Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The last gasps of church. . .

I once received these lists of the dying breaths and last words of churches (or denominations) as notes from lay folks asking me if they should be worried.  I once read these lists thinking that these so-called experts ought to be heard and maybe they had something to say.  Not anymore.

The latest incarnation I had emailed to me was written by Brian Dodd (whoever he is) and his last gasps of a dying church are:
  1. “Isn’t it great that our music is never too loud?”
  2. “Isn’t it nice seeing people in coats and ties and not disrespecting God by wearing jeans and shorts?”
  3. “We’re more spiritual and doctrinally pure than that fast-growing, watered-down gospel, baptizing-hundreds–maybe-thousands-every-year church down the street.”
  4. “Can you believe that church is stealing all our young people?”
  5. “I hear we’re having to cut the budget because giving is not what it used to be.”
  6. “Isn’t it great having all this room on the pew to spread out.”
  7. “I love singing all four verses.”
  8. “Don’t worry about our attendance. Let me tell you how large our membership is.”
  9. “Are you coming to Monday night visitation? How about the Wednesday night prayer service?”
  10. “Remember the good ‘ole days.”
  11. “Visitors, please stand.”
  12. “I hear it’s just a show over there.”
  13. “We just formed a Committee on Committees.”
  14. “We don’t talk about money. We preach the Bible.”
  15. “You don’t want that fast growth. Slooooow growth is what you need.”
  16. “Isn’t it great getting out of the parking lot quickly?”
  17. “The poor will always be with us.”
  18. “I’m really tired of having to hear about lost people all the time.”
  19. “Pastor, I think we need to start praying for revival.”
Do these phrases hit close to home for you? Are there any more comments you want to add that you’ve heard?

I suppose there is truth to all of those lists but the answer offered by the gurus of growth are generally the same -- reinvent yourself, ditch the focus on doctrine and liturgy, take up entertainment/seeker worship, put a praise band in place of the organ, put a stage where the chancel was, dress down, act casual, try for relevance, preach trendy stuff that hits people's felt needs, shy away from mentioning sin and Jesus (except in the most generic sense), and take time to listen to the experts who know better than you or the Word of God what makes a church grow...

Here is another one. . . sent to me by a reader of this blog and written by George Bullard, the topic here is not a dying congregation but a denomination committing suicide.

Many denominations are slowly committing suicide. Suicide is not an intentional destination. It is, however, the unintended consequence of their collective actions over multiple years.  Denominational movements reach a point that they institutionalize. They do this because it is fashionable, to create organizations that will guarantee their survival, in response to requests from parts of the constituency that they provide more programs and management, to complete their rebellion against other Christian groups they do not want to emulate, because focusing on institutional things keep them busy and gains them greater status and notoriety, and because the opportunity was available to them.
Eventually they become hooked and even if they wanted to quit, many cannot or are in denial they are killing themselves. Here are seven ways their suicide is becoming increasingly inevitable. These are not the only ways, but they are effective ways of committing suicide.

First, they lose their first love which is congregations. They focus time, energy, and resources on social and political issues as well as supporting auxiliary institutions rather than congregations. They focus their efforts directly rather than in ways that cooperate with congregations. Rather than building up congregations who can impact issues and institutions, they strive to build up their own role in impacting issues and institutions.

Second, they fail to create and sustain a congregational multiplication movement that launches a number of new congregations each year equal to three percent of the number of congregations they have at the beginning of each new year. The three percent figure is minimal to sustain the denomination when a certain percentage of congregations are dying each year, and a majority of existing congregations are plateaued and declining.

Third, culturally, if not officially, denominations formalize education requirements. All ministers are expected to have a master’s degree from a seminary or divinity school and true leaders are expected to have some type of doctoral degree. This empowers the upward socioeconomic mobility of the denomination and leaves behind masses of demographics who need to be engaged missionally.

Fourth, officially they formalize and perhaps centralize the ordination of ministers. At least it is no longer a local congregational issue—if it ever was. Attempts are made to create and sustain a higher quality of clergy through the ordination process. Too often the excellence in character and competency sought for is a target missed.

