- Conservative Theology – When people see churches in decline an easy assessment is that these churches are no longer in step with the larger culture. That’s actually not a growth inhibiter. How can we tell? Churches that are much more conservative are booming! Overwhelmingly, the fastest growing congregations and the largest mega-churches have exclusively male leadership structures, do not affirm GLBT persons, and teach something on par with sola-scripture (or “sola-reforma,” which I made up to describe Driscoll, Piper and their mean-spirited gang). I’m not arguing the propriety or impropriety regarding these issues. They are just not growth issues. By the way, these fast-growing churches are overwhelmingly homogenous. I’m in drastic disagreement with homogenous churches, but that’s not a growth issue either.
Now, let’s visit some reasons why Churches of Christ are declining. Again, these are anecdotal (yet consistent) and in no particular order.
- Leadership. Most preachers and church leaders outside of Churches of Christ are quick to affirm that preaching in Churches of Christ, as a whole, is stronger than in any other group. When asked why we aren’t growing, leaders from some of the most innovative and well-known churches in America say, “Leadership.” They suggest that elder-led churches have a low ceiling. The reasons (again, this is what they say): (1) elders prefer peace over growth; (2) elders are volunteers doing what they can in their spare time; (3) the ministers who are trained and studied and professional can’t do anything without elders looking over their shoulders; and (4) elders don’t define what is and is not their job. This isn’t just a problem in churches of Christ, but it occurs in lots of non-profit boards. The outside assessment of leaders in growing churches isn’t that Churches of Christ have bad leadership; they say we have none. Where there is no vision the people perish. This is not to bash elders or ministers, but to highlight the fact that we exist in a flawed system. And yes there are other was to practice the design of New Testament leadership. You need look no farther than Christian Churches.
- Utilitarian. We are typically utilitarian to a fault. Remember when praise teams first came on the scene. “Why do we need 4 song leaders?,” people cried. There was not appreciation for enhancing our singing and making what was good into something powerful and moving. The same thing happened when churches introduced screens, PowerPoints, videos, skits, etc…. All something had to do was function. Think I’m wrong? Look around most of our church buildings. Beauty was not part of the planning! My first office was an old unused classroom. And that has been the case for many people. The impulse behind many of our decisions has always been, “That’ll be good enough.” The problem is that this utilitarian impulse, from the planning of the worship service to class teaching, etc…communicates this to our friends and neighbors: “These folks don’t take this all that seriously.” My heart was wrecked in my first year of ministry when a parent who attended a different church said of our congregation, “Look how poorly you all take care of things.” These are theological failures as well. When given stewardship of something, the call on our lives is to do our best with it, not do “good enough.” What would happen to your church if your church leaders took seriously the idea that all people are made in the image of God and designed everything in your environment to treat them as such? God created us to be attracted to good and beautiful things. Read the Psalms for goodness sake. In beautiful things we see God.
- Stinginess. Churches of Christ largely don’t give and don’t encourage their members to give. Growing up in Churches of Christ I never heard a sermon on tithing. Never. The only sermons about money weren’t sermons at all. They were reports from the head of the finance team telling us about the “make up” Sunday that was coming up. As I’ve said before, why would God trust a church with what is most precious to Him (people), when we don’t trust Him with what is most important to us (our money). At this level, it’s a faith issue. On another level, it’s a practical issue. When the church doesn’t have as many resources as it needs, it can’t do the kind of ministry is should do to reach its community. I’ve been on the inside of ministry for a while now. Most churches are trying to proclaim the Kingdom with about 20% of the resources their congregations should be giving. Churches that are growing are not necessarily rich churches, but they are giving churches.
- Over Ask & Under Develop. My church experience has produced no experience wherein there was a clear path to spiritual formation and development for church members. Instead, we vomit programs and beg people to be a part of them. Serve here. Come to this. Work in that. Be here Sunday. Be here Wednesday. And when you’re not, feel guilty. I think that’s asking a lot of people who have jobs, homes, careers, etc….We pay the heaviest toll when we’ve sucked all the free time out of member’s lives, surrounded them with Christians, and run them to the point of exhaustion. Let me ask you, “When are they going to talk to their friends about Jesus?” What’s more, a lot of the time we’re sucking up in ineffective activities (Wednesday Bible class for one) aren’t about anything people care about. This is the great pitfall of believing programs are sacrosanct, rather than tools to use until they cease to be effective.
- Usefulness. OK, I’m going to say it. Much of the preaching and teaching in churches of Christ is not useful! I hate to say it, but we actually don’t need a preaching series on every book of the Bible. We don’t need sermons walking through every verse in Acts. We just don’t! Much of my life has been spent listening to preachers talk about Greek words and Biblical esoterica that didn’t touch the lives of the listeners. Many of those preachers thought good preaching was giving people information they didn’t have already. Turns out, people don’t care that much about novelty. They care about their lives, their family and their community.
I’m certain there are more factors and that I’ve over- or under-stated many of these. But I don’t want to call the Bride ugly without creating some means for a makeover. Here are few suggestions for moving forward.
- Engage Creatives & Innovators. The largest and fastest-growing churches access and use the gifts of creatives. They understand that people learn and grow through various mediums – art, music, spoken word, dance. Redeemer Lutheran has worship services that are classical and some that are jazz. Central Christian has created an arts community, wherein musicians and singers all over Las Vegas come there to use their gifts. The same is true of Ecclesia in Houston and services at Northpoint in Atlanta are designed to be fun. Andy Stanley says, “You know why some people don’t want to go to church? They’ve been to one.” What he means is that many churches have decided that their job is to complain about short-attention spans and entertainment instead of using these tools to reach people in a way they are used to being reached. We must lose our purity about forms and things that don’t matter.
- Evaluate Everything. The goal of your congregation is not simply to have church next week. You need to have an evaluative system. I have a two-point question system for evaluating my sermons. Question 1: Was it presented well? Question 2: Was it useful? I have written entire sermons, got to the end and began again because while it was interesting to me, it wasn’t useful to anyone. A good way to handle this is to think of two people. The first is the 30- or 40-something couple who struggled to wake, dress and bring their kids to church this morning. Will this sermon be something that will affect their lives today. I ask this same question about the person in the pew who has begged their friend or spouse to come to church and they finally do.
- Get Real. Teaching and Tools have to be rooted in the real life experience of people. What are their struggles and questions? If teaching takes a turn to focusing or real life issues and give practical, Biblical teaching, then things come together. We need to get away from only asking if something is Biblical and true and ask if it is useful.
- Set Your Staff Free. Your staff really does care about the church. And they are really trained to do ministry. Why not let them do it? If you feel as if they are stumbling through their work and have no vision, you’re right. That’s what happens when you’re constantly looking over your shoulder or watching your backside.
Certainly, I haven’t mentioned every step we need to take. And I’m less interested in diagnosis than I am cure – though we must know what’s wrong first.
What do you think? Help us out. Leave a comment telling us where we need to go from here.
P.S. I, for one, am much more concerned about the Kingdom than about one expression of it. I cannot escape, however, that Churches of Christ are my faith family of origin, and I can never really abandone her – regardless of the name on a building.