By Tim Brown
Amidst the hand-wringing going on in churches these days over empty pews and the supposed death-knell of American Christianity there are still pockets of mainline churches growing steadily. I’m not talking about those “quickstant” congregations that form and grow quickly in an instant. I’m talking about those established faith communities who remain on a steady path of growth and health. There are reasons for this growth, just as there are reasons that churches decline.
American Christianity is crowded. There is a re-balancing going on. It’s a system looking for stasis. Great books have been written about this (of particular note is The Great Emergence by recently deceased wonder-woman Phyllis Tickle. Buy it, be encouraged, be inspired, and be prepared to change the way you do and see things). But these books have had a hard time settling into the pews of the average, aging, mainline church.
Let me be clear: I think there is a place for those congregations within the body of Christ. I don’t think that quickstant congregations are providing food for all of a hungering humanity, and often I find that people who eat from that buffet make their way down the line and into our congregation wanting something more…substantial.
But it is true (and has become one of my mantras): people will put up with crappy theology for good programming. And they will because, at the end of the day, at the end of the Beth Moore Bible Study where they’ve really only found one thought helpful in the half-hour buttons that they’re not sure they can swallow (though the company was good and the treats were tasty), after that sermon by that pastor where fear of the “______ agenda” (choose your favorite boogeyman, from either side of the spectrum) was trumpeted, they’ll go home and still think what they want to think.
They’ll still believe what they want to believe.
When I say “programming,” I know you’re thinking of clubs and initiatives and activities. And that’s part of it. But I’m talking more about a general feeling, a general ambiance, a general approach to life and ministry and the work of God in the world. I’m not talking about struggling churches needing to “do” more, necessarily. I’m talking about struggling churches needing to change the way they are experienced more.
When I look around, I see three main reasons (plus one more) that people aren’t joining your church.
1. There’s no reason to. You’ve made it too “easy.” There’s no impetus. I hear congregation members say all the time, “It’s so easy to join! Just show up at this Saturday class.” And at that Saturday class you’re pumped with information about the history of the church, the particular denomination, how you can join the altar guild and teach Sunday School, and all you really want to do is figure out how any of that is going to help you deepen your spiritual life. No, seriously, that’s the problem. You think you’re aiding the process by making things quick and simple, when really people (especially folks in their 20-30’s like me) want a process of formation. We want something more ancient than “sign on the dotted line.” That means nothing to us. We’ve done that with every school loan, with every car payment, with every other obligation that is now simple and easy to do with a swipe of the finger or a click of the button.
In reality, I’m post-membership when it comes to churches. At the basest level, it’s just a form of counting. But if membership means an invitation to study the mystery of faith deeply, to put some skin in the game with time and talent and treasure, to enter into a process of formation over the next few months whereby we’ll openly discuss the tenets of faith…for as time-consuming as it sounds, it also sounds like something that will fend off the feeling of being consumed by time that I currently have, allowing me to set aside moments for spiritual study.
2. Your church is depressed. You hear it in the singing. You hear it in the reading. You see it on the outdated website that is still announcing Christmas services in late March. You see it on the faces of the long-time members who look at you during the sharing of the peace, wondering if you, too, will head out the door and never return…you with your young face, your energy, your desire, your passion.
One of my first preaching gigs before being called to a full-time church was at a little church in a first-ring suburb. The parking lot was overgrown. I couldn’t figure out where the front door was because all of the signage had faded. I walked in and through the church, was met by an elderly woman who handed me the check for my work…which I immediately wanted to give back because, when I saw the 7 people who came to services that day (including me and my wife and the pianist!) I knew they needed the money more than me. The place was depressed. The floor was depressed. There were cobwebs in the balcony, evidence no one had been through there in ages. I heard the elderly woman mention to another woman about how there had been a fight over worship styles a decade ago. This was what was left: a church who didn’t show scars, but still open and bleeding wounds.
