Monday, November 15, 2010

Addressing Church Decline

In the wake of recently released statistics on baptized membership and average Sunday attendance in the Episcopal Church (fast facts here), I read with interest a newspaper article entitled "Methodists face shrinking roles [sic]." According to the article, "The [Methodist] church has lost 2.89 million members in the United States since 1970, dropping to 7.8 million today."

The article says that the Methodist response to ongoing decline is threefold: "Better pastors. Healthier churches. Less bureaucracy." Regardless of denominational affiliation, I'm sure that all of us would like to see that happening in our churches!

But the question is how to achieve it. There's an unavoidable tension for most mainline churches between shifting into a full-blown mission focus on the one hand, and the maintenance needs of aging church buildings, clergy and lay staff compensation (with sky-rocketing health insurance costs), other bureaucratic needs, etc. Is it really possible to be simultaneously mission-minded and maintenance-minded? Or must we make some difficult, painful decisions about the maintenance side of church life? As I've noted in a previous posting, one of my clergy colleagues puts it like this: "This is about life or death. Choose mission or die." But perhaps choosing mission also requires a kind of death as the only way to new life.

Some think that the solution is to get more people into our churches. We should focus our evangelism efforts on growing our membership and average Sunday attendance. Certainly, such growth can be a sign of vitality. But the vitality that comes with more people showing up at church is not necessarily the same thing as genuine Christian formation. We cannot assume that church attendance equals discipleship.

Along those lines, I'm struck by another part of the newspaper article about the Methodists:

Some critics say the focus on growing membership goes too far. Thomas E. Frank, professor of religious leadership at Wake Forest University, said developing better Christians, not more churchgoers, should be the goal.

"I am concerned about a creeping theology that says what's important is to get people into the church," he said.

Dan Dick, Methodist blogger and former researcher for the Methodists' Nashville-based General Board of Discipleship, agreed. "If we don't know what to do with the ... people we already have, there's no reason to believe that we'll do any better with another million people."

Dan makes an important point, particularly in light of tendencies towards failing Christianity within many mainline churches. Answering the question, "How can we grow?" is not sufficient. Nor is growth itself. We need to also answer the question, "Why should we grow?" Which, in turn, presupposes an answer to the question, "Why does the Church exist in the first place?"


Anonymous said...

Bryan, you are, I think, asking the right questions. I have no answers but have begun wondering whether the Church must become smaller. One thing that only the Church can do is spiritual formation, the healing of the soul that leads to theosis. My own prejudice is that spiritual formation needs to be established and strengthened as the center of parish life. I suspect that as we become more focused on forming lives and ask more of our parishioners we may grow smaller in numbers. Formation is hard work. The harvest is plentiful but the laborers few.

Peace, Mike+

Joe Rawls said...

I agree with Mike+, especially his implication that we must do more with less before we can realistically expect to grow in numbers again. (Easy for me to say, of course, since my pension will come from Verizon and not the Church Pension Fund!)

Bryan Owen said...

Mike, I agree with Joe that you're probably right. It may be inevitable that the Church will become smaller as we continue to shift into an increasingly post-Christian, anti-institutional religion culture. If decline continues, many who are financially supported by dying religious institutions will have to make costly sacrifices.

plsdeacon said...

The Church is the Body of Christ - indeed - it can be said to be the continuation of the Incarnation. The problem is that, for too many years, we have treated "membership" in the Church in the same way we treat "membership" in Rotary Club or some other civic organization. We have failed to teach - both to the laity and to the clergy - the meaning of member as "limb."

Additionally, we (as a body) often don't know who Jesus is. We suppose him to be somone like us who holds our own prejudices and desires and opinions. We work to make him like us (thus inverting the direction of Christian growth). As a church, our basic fights are not over sexuality, but over ecclesiology - what is the Church. Too often we have answered that fight with a the answer that the Church is whatever I (or we) decide to make it. Our Ecclesiology is a reflection of our Christology. If our Ecclesiology is deficient (and I submit that TEC's is), it is because our Christology is deficient.

How can the clergy better form Disciples of Jesus Christ when the are not sure who he is to begin with? How can the Church form clergy to be living icons of Jesus Christ if the Church doesn't know who Jesus is?

To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to become an apprentice of his. To understand who Jesus is, we need to look to the Church's record of who he is - both in the teaching of the Church and in the Holy Scriptures.

Phil Snyder

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for a thoughtful comment, Phil. Do you plan to become more active on your blog anytime soon?

plsdeacon said...

I wish I had time. Between my "day job" and my family and Kairos and my new congregation I just don't have enough time.

I have been posted as the Deacon at a congregation that recently went through a schism where the Rector took the congregation from 400/250 Membership/ASA down to about 50/25 and then left with that 25. I've been tasked with helping rebuild and revitalize.

Please pray for the congregation of Trinity in Dallas and for Neal our Vicar and for me - that we would hear God and align our visions of Trinity's life with God's vision.

Phil Snyder

Bryan Owen said...

Prayers there shall be, Phil!

In the midst of all that God calls you to do and be, and how busy and crazy it can sometimes become, I hope you can find time to blog. The wider Church needs your voice!

C. Wingate said...

Two years ago I did an analysis of the Red Book numbers which suggested that the principal source of ECUSA numbers decline is people leaving. and perhaps specifically middle-aged people leaving. Of course our friends in San Joaquin, Ft. Worth, and Pittsburgh aren't exactly helping this.