These are challenging times for churches in America. Increasingly, they realize that if something doesn’t change, they won’t survive. But what is it that must change? How they answer that question actually predicts their future.
“Our church is shrinking away,” they say. “We’ve lost half of our people.” Often they ask, “What needs to happen to turn it around?”
But, more often than not, they don’t like the answers they hear to that question. The realistic answers usually require internal changes–changes to the way they’ve always done things.
So, when they hear a half-dozen significant things to change, they reject all of them. Instead, they keep looking for solutions that seem more comfortable, easier, less disruptive, cheaper, and “safer.” Or they decide to wait, to do nothing–and hope that external factors will change to make things better.
I’m reminded of my friend Joe. He lives an unhealthy lifestyle. He’s seriously obese, smokes two packs of cigarettes a day, drinks too much alcohol, and never exercises. After seeing his health deteriorate, he went to the doctor. The doc told him if some things don’t change, he’ll be dead in a year or two. The doctor advised Joe to change his eating and drinking habits, stop smoking, and start exercising.
Those weren’t the prescriptions that Joe wanted to hear. “Can’t you just give me a pill to feel better?” he asked.
Many churches are hoping for a magic pill too. If only the population would change their habits and want to come to church. If only the schools would stop having ball games on Sunday. If only the media would stop portraying Christians as loons. If only the members would double their giving. If only the people would stop their sinning.
If only. It’s human nature to avoid change, to hope that somebody else will make things better for us.
The bad news is, those other people or factors are not likely to change or make things better for us. The good news is, we have the power, with God’s help, to make good changes in our own wheelhouse. Even if they’re uncomfortable to make.
In these rapidly changing times, the churches that will survive and thrive are those that embrace three things:
- See that God is, once again, making all things new.
- Fear not. Trust God.
- Don’t wait for an easy pill. Initiate necessary change. Now.
Well said. Years ago I was part of a traditional church on the decline in a transitional neighborhood. We did a lot of research and came up with two possible paths to survival. One was to change with the neighborhood and be trained in ways to transition with it. The other was to relocate. The church did neither. It stayed in place but did not transition with the neighborhood. It declined to the point of closing its doors. Thankfully, there was a church who could relate to the community that came in and bought the property and ministers there.
I say this to point out that if change does not come, many churches will close their doors. I have seen it up close and personal. At the same time, maybe the Lord is leading many “back to the future” by the formation of an increasing number of house churches.
David, your story of that church is, unfortunately, all too common. When faced with the need to change, so many choose paralysis.
What I’ve seen in churches and organizations is when people talk about change, what they’re really talking about is, “What else can we do?” They see things aren’t working and they think simply adding something (could be a program, new way of doing some minor things or whatever). What they’re never willing to do or admit is that they need to change from the ground up. They may need to change their systems, their procedures, their underlying philosophy, but they’ll never do it. Why? It’s simple. That would mean they would have to admit they were wrong and may have been wrong for a long time in the way they do things. Underlying most push-back against deep change is pride.
The other huge push-back against deep change is fear. “If we do massive changes, we’ll lose the people we already have.” Just watch the show Restaurant Impossible. Think about those restaurants as failing churches and you pretty much see the things most churches need to do–tackle interpersonal conflicts and get back to the basics. And what are the basics? In my mind the basics are running the church like it ran in the first two centuries and this involves a completely different mindset and way of doing things.
Brett, this reminds me of something a pastor said in our film When God Left the Building: “We just can’t lose one more member. In which case, we will never make the changes we need to make.”
I just wrote a little about my take on the Sunday decline. I believe it to be the widespread availability of information. Prior to our info age, we had to trust a religious viewpoint and worldview based on our location. With the widespread availability of the internet, the common layperson has access to the top theological minds in the world. If they have even the slightest doubt of what they’re being told, they can find differing viewpoints from other Christian leaders in a matter of minutes. As long as a congregation isn’t a safe place to discuss/question, grow spiritually, and adapt to new input, membership in such institutions will continue to decline. The “believe me because I say so” attitude no longer works on modern generations.