Fifth, understanding and hearing the voice of God and the presence of the Holy Spirit is misplaced. When denominations believe the voice of God and the presence of the Holy Spirit is greater in denominational headquarters than it is at the grassroots, they lessen the power and impact of the Triune God throughout their movement.

Sixth, when denominational headquarters does not understand the difference between a strategic framework and a strategy it may be committing suicide. A strategic framework is what is needed at denominational headquarters, and even in many middle judicatories. Specific contextual strategies are what emerge at the grassroots through individual congregations and networks of congregations.

Seventh, when denominations regularly restructure, their focus is usually on rearranging the chairs on the Titanic. The primary outcome of denominational restructuring is often setting that denomination up to restructure again within five years. Even when there are attempts at broad-based ownership among congregational leaders for restructuring efforts the focus is still on managing the past rather than leading into the future.

Bingo.  It hit the LCMS in nearly every place we are vulnerable...  congregationalism reigns supreme, church planting is the only real goal and purpose, everyone a minister, listen to the people, find which direction the wind is blowing, set people free to do things on their own, forget constitutions and by-laws. . .  Again, there is a measure of truth in all of these lists but the solutions are never as simple or as idyllic as the writers of such lists think.  By this list, the Roman Catholic Church should be dying because it is the most controlling of all denominational structures but instead it is flourishing.  By this list, the Southern Baptist Church should be flourishing but it is no longer growing free and easy.  In other words, be careful about re-inventing yourselves to fit the lists of the self-appointed experts who know better than everyone else.

You want my take on all of this?  Be faithful.  Be faithful in proclaiming the Word, the full counsel of God's Words, rightly distinguishing Law and Gospel.  Be faithful in administering the Sacraments according to Christ's institution.  Be faithful in welcoming the stranger, loving the poor, and serving those in need.  Be faithful in maintaining the sacred tradition handed down to you and deliver it faithfully to those who come after you.  Be faithful in catechizing youth and converts.  Be faithful in raising up the faith whether it is received or not, whether it is among friends or enemies of the Gospel.  Be faithful and God will grow the congregation and denomination or not -- maybe He has a different future in mind than the one we anticipate -- but God will deliver whatever growth the kingdom of God finds.  Do what He has called us to do and do it faithfully, taking the work of the Kingdom, the Word of God, and the Sacraments seriously while not taking ourselves overly seriously and the will and desire of God shall be done -- not because of us but through us!

That is enough.  And skip the reading of lists of why your church is dying... it only distracts you from what you ought to be reading, wasting time that should be given to the faithful work God has given us to do, and instilling fear that we make church grow or die when, if we are faithful, it is God's domain to bring growth to His Church. 


David Gray said...

If the RCC is flourishing in this country it is first and foremost due to immigration.

Janis Williams said...

I'd change one thing in the first list: Isn't it great that we sing ALL TEN VERSES of the hymn?

If the Church is dying, then at least it will be a dignified death. Imagine what death would look like in the postmodern churches.

All the doomsayers ignore a couple of things. 1. Luther himself used the metaphor of rain showers being the Gospel and life of the Church. Rain showers come down, make things grow, then move on to another place. 2. The swan song people ignore the truth of Means. Drum sets and a hip-looking pastor in skinny jeans are not Means of Grace. Sacramenttal entrepreneurs are not means. God's words of Law and Gospel, and His Sacraments are the means by which His Church receives Her life.

Janis Williams said...

AND, the Church does not live or die at the hand of man and what he does or does not do. God has promised the "Gates of Hell will not prevail against It." She will remain until Christ returns for His Bride.

Anonymous said...

The Roman Catholic Church is not flourishing only due to immigration. Here in South Carolina, the RCC gets a healthy number of former evangelicals and Protestant fundamentalist converts, two of whom I know have become Roman Catholic priests. You would be surprised at how many burned-out fundies become Catholic.


David Gray said...

Brother Boris,

Here is what I said:

"If the RCC is flourishing in this country it is first and foremost due to immigration."

Here is what you said:

"The Roman Catholic Church is not flourishing only due to immigration."

Can you see the difference?

Without immigration all the studies I've seen show the RCC with a net loss of numbers in recent years. That doesn't mean the RCC isn't gaining any converts.