I have been addressing the decline in attendance, membership and community impact of the western church, primarily here in the good old U.S.A. Just in case this is the first one you’ve read, a couple of things first. In the first of this blog series I listed 10 conditions that I have observed that I believe have led to this decline in attendance, membership and impact and would encourage you to and read it first and then read the countdown.
I will confess and admit that I made an attempt at baiting you on this last, but biggest reason why the western church is in decline, except those pockets where congregations fight against these 10 Killers as evidenced by their growth. I did not list what I sense as the biggest killer of all on purpose and partially in hopes that you, the readers, my try to come up with the Biggest Killer of all. So, are you ready for the truth? Can you handle the truth? And the Biggest Killer of the western church is…drum roll please….
It’s not that local congregations have forgotten what their mission is to be. Congregations that are declining in attendance, membership and impact have forgotten HOW to do the mission. Ask any Tenured Pew Sitter, “What is the purpose of the church?” and they will likely reply, “To make new disciples for Jesus” or some similar term. Churchians (by the way, InsanityBytes, thanks for this new word, I am using it more if that’s OK with you) may say it like this: “To grow the church”, though that is not what Jesus told us to do. But that response is, at least to me, a very clear indicator that churches in decline have forgotten HOW to do the mission of Jesus.
Most churchians and Tenured Pew Sitters can quote the Great Commission, and many can quote it with deep piety. But it is never enough to know just “the mission”. Ask the infantryman in the trenches about the importance of knowing how to do the mission. Some Captain comes over to that infantryman and says, “Go clear that village over the hill and get rid of the terrorists.” The infantryman knows that’s his task, what he needs to know is the “how”. Declining congregations know the “what” of the Kingdom but it is in the “how” that has messed them up. And to a very large degree, it has tainted and polluted the “what”. But for sake of helping get my point across, let’s be gracious and say that churchians and Tenured Pew Sitters know what to do. So how are they doing it, and doing it wrong?
Here is the common thread I have observed in every mainline congregation that is in decline in worship attendance, membership, and impact on their community. They have adopted the “Field of Dreams” technique. You remember the movie, don’t you? Kevin keeps hearing a voice whispering, “If you build it, they will come.” So, he built it and eventually they did come. At the end of the movie, it is night and there is this long line of cars headed to this unknown corn field in Iowa. Churchians and Tenured Pew Sitters alike said, “Eureka! This is it!” Actually they adopted this technique back in the 1950’s, even earlier. Build a building, give it a good church sounding name. Announce what times you are in business, and they will actually come. Well, it did work for a while, but it’s NOT been working even longer. But by George, if 1950 ever comes back, they are ready. Problem is, if it doesn’t come back in the next 7 years those buildings will be vacant.
The primary model has been “Well, y’all just come on over.” And for those who actually did come over, the message was very clear from the Churchians and Tenured Pew Sitters, “Look, we are here to help you meet Jesus and then you can look just like us.” And, God forbid, someone who did not look like, dress like, talk like them actually showed up, they would offer them “Frozen Politeness” and then hope they took the hint. And they did. They sit there Sunday after Sunday, go through pastor after pastor (because it’s our fault, you know) and wonder why people are showing up at their desirable location and time.
Now, before you think I am anti-mainline church, remember I see signs of hope everywhere and I am hopeful for the western church. But the Field of Dreams model stopped working a long time ago. And though the message never changes, the strategies must–in other words, HOW we do The Mission. Would you like a Biblical passage to back up what I’m saying? Good, I thought you would never ask. It’s in Matthew 25:41-16 (NLT), and I want to add my commentary along the way:
41 “Then the King will turn to those on the left and say, ‘Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons. 42 For I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me. I was thirsty, and you didn’t give me a drink. 43 I was a stranger, and you didn’t invite me into your home. I was naked, and you didn’t give me clothing. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’ 44 “Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’
Commentary Time: Can’t you see it? “Field of Dreams” model. “Well, if they CAME TO US we tried to be like you.” Jesus is not going to ask, “Well how many people came up to you and you showed them Me?” Nope, not going to happen that way.
45 “And he will answer, ‘I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’
Look the least, last, lost and broken are not rushing to the church building. But those who attend to those buildings need to get out and get to know who is living around them. Refusal to leave the building is the refusal to connect to Jesus. Look even Elvis left the building, it’s time the church left the building.
46 “And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous will go into eternal life.”
Do you really need a commentary on this verse?
Before churches here in the good old U.S.A. can reverse this current trend and once again thrive by growing in worship attendance, membership and community impact, they need to get out into the community and get to know who lives around them. A couple of Sundays ago, I shared in my sermon that I felt like we had a real friendly church. I say a lot of smiling faces and heads nodding in agreement. But, you know me, I couldn’t leave well enough alone. My next statement was this: “But those who are not yet in church are not looking for a friendly church. They are looking for friends, those who will build relationships with them.” The smile left some faces and in its place was, I still cannot tell if it was surprise or confusion.
How we do THE MISSION is by getting into the streets, communities, neighborhoods and getting to know them. It is US reaching out and going TO them. Now excuse me, but I have to leave. I’m volunteering in a low-income neighborhood to help elementary students become better readers.