John – I completely agree with you. Very well said. I don’t believe that most folks are looking to their congregational leaders anymore for information about how to understand the Bible – they can (as you said) find all of that information online. Hopefully, our congregations will become more and more comfortable with providing safe spaces for discussions,questions and community.
Yes. The congregation I was a part of wasn’t a safe place to discuss and question. I’m not sure if it ever was. When I talked with the leadership, I was just fed rhetoric. I left and have grown exponentially more than I ever did in all my years there. Unfortunately for these institutions, this seems to be a common trend. Many people are outgrowing the limits of the institution by researching the Bible on their own. The options then become: remain painfully silent, leave, or speak up and get shunned and/or demonized.
You really hit the nail on the head. Between the year 2000 and 2008 I went through a long period of deeply studying every hard bible subject there was online. I got to be practically an expert one everyone’s different beliefs and why they believed what they did. My own beliefs changed on certain subjects and I would go to church and cringe when the pastor would hit subjects I disagreed with. I lost my faith in what was being preached from the pulpit and sought out to the best of my ability all the biblical truths from online digging along with my own bible reading outside of church. So what happened is the internet is making the church institution obsolete with many people as it did with me. If you really want to hear sermons, there are so many churches posting either audio or video sermons online you can’t possibly keep up with just the ones in a 10 mile radius when you live in a city. Yes, the internet is killing the church in many ways. If you don’t like on pastor online, you find another church website and try that one. I live near Chicago. I can listen to sermons from Maine or California… even the UK. You can watch live church broadcasts also.
I’ve been going through a similar journey. A lot of things being taught were contradicting each other or just didn’t make sense. I started researching the intent behind a lot of the troubling passages even going through their meanings based on the original Hebrew and Greek along with studying the cultural significance of why things were described the way they were at the different points in the Bible. I’ve found the beautiful story of God coming to man where they were at in their understanding of the world at the time. Our understanding has (or should have) grown past that now. The last few services I attended, I also cringed when the pastor stated archaic opinions as fact. It doesn’t seem many of the more traditional congregations today bother with the historical or linguistic significance of the scriptures. Much is taken far out of context and manipulated for various reasons. A lot of this may be unintentional or out of ignorance. However, stubbornness when an alternate opinion is expressed to try to bring a better environment of love and grace only further drives away attendees.
I believe it was Liza Doolittle who said some thing such as “Words, word ,words I’mso sick of words. Is that all you blighters (?) can do?” Where does the local threatened church find someone who can actualy analyze and say you need to do the following five ,or whatever, steps and I can guarantee your church will succeed. Lots of interesting comments but I still do not see concrete steps. Ron Lechelt
Stop entertaining people. Teach the Word verse by verse allowing the Holy Spirit to do His work of equipping the saints to go out into the world. Encourage the saints to love God and each other, love the lost and live their lives sharing The love of Jesus out in the world. If a lost person(s) is present in the service, a clear explanation of the gospel, along with an invitation to accept Christ should be done. It should be made clear no work, no coming forward, no giving money is necessary – only faith belief in Jesus – because He has done it all. Too many churches have left the basics behind, failing to equip and turning into no more than a big entertainment venue. That is not Biblical. Trust God’s Word.
Ryan, if I’m misunderstanding you, please forgive me, but don’t you think the church should be more than a place where someone preaches at you. I thought the church was a COMMUNITY of believers and not just a place you went to learn about the Bible. If that’s all you think about the church, then you’re correct, the building has become obsolete.
From little on up, my parents or me have never lived any part of life with people in the church, outside of church. It’s hard to refer to people at church as a ‘real’ community. Even people I spend 40 hours or more at work are hard to see as community. Either place, church or work, the relationships don’t extend outside past the walls. Strong social connections just don’t form. This is why many can jump from one church to another or just plain quit an it doesn’t hurt because people just don’t get close enough to others to really miss them. When I left Michigan to come to Illinois for work, I didn’t shed one tear for the people I left at the church I was going to for 6 years. I did shed tears having to leave my wife to live alone at a motel for several months for a time till I was hired permanent and moved house and home here. It may just be me and just me that I don’t connect that close to people. I am quite the introvert. Kindred spirits are far and few between anymore.
