The American church is in trouble. (But don’t tell anybody.)
That’s one way to “manage” the compounding news that the church as we know it is shrinking and losing its impact. Since releasing our book Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore I’ve noticed three general reactions to the current state of the church.
1. DENIAL. Some people refuse to believe or accept the trends. Or they attempt to deceive their people. For example, the pastor of a small, struggling, traditional church wrote this in his church’s newsletter this month: “Traditional churches have not suffered major declines in attendance.” That statement is breathtaking in its untruthfulness, especially knowing that this pastor wrote that line inside a church that has seen its attendance drop by 90 percent over the years. The facts of church decline have been well reported in research, articles and books–not to mention the observable evidence all around us.
2. PARALYSIS. Many church leaders and members recognize the problem. They often realize numerous things they could try to improve their situations. But they choose to do nothing. Some wallow in grief and sadness, unable or unwilling to deal with their losses and disappointments. Some are bewildered by their choices. Some hope against hope that circumstances will magically turn around on their own. Some fear change of any kind. Some fret that any change will cause someone to get upset and leave, or trim their tithe. Some just sit still, praying that they can ride out the deterioration until they retire.
3. CHANGE. Some actually see the problem, own it, and step forward to fix it. They embrace change, even though it often makes them uncomfortable. Rather than desperately trying to defend the past, they tend to look forward. The successful change agents are not changing God’s message, but they’re exploring different methods to spread the message, to be more effective stewards with the gifts God has given.
Fortunately, fewer people lurk in the DENIAL camp these days. But you can still find them everywhere–in dying churches as well as growing ones. Some fear that acknowledging overall church decline might implicate them, that they or their cherished methods may be responsible for some of the decline. And that’s too unsettling to accept. So, they often use their bully pulpits in an attempt to anesthetize their people into ignoring the obvious. They seem to think that if they can convince their people that no problem exists, or that someone else is to blame, maybe the folks in the pews won’t give up. The trouble is, the trends are so obvious and well-documented, that leaders who preach “everything is fine” tend to lose all credibility. And credibility is something any effective leader cannot afford to lose.
Nowadays, I find most church leaders and members sitting in the PARALYSIS camp. They’re plagued with fear, indecisiveness and lethargy. Even if they find a way to bring new vitality to their ministry, they typically study it to death, brood over it, sink it into a committee coma, and delay it until sometime next year, or the year after that.
As much as those first two groups drain my hopes for the future of the church, I find great hope in the CHANGE people. They are ordinary people who believe that God will do extraordinary things through them. They pray fervently, and they rely on the One who makes all things new. They’re open to God’s leading. They listen to God’s command to “fear not.” Even though they realize they don’t have all the answers, they’re willing to step out–one step at a time into a future that isn’t perfectly clear. They’re willing to experiment. And they’re wise enough to explain their sense of faithful adventure to their people, in order to bring them along on the journey. They embrace the prospect of failure, knowing that some ideas will inevitably fall short. But they know they’ll learn from their failures, which will help advance them toward their next ministry success.
Overall, I’m actually encouraged by these challenging times. Yes, we’re living through the end of an era. But I know God will not abandon his church. And I believe he’s up to something new–that we can be a vital part of–if we don’t deny reality or sink into paralysis. It’s time to welcome some needed change, and walk boldly into a new day.