It would not grow. It was depressed.
3. You do nothing well. Yeah, that sounds harsh. Go with me for a moment. We live in a time where excellence is highly desired. Gone are the days when the organist could flub a few notes and everyone would chuckle to themselves and say, “That’s just Millie…” Gone are the days when a pastor, clearly unprepared, could live off the grace of a congregation and recycle that sermon from three years ago.
Now, I hear you: good communities extend good grace, and we shouldn’t celebrate the fact that those days are gone with too much fanfare. It is an indication of a lack of tolerance on humanity’s part. But the church that fails to recognize that “making it nice” is as important as good theology is one that fails to see what is on the minds of the people who come through the door. Yes, the community will draw them in eventually. But they have to come back multiple times for that to happen, and to even come back a second time takes intentionality on everyone’s part.
What is your church good at, by the way? Is it stellar preaching? A great music program? Youth and family programs? Service? Christian education? If you can’t name what it is currently known for, then it is not known.
I once interviewed at a church who told me that they “were the friendly church.” I applauded their self-identity, but knew it wasn’t enough. You can be the friendliest baker around, yet if those cakes aren’t good, I’m just not coming back. Likewise, just being “big” is not an identity, either. Big churches struggle, too. Cultivating skill for a community is freeing. It’s freeing because it gives you purpose again. Yes, the church’s main purpose is to praise God and make Christ known. But knowing your preferred medium can focus your energies in a way that breathes life into your common existence. I promised one more…
4. You don’t matter. Again, go with me here…tough pill, tough wording, throw down your defenses, I’m trying to get your attention. This relates to #3, but it deserves to stand on its own. Your current membership may see the benefit to this community’s existence; they’ve got strong bonds here. But do others who aren’t on the inside see it? Your theology isn’t relevant. You’re either ignoring the world or providing too many answers that just don’t ring true with experience. With a globalized world, the preacher must talk about current events. And, I would add, not in a way that provides answers, but provides launching points for discussion. Because folks my age can Google most anything. The beauty of the Google for us is that we’re provided with a list of articles, links, memes, images. No direct answers there, just opportunities to engage lenses in that search for truth. Churches that have turned into answer-machines may be popular for a while, but it just takes that one person meeting that other person who they really like but who differs from them to start that de-conversion process. Likewise, churches that ignore the world aren’t giving us any context for spirituality.
“If heaven is the goal, then approach me right before death. What? I don’t know when that will be? Well, I’ll just take my chances then.”
That’s actually the mindset (and I don’t think heaven is the “goal,” btw).
Jesus walked in a world with political, social, economic, and spiritual forces at play. We, too, walk in a world with all of these forces. Jesus engaged them. Are you really telling me that the church can’t or shouldn’t? Add to that the fact that your church doors are always locked and largely only used on Sundays, and why bother? Yes, God will still deserve praise, but that church down the street that actively lets people use their space and engages the world does it better than you, and people will just head down there.
If this is you (and be honest…it’s OK to arrive at this spot…all living things die eventually) then do the hard, tough, but faithful thing and sell your building, giving the money to the poor or to plant another church. Jesus tells the rich man in Mark 10 to do this. Perhaps the church rich in property can hear that as themselves. Or are we too attached?
Let’s be honest with one another. I really do think that this can, at the very least, be a starting point for analyzing what a faith community is facing when numbers are dwindling, expenses are the same, and there is a genuine desire to impact people’s lives with the story of God’s work through the Christ.
And let’s also be honest: big isn’t always better. If your church is one going for more intimacy, smallness, embrace it! Jesus gathered twelve around him; small by design is not bad or wrong by any means.
But there are some real reasons that people aren’t joining, aren’t coming back; real reasons why they’re choosing that church down the street. I think these are some. Any more?
Tim Brown is pastor of Luther Memorial Church of Chicago. His website, Reluctant Christian, features blogs that challenge Christian leaders.