So SK, according to what you just said, majority of our churches/pastors in America are not, teaching the Word correctly, not allowing the HS to do his work, not encouraging the saints to love God and each other, love the lost, live their lives sharing the love of Jesus out in the world. Because if they were doing all that, the church wouldn’t be shrinking. Boy, what an indictment against majority of American pastors. You say, “If a lost person(s) is present in the service, a clear explanation of the gospel, along with an invitation to accept Christ should be done.” You’re making a huge assumption here. your whole question pivots around the word, “IF”. You’re assuming that the lost would just show up at your church, so your pastor can explain the Gospel to him/her correctly, and then magically, the person will follow the Lord. If that’s the case, then here my challenge to you. Ask your pastor (I’m sure he’s doing all the above correctly.) the following question, (If you’re a pastor, then the question is for you) what percentage of your church attendance is transferred Christians and what percentage got saved at your church? After all, if all it takes for the church to explain the Gospel correctly, why is it that on any Sunday, at almost any given church in the US almost 90-95% of the church attendees are transferred Christians. Frankly, you remind me of the prophets who beat up on Jeremiah for simply delivering the message God had given him. All Thom is saying is that there’s something wrong with the church and we need to solve the problem. Why beat up on him? You should check up my latest post: People Are Leaving The Church to Save Their Faith.
I’m sorry – I would never, ever think of ‘beating up’ on Thom. I read only this one post of his believing he felt changes needed to be made within churches to prevent people from leaving. I thought he meant going back to basics. So many churches in the last 10-15 years have become places where one goes for entertainment and motivational speeches. Some evangelical churches have even become involved in Eastern mysticism (I.e. Pagan or new twists on those old New Age practices) such as contemplative prayer, emptying the mind and filling it with god (little g), incense, candles, darkness, walking the labyrinths, teaching many paths to one God such as Buddhism, Mormonism, Hinduism, Islam etc., hiring nonbelievers for marketing tips like a business does, among other things.
I thought he meant changing away from anything like that to more like in Acts where the body of Christ went out from their gathering place into the world and shared the great news of Jesus (not necessarily the preacher/teacher as he is to equip the believers in the body to go out).
I just moved to a new city where I visited 5 churches. Fantastic music presentations, nice people and good sermons that I remembered until Monday night. Then on the 6th church, the Pastor’s first words were “let’s open our Bibles to…” And proceeded in an expository manner to go through scripture. So amazing, such insight, tying the Old and the New Testament. It was magnificent, wonderful – and truths like that are only uncovered and shared by digging deep into the Word. I was speechless – it had been years since I was so excited to go share the Word. I thank God many times a day for the blessing of his Word and the sweet body of believers at my church. So many worry about building large numbers in church but unless the Word is taught, the church might grow – but apostasy can creep in and people ignorant of the Word will fall for Satan’s old foot in the door. I will try to read your post and maybe more of Thom’s too. I have shared my feelings without malice toward anyone. I hope and pray for our churches to grow in the right way. Again I apologize for any offense I may have caused.
S K, Thank you so much for your prompt and kind reply. The problem with communicating by email is that no emotion can be shown, so one can easily be misunderstood. I hope you realize that I used the term “beating” as a figure of speech. With all her problems and issues, I believe with all my heart that the Church is still the best club in town. Please don’t be offended by the word “club”.
The question is how can we make her better. For you it is the teaching of the Word. The greatest commandment God’s given us, is to love him and love our neighbors. Now let me ask you a question that I’d like you to ask your pastor who’s so great in teaching the Bible. If you move out of your neighborhood tonight, will you neighbors miss you tomorrow? If the answer is yes, outstanding, but if the answer is no (in my experience the latter is much more prevalent than the former), then I really don’t care how well he can open the Word for me. I’m not impressed with his depth of biblical knowledge until I see what he does with the knowledge he possesses. If you go to my blog, you’ll find out that just like Tom, I raise the same questions, which you may strongly disagree, but please know that coming out of Islam, I love the Lord Jesus Christ, and have served him for over 40 years of my life.
