I recently read a couple of blog posts by James Nored that really made me think, and inspired me to say some things I’ve wanted to say for a long time. You can read the posts here: Part 1 Part 2 (My friends who attend Churches of Christ will find these posts especially interesting)
While I would argue with some of his suggestions (some are too “one-size-fits-all”), his basic premise is right on target – that the Church of Christ is declining (dying?), and desperately needs to change. I recently stepped away from full time ministry after almost 19 years of working with Churches of Christ, so I have seen this first hand. (Note: This is not limited to Churches of Christ. Most churches are struggling and declining, for many of the same reasons)
I started to recognize these things a few years ago. I saw how high school graduates went off to college and rarely came back to our church – even if they lived nearby. I witnessed our inability to reach those in the 18-30 year old age group. Every August we would have a few students from the local college visit our church when they arrived at school as freshmen. They would visit once, or twice – and then we would never see them again. With few exceptions, we were unable to reach young families.
Seeing this, I made some attempts to better accommodate the upcoming generation, so that we could reach them. I suggested some minor changes in our worship services, tried to introduce some new programs, and sought to help us adapt to a rapidly changing culture. Almost all of my attempts were quickly shot down. The reason? It made long-time members uncomfortable. As Nored says in his blog post:
When push comes to shove, we would rather keep church the way that it has always been than to make changes that would help us reach or retain these generations. As one of my preacher friends says, “In almost every case in all of our churches, tradition trumps mission.”
Did you hear that? “Tradition Trumps Mission.” That’s a big part of the problem – and the reason that the vast majority of churches are declining and dying. And it’s going to continue (if you keep doing the same thing, you will get the same results). If you want the message of Jesus to have a greater impact on our culture, this should greatly concern you. Where will your church be in 30 years when most of the older folks are gone?
I don’t have all the answers, but I know a couple of things that will help. First, we’ve got to make an effort to better understand our culture – how people around us think, what drives them, what are their struggles, what are their values, why do they think the way they do, what are their needs, what do they think of Christians and organized religion, etc. It’s crazy to think we can have an influence on people if we don’t know or understand them. Our world has changed immensely in just the last 10 years, not to mention the last 40. We may not like that, and we may lament some of the changes that have taken place – but it has happened. Wringing our hands and complaining about it will NOT help. To borrow a principle from Steven Covey’s book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, we must seek first to understand, then to be understood. Only when we understand our culture can we begin to appropriately respond to it and have an impact. Talk to people in your community — make friends, get involved in community organizations. Meet with college age people and young families. Listen to them and learn from them. Invite people to visit your church and give their honest critiques (some of the things they say will be difficult to hear, but it will give you valuable insight). Try to find out what your church’s reputation is in the community.
Secondly, have the courage to make needed changes. Most churches have changed very little in the past 30 years – and the changes that have taken place are minor and mostly cosmetic (the use of video projectors, PowerPoint, some contemporary songs, a small group ministry, etc.) – despite the fact that our world has gone through drastic changes. To do something simply because “We’ve always done that,” is foolish and counter-productive. Let me give you an example from the last church with which I worked. We had a Sunday evening service that was basically a shortened version of the Sunday morning service. There may have been a time when that service was effective, well-attended, and met a need. But not anymore. Attendance was terrible and had dwindled to almost nothing. It really served no good purpose (other than to make people feel good that we were doing what we had always done). I suggested a change to small groups on Sunday evenings – and even showed statistics that more people were likely to be involved and it would help us to be more effective in reaching our community. I suggested that those who wished to meet at the building for a “regular” service on Sunday evenings could still do so. But the idea was disregarded. Some members would be upset, I was told. So we continued to do what we had always done. Here’s a lesson we desperately need to learn: The purpose of the church is not to keep long-time, set-in-their-ways members happy and content. And when we make that a priority, the real mission of the church is hindered.
There is no “one-size-fits-all” in this. Every church and every local community is different – and what works somewhere else, may not work for you. But we MUST do whatever it takes to better understand our world, and have the courage and commitment to make needed and long overdue changes in our churches to better address the needs all around us. I know this is scary, because many of the people who oppose any changes are the ones who give the most money. But it’s time to step out in faith, trusting in God, and to stop being held hostage by those who threaten to withhold their offering.
There’s more I could say, but this is long enough! Perhaps, I will pen a Part Two. I’m interested in your thoughts on this – let’s have a good discussion in the comments. But please be respectful and kind. Hateful, mean-spirited and condemning comments will not be tolerated.