crumbling church

The Upside of Church Decline

Just as we received more bad news about church health in America, the analysts have found a positive spin.

The Association of Religion Data Archives released the latest downward data in the U.S. Congregational Life Survey, citing “stark evidence of the aging and shrinking of many congregations.”

But the organization’s news release carried the headline: “Five Hopeful Signs for U.S. Congregations.”

The headline puzzled me after I read the opening paragraph: “The number of Americans with no religious affiliation continues to rise. Fewer young people are going to church. And the effects of recession have placed greater burdens on religious institutions in a time of shrinking resources.”

What’s “hopeful” about that? Well, here’s what the researchers cited (followed by a few of my questions).

1. “More caring activities.” Worshipers are more likely to be involved in social service or advocacy groups outside the congregation, and contributed to charitable groups other than the church. (Is this a sign the church is becoming more outward-focused, or a sign the church’s inward focus requires members to look outside for opportunities to serve?)

2. “Climbing the academic ladder.” More worshipers (47 percent) have a college degree. (How should we interpret the finding that as congregations become more academically inclined they also report a shrinking excitement about the congregation’s future?)

3. “Keeping up with the technological times.” The share of congregations with websites has risen from 43 to 77 percent. And 74 percent of churches use email. (What does this tell us about congregations’ success with connecting technology to spiritual growth?)

4. “More diverse leadership.” The proportion of female pastors in mainline churches has grown to 28 percent. (How much has male clergy dominance contributed to church decline?)

5. “Happy people in the pews.” Most members say they’re satisfied with their spiritual life and their worship services. (Does contentment with the status quo help or hurt a shrinking church’s willingness to change in order to reach the majority?)

I’m not sure I’d characterize all these observations as “hopeful signs” of church decline.

But, aside from these signs, I do see some encouraging byproducts coming from the current challenges facing the church. Here’s my list:

1. The heightened pain of decline causes more church leaders and members to seriously evaluate their mission, ministries, and methodologies. That’s a good thing. The willingness to consider healthy change becomes more tangible as pain and loss increase.

2. Diminishing budgets lead to staff cuts. Fewer paid staff means a de-professionalizing of ministry. That’s a good thing. Part of what’s killing the church today is the congregation’s assumption that ministry is something that paid professionals do. Increasingly, as paid staffs shrink, members will realize that the ministry of the church is their responsibility.

3. The older members who currently fund many churches are dying. The old endowments are draining away at a quickening pace. It’s increasingly difficult to pay for and maintain empty church buildings. That’s a good thing. More people will realize the church is not a building.

4. As congregations get smaller, more people will recognize the forgotten benefits of small. People know one another. People notice when someone’s missing. People care for one another. These are good things.

5. More churches in town will see the need and the value in cooperating and sharing resources. That’s a good thing.

Most importantly, whenever our human efforts begin to stall, fail and crumble, we’re compelled to admit we’re ultimately not in control. That’s a good thing. Sometimes God has a way of reminding us of his supremacy. He wants his church to rely more on him than on glib speakers, sprawling “campuses,” clever marketing, showy theatrics, fat bank accounts, or throngs of fans.

Through this recalibration of the church, God is up to something good.

5 Responses to “The Upside of Church Decline”

  1. Thom,
    I love your last statement, “Through this recalibration of the church, God is up to something good.” As a church leader, it’s hard to hear the stats and see the realities in my local communities. But, as you say, God is up to something good (I just wish I’d get a text on what that would be).
    Thanks again! Todd

  2. Leon wrote: “Good thoughts. It’s encouraging to hear some positive news about the state of the church in America for a change.”

  3. Good to hear Thom, we “oldies” in my country have been feeling left out for years now. I understand for the need to encourage the youth but we also need loads of spiritual help and love from the church. God is always with us but we need to belong.

  4. “More churches will see the value in cooperating and sharing resources.” One of my fondest memories of Youth Group when I was a teen was that our small church combined with two other small churches in town for a cooperative youth group. It was wonderful! So many churches seem to see their groups/activities as rivaling other churches’ instead of working together. How sad! I’d love to see churches realizing anew that we all worship the same Jesus.

  5. Thanks Thom. You articulated what I have been sharing with my circles for years – the best and worst thing that has happened to our church recently is the decline in funds. It makes it challenging to continue all ministries (not just the ones we should be phasing out anyway) but the best part is that it makes us “get real or die.” Jesus never said we or our ministries would be here forever and ever, amen. He did say that once salt has lost its saltiness, it is thrown out and trampled underfoot. Some things really are not salty anymore…

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