports and extra activities. They are too overextended. If they can put effort into sports, they can put effort into God."

"Young people will spend all day getting ready for a prom or a dance but show up to church in jeans and t-shirt."

The list goes on.

How does a "young person" effectively convey the notion that “the church was like this when I got here?”  

I have met some people who are deeply spiritual, caring, compassionate, loving people, but they don't attend church. But young people for the most part do not have a problem with the church or with Jesus or even with teachings of church. So why the absence on Sunday morning?

For many people, the problem is the people who call themselves Christians but don’t live up to Christian ideals. They say the church focuses on the wrong things; why are some people so acutely aware of the "sins" of others but cannot see the hungry child in their own backyard.

If you want young people in your church, give them something to do. Young people are ready to go, do, serve, be, and extend the ministry of Christ to all people — but they have to a place through which they are able to do so.

There is a drive in young people who want to do something greater than themselves and to give and love, but when it's met with pledge cards, committee meetings, condescending looks for wearing jeans and t-shirts, or saying they have to wait until they are 45 and have three kids to make a difference, then what's the point?  I can worship God in my house or in nature just as easily as I can in a building with stained-glass windows.

Give "young people" the chance to and they will knock your socks off ... I promise. You will see movements of God that you would have missed if you had "stayed the course."

The decline of the church is not my generation's fault. It was in decline long before I was born; it was like this when I got here. But that doesn’t mean it is too far gone. The church does a lot of things right and can still do more.

Let the "young people" lead; let them be the hands and feet of Christ in the world and watch what happens. Listen to their passions, listen to their concerns, and listen to where they feel God is leading them.

It's not "young people's" fault for the decline of the church, but they can surely be a part of the answer.

Keep the faith ... all is not lost.

You can contact Rev. Dolive at

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

The Wooster Report

by Jeff Gill
A beautiful late September morning. In fact, not quite morning.
Like many dads, I wake up just before the alarm, get dressed in the dark, and drive out in pre-dawn murk.
Soon, though, the rising sun slants light through autumnal banks of mist and fog, in valleys and between ridges as the road curves along. An hour, another hour, and all the mysterious haze burns off. Amish buggies and roadside farm markets, community festivals and the occasional detour.
I’m on my way, as I realize I’ve been on so many September or October Saturdays, to a regional or general event where I’ll hear opening announcements, a long introduction, and then a keynoter who usually has a book out recently. And I go, against all evidence to the contrary, in hopes that this time I will hear a speaker who will change the church, whose counsel will uplift and inspire me, a program which will have a relevance to the congregation where I’m serving or the region that I’m part of, so that the sacrifice of this fine day, away from family and leisure and personal preferences, will be blessed with a utility in my ministry.

I'm looking for someone to save us. The old, old story.