People want to be disciples of Jesus. The Church is not allowing them to be, so they leave.
A few years ago, they needed people to help in the sound room, at my church. The announcement before the service said that if you knew how to run a stereo, you could work the sound room. Which is bogus, of course, and offensive to anyone who takes the time to do such a job.
I got to thinking afterwards, that is kind of the problem spiritually- We are trying to make everything easy-peasy, when a person who “dares to join”(Acts 5:13), is probably tired of the microwave-minute-rice-life, and are looking to be challenged to seek the greater gifts(1Cor 12:31)
The New Covenant of grace is good news that is often not conveyed correctly. For instance many seek to hold up the Ten Commandments as our guide to lifestyle. We are free from the law according to Rom 3;28. There seems to be a mixture of Mosaic Law and the Covenant of Grace. Sins are forgiven according to Grace. Jesus paid for our sin by His death on the cross but still many condemn divorcees. Jesus told the woman caught in adultery “Where are your accusers? ” He added “I don’t condemn you either; go and sin no more.” It is “.. the goodness of God that leads us to repentance. Rom. 2:4. Condemnation never came from Jesus (John 3:17) and it should not come from Christians. The New Covenant is defined in Heb 8:7-13. The world is hurting in these last days. We don’t condone sin but we don’t judge either. Jesus has paid for all our sin past and future. He is not coming to die again for sin. The only sin now is not believing in the Son of God. In many churches we still “shoot the wounded”. let us love others the way He loves us.
Thanks to all for an interesting, thought provoking exchange of ideas. My wife and I have served on staff in 2 local churches over the last 22 years. I mention my wife because although I was paid by the church, my wife was just as deeply involved in the ministry as me, in some cases more. I have found that many times churches are settling for a comfortable existence, rather than expanding outreach and welcoming different points of view and ministry ideas. Unfortunately, that comfort becomes complacency and in two cases has put the church in a precarious financial position. The testimony throughout the community has been seriously harmed, and unfortunately, the exact folks who most need to hear the message of the gospel are repelled away. I don’t have an answer, but I know for a surety that lack of vision and complacency are wounding the churches and inhibiting our ability to love like Christ would want us to love. Lord help us…….
Sick and tired of religious crap! You want change? You want a “church”? Go to any library and research the First Century Christians. Imitate them without compromise and watch God do amazing things.
Yes you have it right. To further my previous post, I said, people want to be disciples of Jesus but the Church is not allowing them to be. What does the Church want them to be? well here is a list in no specific order
skeptical of science
skeptical of social justice
people who don’t question leadership
literalists when reading the Bible
believing that Obama is a Muslim
Yea , most Churches don’t even know who Jesus is anymore.
All of you have fascinating comments. I’d like to suggest that each one spends a few days looking at a truly secular community–reddit–and then start to think what the church can do to draw in people who come from that frame of reference. I don’t believe the church is obsolete, but it’s apparent that many of the folks on Reddit do. In fact, many of the folks on Reddit think Christianity is false, that they have discovered better ways to do and think.
I honestly don’t believe our problem as believers is to get people back into our churches. It’s to honestly rediscover what we were meant to do–be His witnesses. However, we have to learn how to do that in the world we live in today.
Most of the secular folk I know/knew are rationalists. We must be committed supernaturalists–not crazy people, but utterly committed to the God who invades our world.
Most of the secular folk I know/knew are unaware about any meaning to life, and wonder about it.
And so on.
The only thing we CANNOT do is pretend we are the Holy Spirit, and go after a man’s or woman’s lifestyle without having their prior assent; this applies to questions of sexuality, use of recreational drugs, lifestyle, and so on. God actually can show people to whom He speaks what He thinks of all these things. The point is that HE is still on the throne, and wants all men and women to know Him. He is far more interested in these people than we are.
We must become more interested–up to the point where we care like He does. We can never care as much, but we must try…
What a great comment.
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