There seems to be a great deal of debate on the internet about how churches should respond to the decline of people leaving their pews. There are articles, some of which I have posted on this blog, talking about the rise of the “nones,” people who are done with church for a variety of reasons. There are lots of thoughts about how churches should respond to the exodus of people from church. Carey Nieuwhof wrote an interesting article recently with seven ways to respond to the decline of the church. I think he has some valid points.
While they are valid points, I would also say they aren’t right for every church. Context is important. What is the context of the church community?
Which leads to my point. People have a lot of ideas on how to “right” the direction of the church so it stops losing members/gets people in the doors/gets back to its mission, etc. I’ve written pieces on this as well. The challenge is that there is not a single way to do this. Nor should there be.
Here’s a little church history for you to help us with this idea. So jump in the Tardis with me and let’s take a short trek back 20 centuries. (trust me, I’ll keep it short)
There is this false notion that the early Christian church (1st-3rd centuries AD/CE) had a unified way in which they worshiped. There is no evidence for this. Not one shred of evidence for this. If anything, the limited resources that scholars have found point to a different picture – each worshiping community did things a bit differently. There were some overriding themes and practices – a gathering for Eucharist (there’s debate on what that meant), there were baptisms (again, debate on how that happened), and there was praying (again, more debate – I’m sure you are surprised by this. Not!). This really shouldn’t be a novel idea – I bet your church doesn’t do the exact same things as other churches.
How the church worshiped in Rome was different from how they worshiped in Carthage and Syria, Jerusalem, Antioch, Egypt and elsewhere. In fact all of these locations had their own versions of worship. And that worked out pretty well mostly. Yes, it was confusing sometimes. Yes, there was debate on whose way was better. But overall, everyone lived with the situation. They adopted practices of other communities as they deemed them appropriate.
That changed with the advent of Constantine, the Roman Emperor. He wanted unity in the church. He had an empire to control and run and the last thing you want when you are doing this is diversity – you don’t have as much control in diversity.
Ok, let’s jump back in the Tardis back to our modern times. So how does the church respond to people walking out the door?
1. Accept that there is no nice simple universal answer to people leaving the church, except for broad brush statements like “Return your focus on Jesus.” While true, it’s hardly an action plan with defined steps for a church to carry out.
2. Since there is no nice answers, we have to do some nitty-gritty work here and start with more questions. Questions like “who are we as a church community?” “What is this church about?” “Why does this church exist at all?” “How is God calling us and in what ways?” These are difficult questions that take time, self-examination, prayer, etc. In some cases, there’s aren’t any apparent answers, just more questions.
3. We have to stop responding all the time. Yes, you read that correctly – stop responding. I read something a wise person wrote long ago – “you can’t lead if you are always responding.” Responding feels good. It shows that you care. It shows that you value the person making the action. It also means you never do anything to move things forward. Yes, there are times when response is appropriate – I won’t deny that. This isn’t an either/or thing. And in our modern society, we’ve gotten really good at responding – think instant communication and the expectation of an instant response. But if everyone is responding, then who is leading and what are they leading us to?
4. What is the role of the church in your community? It goes back to the context of the local church. This isn’t easy work, but really anything worth doing involves an investment of sweat, blood and tears, time, money, and life.
I believe the church has an important role in society. I also believe that the church will look different going forward – I don’t know how, but I sense it will be different. Everything changes over time, even the church.
Here’s what I know – when a church knows who it is, whose it is, and why – then I’m willing to bet there isn’t a focus on people leaving. Why would you focus on that when you are being who are called to be?