That’s been the story, anyhow. Today is a bit different. I’m going because Derek Penwell is speaking in Wooster, for an elder’s workshop. He does, in fact, happen to have a book out (I’m about to buy my third copy, in fact, this one to be inscribed no matter who I have to push aside), and it’s about the state and fate of the church (writ small or large, either way), but I’m not going with any expectations.
Unlike many also heading to this event, I’ve read the book; over the last couple of years I’ve read Derek’s thoughts, and I’m sanguine about the likelihood of him coming up with a panacea, a solution for the parlous state of the mainline church in general or the Disciples of Christ in particular.
And my worry is borne out, to jump ahead a bit, in that the questions and comments from the floor are more than a bit clueless. Yes, I’m tired, I’m frustrated, I’m cranky. I should speak more kindly of my peers and fellow congregational leaders in the Body of Christ.
But seriously, clueless. Clueless as to what’s just been said by the keynoter, and tin-eared as to the challenge of the day even without the framing assembled by the speaker.
On the speaker, a quick note. Derek, you suck at selling your book. People who have books for sale who do programs? They mention the book by title, in full, about every third paragraph. By which I do not mean a rhetorical “every third paragraph,” but I mean each time two paragraphs of content have been spoken, you must invoke your latest title in full during the third. Other books you wrote earlier which may be offered for sale can only have titles name-checked every nine or ten paragraphs, but the new book has to keep getting mentions.
I believe Derek mentioned his book twice, sort of. In three sections of presentation covering almost five hours. And in his on-screen slides? The cover was shown not at all, and I don’t recall even seeing the title mentioned in the graphics at all. Dude.
Sell the book, okay?
Ah, the discussion and the response. The talk could be, cruelly, summed up in the phrase “Love the body you’re in.” Like body image issues from Barbie dolls, or expectations from the Disney Princess cosmos, you can start to jones for a bod not your own, and assume any non-optimal outcome is due to your lack of plastic surgery.
“Love the body you’re in.” Especially when it’s the Body of Christ. So BE the body, and go do things as and with that body/Body, “making the most of the time.” Death is not the worst thing that can happen to a body, so don’t worry about that. Go be the Body.
When the good people of Ohio and the blessed elders of the Christian Churches therein spoke, I confess to being disheartened. Why? Because as is so often the case there were less questions than statements, and the statements were either akin to Kevin Bacon’s character in the climactic scene of “Animal House,” or they were shouting the exceptional exceptions of their preferred aspect of the Body of Christ . . . and insisting that what’s needed is for more church people to “come to us.” The very attractional model Derek had gently critiqued a few moments earlier.
Men, come to men’s events, and all shall be well, or at least better. Youth and older folk who can be counselors, come to camp, and all shall be well, even better. Women, come to women’s stuff, and there we shall find the true path to wellness, or at least betterness. Clergy, come to regional clergy events, and you will have a rich head of full, curly hair, plus your growth in faith and vitality will allow you to facilitate making all things well back home at the congregation’s home place. Cue swelling music and title cards.
Derek was gentle with them, God bless him. He spoke more of the good news and the Boss’ imperatives, aka Jesus the Christ, than did any interlocutor. The audience asked for respect looking back over their achievements, even as the same speakers swiftly and generally condemned social media and tech as not worthy of respect, or use. “Sell it all, and come sit and talk to us.” Rev. Dr. Penwell asked re-directive questions, nudged comments towards the bigger picture, affirmed those speaking out of their own pain, but the reaction to his “and on the other hand” responses was usually more oblivious than appreciative.
“Do what God has gifted you to do where you are, as long as you can” is pretty good counsel. A few prickly rejoinders of “we are, and then some” didn’t outweigh the broader sense that what really struck home was the stark observation “some churches would rather die than make major changes.” That silence was palpable. For reason.
It was a joy for me to meet Derek, editor of Dmergent and all-around good guy and gifted pastor, and former classmate and ongoing friend of my colleague and friend here in Ohio, Rev. Kevin Phipps, whom I got to know through our Commission on Ministry. Kevin and Derek and I have tended to say the same things even before blogs and books and Facebooks confirmed our pre-existing agreements.
But I’d not expected the consensus, at least the vocal consensus, of those in attendance to be so tone-deaf. Derek (or Kevin, or anyone else there) may dispute my account, and it could be circumstances have left me more sardonic and surly than is useful, but every time he’d talk about how we need to not be so needy and clutchy, someone would speak up to sing their own particular song of neediness and clutchtasticism. “If only more people would just come to [insert their preferred program here], things would be better.”
Things will not be better. That’s me, not our speaker, at least not the “official in front of everyone” perspective. We’re in for a winter season in church and faith and culture, and the more we can do to store up some reinforcement, and prepare for a day soon to come, we’ll be ready to survive and gently thrive in a day when our worldview and faith stance will be even more at odds with our surrounding culture than it is right now.
We will, on the other hand, continue to see folks curious to learn what we’re doing, how we do it, and it won’t even be unusual to have some of them come in over weekends to work on projects. But we just can’t count on major church growth through that time. Denominations and regions and most congregations are simply not going to grow over the next ten years or so.
How will we deal with this reality? There are paths forward in this dark wood, but picking the right ones, and not ending up walking past good campsites and off of cliff edges, is going to take some eyes-open, shared perspective, candid-discussioned, reality-based communication. If we’re focused on waiting our turn to make a speech on behalf of our own preferred identity group, we’re going right over and down without even a Wile E. Coyote pinwheeling moment in defiance of gravity.
On the other hand, if we look honestly at ourselves and what each of our congregations and commissions can do to declare the good news of God’s love, proclaimed in our actions and our service, there’s quite future ahead for us. It might be a future that ends in a blaze of “well, how ‘bout that!” . . . but that’s better than “whatever happened to the Disciples, anyhow?”
“They sure went out in a blaze of glory” doesn’t sound that bad in comparison. Plus, we already know that the end of the story is a little further on down the road.