The shrinking church: What's to be done?

Have you ever been a part of a church? Maybe as a kid with your parents? If you’re like me, maybe you left because you were afraid of what other church members would think of you now that they know your secret. Maybe, like me, you were afraid of God. Maybe you were hurt, let down, betrayed, abandoned or pushed out by your church. Maybe, when you needed the church the most, no one was there to help. Maybe you’re just sick of the hypocrisy - preaching love, forgiveness and mercy but withholding those very things from anyone deemed “lost”, unrepentant or undeserving.

You’re not alone. In fact, ever since I was a kid growing up in a small church, I’ve heard a common sentiment repeated over and over again. I've heard it at every church I've been a part of and it won’t surprise anyone: “We want to grow our congregation, but there’s a mass exodus of people leaving the church.”

This is followed by grim determination (or a desperate wringing of hands) and rehashing of common brainstorm proposals: 1) mimic what mega churches are doing with coffee shops & rec centers, 2) host Christian rock concerts to attract young people, 3) add “contemporary” or “praise” services to shake off the cobwebs and 4) flood the local community with a slew of a new branding and mass-marketing materials (like slick mailers, spiffy logos, catchy ads, social media blasts, etc).

Yet none of this stuff seems to be working. People are not flocking back to church. Membership continues to flatline (or drop), giving tapers off and the head-scratching continues.

I think all of this stuff is well-intentioned. And there’s nothing wrong with adding new things, mixing up worship, reimagining who we are and branching out into new ministries. We feel better when we make a plan, pick a direction, take action, shape our own destiny. But we’re overcomplicating the solution - because none of this stuff is it. These things are band-aid distractions in response to “we-have-to-do-something”. Yet none of it can staunch the blood-letting.


If we put a pin in all our well-intentioned distractions and listen closely, we already know WHAT to do. We already know HOW to do it. And it hasn’t really changed in 2,000+ years.
  • Get skin in the game. Jesus took real action to meet the needs of people in desperate need. He didn’t pay other people to do it for him, and he didn’t screen the masses to weed out the undeserving. Jesus went out, got his hands dirty and met people where they were with food, healing and hope. He calls his followers to do the same thing. If we want to attract people to Jesus’ message, we must live Jesus’ example and put our own skin in the game. We have to leave the safety of home (and church), take a risk and give of ourselves. We have to get our hands dirty and bring relief, healing and hope to the marginalized, desperate and hopeless in our local community. This is not a “someday when we’re ready” or “if they deserve it” kind of thing. This is everyday life with everyone we meet everywhere we go.
     
  • Authentically practice what we preach. Jesus’ sheep follow his voice, but they run from a stranger’s voice. If we preach about Jesus but fail to radically live out Jesus’ example in our daily lives, guess what? We are that stranger and Jesus’ sheep will flee from us. They don’t belong to us, they belong to him. They will flock to the places where what they see matches what they hear from Jesus. That means admitting and rooting out our hypocrisy, fostering inclusive communities without barriers, cracking open our hearts to love the people who oppose us and devoting our lives to service. Those illusive young people that churches are always trying to woo? They’ve got highly attuned BS detectors and aren’t interested in joining in religious ritual that isn’t matched by authentic action.
     
  • Share the good news with ALL people. The good news is simple: God loves you. The proof is that while we are unworthy, God sends his son Jesus, not to condemn us, but to save us. That’s the message. Not ten commandments. Not twenty creeds. Not ninety-five thesis. Not the Augsburg Confession. Not our political persuasion. Not “5 ways to be a better Christian”. Or ultimatums, threats of damnation or a litany of required convictions. The message is simple so stop overcomplicating this, and trust God to grow what's planted.

    In order for us to be eager to share this good news, we first must grasp why it’s life-altering, turn-my-world-upside-down, this-is-all-that-matters good news. We have to grasp it not with our heads, in a religiousy, cerebral way. But grasp the impact with our hearts. Then, like the early apostles, we too are transformed from despair and fear (desperately trying to shield our safe, comfortable lives) into fearless, joyful witnesses who cannot contain our need to share this good news. When our fearless joy and love is radically visible in our lives, neighbors, coworkers, family and friends take notice. We become the aroma of Christ’s good news.
     
  • Model radical love within the congregation. It’s not enough to know what love is - it must thrive and produce visible fruit within the congregation. Love is patient, kind, gentle, self-controlled. Love keeps no record of wrongs. Love doesn’t insist on its own way. If love is thriving, it is simultaneously choking out crippling weeds: fear, back-biting, malicious gossip, grudges, infighting, revenge, scheming, slander, factions and divisiveness. People outside the congregation are watching, forming conclusions and spreading the word about our crop of fruit or weeds. Guests and new members are tentatively grasping for this love - and moving on if they don’t authentically experience it.

Attracting new members and growing the body of Christ doesn’t hinge on contemporary music, artisan coffee or programs to woo the young people. It doesn’t depend on sophisticated strategies, the hipness of the pastor or deep church coffers. There’s nothing wrong with that stuff, but it’s how we distract ourselves from the truth: WE ARE IT. You and I are hands and feet of Christ. We are his chosen instruments. We are the aroma of God’s love wafting into the community, attracting new people. It’s each one of us, living out our everyday lives with radical fearlessness and wastefully extravagant love. It’s not up to just the hired guns. Or the leadership we elect. It’s not just the young energetic people or the retirees with spare time or the people with disposable income or the single people or the people with families. It's each of us, each day. You and me, living as God purposed us - we are the magic bullet.

And that’s really good news too. We’re not helpless, floundering, without purpose. We have a purpose, we know what it is and we’re already equipped to do it! To put our skin in the game, to practice what we preach, to reek of good news, to model undeserved love. If you’re anything like me, then we all have a lot of opportunities to grow in each of these areas. And we don’t need a strategic 5-year plan, visionary leadership, creative capital campaigns or a flood of new members breaking down our doors to get started. We can start right now. That’s it. That’s all. There is nothing else to wait for.

Comments

  1. It’s also important to remember that it is not things we do in our own strength but the Holy Spirit working in us and thru us

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