Thursday, February 24, 2011

    Are we dying?

    Several days ago, the National Council of Churches released a new report stating that while non-denominational churches are growing, mainline denominational churches (like the one I serve) are dying. Here is a brief summary of the article.

    Of course, I don't find this news to be exactly reassuring. I think this is an issue that needs to be addressed for both non-denominational and mainline churches. Here are just a few of my reflections, I would love to hear what you think as well.
    • Growth cannot be measured solely by numbers. Numbers are important. Numbers show trends. But, as we have discussed before, spiritual growth cannot be measured simply by numerical growth. Just because a church increases and decreases numerically, does not mean it is or is not living to its full potential.
    • The institutional past, may not be the best indicator for what the church should be. This report seems to suggest that mainline churches need to look like they did fifty years ago. There is no doubt that half a century ago, many mainline churches were flourishing. Yet in recent years churches like my denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), are in a major decline. For example, in the CC (DOC) 63% of its churches are in a decline and almost half (47%) report having fewer that sixty people in worship on Sunday morning. Even so, are the "glory days" of the past the best way to judge our future? We can't forget that for several centuries the concept of a church was best defined as a house church--small numbers of individuals gathering in each other's homes.
    • There is a need to be more ecumenical. I am always amazed by how many churches there are in the yellow pages (yes, I do occasionally still look at a phone book). Yet, I am equally amazed at how little effort there is for the local churches to reach beyond their church walls. What would it look like if churches really did join together for mission and ministry? Can you imagine what it would be like in your city if everyone met just once a year at one location to celebrate that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ?
    • We shouldn't label ourselves as Methodists, Disciples, Presbyterians, Non-Denominational, etc. We are first and foremost Christians. It's true, I am a member of a particular denomination. I have chosen a denomination where I feel welcomed, loved, and challenged. But we have to remember that our denomination does not identify us as a particular Christian. We are first Christian in the truest sense of the word.
    • Youth Ministry can lead as an example for how today's church should look. For the most part I believe that youth are not at all concerned about what denomination they, or their friends, do or do not belong to. In mission trips, youth rallies, concerts, everyone joins together to celebrate the goodness of God. The challenge we face today is to help our youth realize now that to be a Christian is not to identify with a particular denomination.


    Calvin Park said...

    Jacob, your last point is interesting. I'm the Director of Youth at a sizable PC(USA) church in the D.C. area. Just a few days ago I was giving a student a ride home, and he and I had a great conversation. The conversation basically revolved around his opinion (with which I agree) that denominations are ok, but what really matters is that we worship Jesus.

    This certainly confirms, at least anecdotally, your contention that students could care less about denominations. In fact, the student I was talking with pretty much said that.

    Jacob said...

    Hi Calvin,

    Thank you for sharing.

    This is a perfect example of youth setting the goal for what we should all work towards.

    Anonymous said...

    Thanks for addressing this, Jacob. Numbers aren't everything, but when we ignore them, we ignore a valid tool. And when we see widespread changes in numbers either way, we really should take a second look and ask, "why?"

    To be frank, my assessment of why many mainline denominations are seeing large decreases in numbers is a lack of focus on the person of Jesus. Note that I didn't say a lack of a particular system of theology, a particular view of Scripture, a particular style of worship, or a particular view on the "hot button" issues of our day. Yes, there are several factors, but by and large, I believe the decline can be traced back to making it about something other than Jesus. This is true whether a church is liberal, conservative, reformed, charismatic, or otherwise.

    Here's why I say that:

    Jesus not only died on the cross, he taught that to follow him is a life of radical, self-sacrificial discipleship. I believe that when we give people something other than Jesus, they can see that there's not much purpose in what we're serving up. I've been guilty of that in my own teaching from time to time. The people who are really seeking--no matter their background or objections to Jesus--are drawn to Jesus' demands of discipleship. They want to be challenged. When we give them anything less, they walk away.

    Simplistic answer? Maybe. I realize there are other factors, but I'm putting my money on the above as the primary reason.

    Just_Jon said...

    My kids who have parents that feel strongly about the denomination,don't care much for it. The ones whose parents don't feel strongly at all, could care less. I think it would be alright to say that this generation doesn't care to be labeled... With that mindset though, there are great things and things that will take much work to use for the kingdom. Obviously they aren't exclusive and are more compassionate than kids when I was a teenager. However they are more prone to follow anything that seems genuine or real, which makes our jobs harder. They are ready and willing to follow someone or some cause, they just want to be able to pick what that cause is or who that person is themselves. That's my two cents. The church will most definitely be looking to this generation to solve the church growth problem across most denominations. -Just Jon

    Jacob said...

    Benjer, I think you are exactly right. The cost of discipleship, and truly following Jesus, is not an easy task. So, I guess the question might be: How do we get people, including ourselves, to step up to the challenge?

    Just Jon...these are good points. Labels are definitely not wanted with this generation of youth. But I think it is hard for anyone, especially youth, to distinguish what is and is not real.

    Anonymous said...


    I think we model it first, and then we don't shy away from teaching what Jesus taught. This past September, we started a two-year journey through the Gospel of Mark with our high school students, and it's been cool to just take a serious look at Jesus. Almost every week, the text causes me to reiterate, "Following Jesus is hard." Sometimes I think we as youth workers like topical teaching (which we still do from time to time) so much because then we get to pick the easy stuff to work through with students and families.

    Heather said...

    I am an ordained pastor of a UCC church in Boulder. Our 900 member church isn't so much "dying" as we are "maintaining", which actually feels like growth. Most of the people in our pews didn't grow up UCC. They could care less about denomination. They just want a rockin' ministry for the kids while they listen to pretty organ music and an inspiring word for an hour. The only mainline folks that I know are true to their denomination are the ELCA peeps. God bless 'em.

    In response to Benjer's comments, I say, "Amen." The non-denominational, evangelical churches never apologize for their focus on Jesus. The mainlines shouldn't either. I just came back from maternity leave and while I was on leave, I decided to check out a church outside of Denver that is the 8th fastest growing church in America. It was a thrilling experience, I have to admit. My husband and I felt challenged, as Benjer said, to live a life that follows Jesus. Every week, there was an "application" to the message, which meant we had homework (if we chose to accept it) to do when we left. Some of the challenges were harder than others. I even saw couples having intense conversations in their cars after church. (If only my sermons had that much influence on people's lives.) The challenges stuck with me the rest of the week. Man, those evangelical are good at getting specific!!

    But before I give the non-denoms too much credit and give us no credit, there are big flaws with the big church experience. What the non-denoms AREN'T good at is healing the brokenness that they've caused their own people (i.e., casting gay people out of the church). This is the deal breaker for me. On top of that, after 8 weeks of attending a church, I was still anonymous. No one knew me and I knew no one. If I broke my leg, no one from that church would send over a casserole. We love the comfort of casseroles in the mainline.

    For whatever reason, God hasn't killed off the mainlines in favor of the large church experience. (Not yet, anyway.) Perhaps the mainlines exist for a smaller, more intimate experience of the Divine. And maybe we exist to act as MASH units, putting people back together after they've been clobbered by a past church experience. Maybe the mainlines are the "Cheers" of church where everyone knows your name. I believe it's important to be known in your community of faith. (Wow. Did I just use two TV shows from the '70's and '80's as examples? I'm too Gen X to be a youth pastor.)

    Anyway, this is an issue that is in the air. But before we all try to "fix" the problem by starting edgy, candlelit Emergent Churches, let's look at the people who show up every week and ask them what they need. If they are being fed, then maybe they will be more likely to invite.