In the back of most everyone's minds within denominations is the fact that we are losing members. My denomination has lost about 500,000 members in the last few decades alone with thousands of congregations very close to closing their doors.
Chris Owens, a UMC pastor from Maryland, talks about the issue of decline in his denomination. His is not alone, as all mainline denominations in the US are in decline. He writes:
"Jabbing and slinging mud at the mainline church has become a new intellectual sport among church leaders, and at first glance, this blog may be yet another fruitless contribution to the worn out question, “Why is the mainline church dying?” It is not. I’m moving on from mudslinging to asking questions that might lead us into resurrection. How can the mainline church enter into Christ’s resurrection, and what does that resurrection look like?"
In his blog post "Beginning with New Questions for a Church In Decline, Part 1," he sets for a set of new questions for churches to wrestle with.
Question #1: How can we get our churches growing again?
This question is the most common question asked by denominational leaders, churches, pastors and other leaders within an institution. This is an institutional questions because it deals with the survival and longevity of the corporate body. This question points back to the glory days when our churches were actually growing in numbers. This question is asked of our current church which is in a new era with new realities. The fact is that in this day and age, most of our churches are in steep decline and may never recover. We no longer have the biological growth that contributed to our rise, nor are millions of adherents to our particular denominations flooding our borders from foreign countries.
The sad fact is, that many of our more conservative leaders in the church aren't even asking the question about growth. They are only concerned with being faithful to our theological and ecclesiastical heritage. Adopting an almost Calvinistic approach to denominational survival, they might say something like this "If we are only faithful to our historical doctrines and practices, God will bring to us those who He has chosen. Ours is not to seek growth, but simply to remain pure." What's lacking in this thought pattern is any evangelistic zeal to make new disciples of Jesus. While I don't believe that our primary question should be "how do we get our churches growing again," I do believe that it's just as wrong to assume that unbelieving people will come to our churches simply to find pure theology. Without mission, the church has no real reason to exist. The mission of Jesus is to seek and to save the lost.
Question #1 Rephrased: How can we build the kingdom of God with new disciples of Jesus?
This question begins to get at the real issue. The issue here is the making of new disciples. Anybody who has been caught in a financial crisis knows that there are two issues to balancing the budget, revenue and expenses. A continual and long-term cutting of expenses will eventually leave the organization or household without adequate resources to have any impact. Along with short-term austerity measures, there must be an inflow of new dollars. Large corporations has long-since created new brand segments in order to reach new markets. The modern corporation is a complex and highly diversified organization that is continually seeking to break into new markets. They know that their original core product line is not sufficient to maintain overall growth into the future. Current denominations may not exist very far into the future as they do now. If they insist on maintaining strict brand loyalty only one product line (the archetypical congregation), they will see an ever-decreasing market share. Realizing that the use of business terms to talk about spiritual issues may put some people off, I do so only to help the reader better comprehend the issue. I do believe that God grows His church only through the power of the Gospel message.
There needs to be a greater diversity of forms and ministries to reach our ever-diversifying communities. The idea that the European form of church transcends culture and will be the prominent form into the future is pure baloney. The European forms that have been forced upon Christians in developing countries are rapidly being shed in order for the Gospel to take root at an dizzying rate. We are witnessing the quick rise of post-colonial Christianity throughout the developing nations, and with it, millions of new believers are coming into the Kingdom. God is blessing these movements in spite of the fact that they no longer use European ecclesiastical forms and structures. Maybe this fact alone gives an indication of how the body of Christ in the West make new disciples into the future.
Surviving The Great Shakeup
Many writers say that we are on the verge of a complete shake up of Christianity in the West, which happens about every 500 years or so. I believe that, at the heart of this movement, will be the realization that the growth of the kingdom of God is much more important than that of the denominational kingdoms of men. When we once again seek to grow the kingdom of God instead of just our own brand, we may have a chance of coming out the other side with some health and validity. Signs of this are being seen with the rise of networks that transcend denominations. These new networks of churches and ministries are about sharing best practices and resources for the multiplication of Jesus followers. Pastors and new church planters are no longer confined to learning from and working alongside people from other stripes and tribes.
Will our denominations survive these cataclysmic changes? I don't know, and frankly, I'm not that concerned about it. I will work within my denomination as long as God allows, but the future belongs to Jesus himself, not our historic church bodies. He is the Author and Perfecter of our faith. He himself will use whatever form is necessary to accomplish His mission on earth. I no longer pray that my particular brand of Christianity will thrive and survive, but rather that the highest number of people possible will come to know and follow Jesus in my lifetime. I'm not working against my denomination, but alongside it for the sake of the kingdom. I am also extrememly excited that I can be an observer and participant in this worldwide shakeup of Christianity. I love chaos and navigating the dynamics that are involved. I believe that the church is at her best when things are in flux, and that a renewed dependance on the Holy Spirit can arise out of this. What do you think?