The church is dying! My life in professional ministry began in 1990. People said, “the best days of the church are over.” I was ordained in The United Methodist Church in 2005. Again, everyone was saying, “The church needs revival.” And now people are anxious the church is dying. In every decade, people claim to know why this tragedy is occurring. Ideas for programs are proposed. And year after year, church people wring their hands over “things not being like they used to be.” We try to make it better. And it does not get better. What is wrong?
The Imitation Method
We celebrated and then tried to imitate the success story churches only to find out our congregations were not like those churches. Now we learn that the churches that were success stories really were not. A cartoon I saw in the bulletin at an Episcopal Church illustrated the problem well. Four people compose the meeting of the vestry. The clergy person says, “We will now take up the proposal that we become a mega-church.” The congregation is in one of three situations. It consists of only four people. Or only four people take responsibility for the ministries of the church. Maybe it has four people holding onto all the power.
Success story churches report themselves as successes. And they report the reason(s) for their apparent growth. The problem is no one is objectively looking at the situation. Even researchers trying to be objective enter the study with a biased idea of success. Then they embark on a course of interviews where the people in the know give their perspective. The researcher then builds a story of success from the subjective data. No one really learns anything.
Unacknowledged Agendas for Dying
Every person or group claiming to know the cause of the death of the church has an agenda. The agenda is their proposed solution. If the solution brings them money, power, or both, then we know they have an interest in keeping the dying church message out there. The leaders in my denomination promote new books and seminars that promise a solution. When we buy into the dying church message, we fall right in line with learning the new idea. Yet, many congregational leaders know better. They know what their home church is willing to do and what they will buy into.
These agendas cause more harm in two ways. First, they reinforce the message that Christianity is dying in our culture. Second, they promote methods people know cannot really be applied. There is a third harm caused. They destroy church leaders. The one’s claiming to know the answer take no responsibility for the results. Then some go and create new answers.
The Church is Declining
The influence of the church is declining. The numbers of people and ministries done by the churches are declining. Simply stated, the church is declining by ever measurement that the church never should have been using. Congregations organize in the ways of the predominant culture. Catholicism and Orthodoxy both resemble their conformity to the Renaissance and Byzantine power structures. Protestant churches came with the rise of nation-states and organize like their respective countries. The United Methodist Church organized in the United States and includes a written constitution of three distinct branches of church government.
Churches of the latter 20th and 21st centuries reorganized differently. They are capitalist institutions organized as corporations. They are both blamed for and expected to perform as corporations. So, the data that is reported are income and traffic. Measuring the success of the congregation is based on these things. As one colleague says, “The amount of time I spend counseling a member of the congregation or preparing lessons and sermons is not even considered in gauging my effectiveness as a pastor.”
The Church Is Changing Not Dying
Christianity is not dying. It is changing as the culture is changing. And it faces the same struggles as the general culture. Both “we” progressives and “those” traditionalists almost comically claim the other side is conforming to culture rather than “transforming” it. The culture is transforming. We just don’t know what it is going to look like in the end. As the culture struggles over issues of race, authoritarianism, sexuality, and the idea of rights, so the church struggles over these issues.
Old models of doing business changed in the late 20th century. New models for businesses emerged. Congregations lived or died just as businesses did. Ideas about how time is used changed too. And so did how churches went about ministries. We are in yet another change we can neither avoid nor overcome. People will do what they will do.
I can only guess what the new modes of church will be. My guess is the electronic church will matter more. But the local church will continue to be how ministry is organized. The local church will not look the same. Our old ways of measuring effectiveness will also change. But the church will not die.