The Hard Decade for the Church

CNN posted an article today on their religion blog noting that these past ten years have been a difficult decade for the church.  Almost every branch of the church has seen decline.  Even though  mega-churches have seen some successes, they still make up too small a percentage of the larger church populace to reverse these trends.  Even though they appeal to some, most Christians want a smaller church family (if they choose one at all).  So, how should we take such news?  What was interesting in the article was the discovery that the churches that seemed to be bucking the trend were those that were most willing to be innovative.

I believe the cause of the decline comes from a variety of reasons, among them:

a.  The World War II Generation not only believed in God, they also believed in the church. But we cannot depend upon the Word War II Generation to hold the church together in the 21st century.

b.  Although this is not true in every church, in all too many churches the vision of God presented is remarkably pedestrian.  God has become the one who endorses our social views, political views, and even our hobbies.  God simply approves of us just as we are and if we don’t like someone or something, God doesn’t either.  Of course, we don’t need to go to church to worship such a god.

c.  Churches all too often think that (briefly) changing musical style or introducing a coffee bar is being innovative.  But folks don’t need the church to listen to contemporary Christian music and I believe Starbucks or PJs will out do the coffee or treats we can serve.  Church needs to be fulfilling.  Church, dare we say, needs to be fun.  And we are not likely to be fulfilled or find something overly fun if it is pretty much the same as it always has been.  We need to meet people where they are with an engaging vision of God and a fulfilling time with God’s people.

d.  Churches are caught in the spiraling cost of living in this world along with everyone else.  The post World War II model of the neighborhood church, with the parish pastor, music director, youth director, Christian Educator, nursery worker, secretary, and administrative staff is increasingly unsustainable if we don’t change.  If we value all these good people (and I think we should) we need to connect with others who have the same values.  And that is true even if we believe slightly different things about the Lord’s Supper.

e.  We need to be eager to share power rather than retain it.  Our younger members need to walk away from the church thinking, “Wow, these folks trust me with some pretty important things” rather than thinking they have to serve for many years before they can make a lasting impact.

All this said, opportunities abound.  I truly believe that while we are witnessing the end of what was we are seeing the birth of what will be.  We need to:

1.  We can partner with other Christians.  Necessity is the mother of invention and we can now make a case for partnering with other churches and even with Christians outside of a regular church.  Define a project.  Invite others to join in short-term tasks.  Enjoy the work together and see what happens from there.

2.  If the average American doesn’t consider their denominational affiliation as all important, then why do we?  Parkway, for example, has people from a wide variety of church backgrounds.  Some of these good folks don’t even consider themselves Presbyterian but yet, they are part of the Parkway family.  While not downplaying our beliefs, those beliefs should be inclusive enough that folks need not walk lockstep with us to be welcome among us.

3.  We need to relook at our polity.  They may seem sacrosanct in the Presbyterian Church (and many other churches for that matter) but traditional committees and boards do not appeal to this generation.  The question will be how to get the same work done for God outside of the “Robert’s Rules or Order” meeting format.

4.   We have the chance to promote and proclaim new stories, new music, and new programs.  We can embrace the challenge of how to tell the “old old story” in a new and compelling way.  We have tried, and have found success, in breaking the paradigm that worship always lasts sixty minutes (or more) at Parkway with a 30 minute service.  I think we should view this as a beginning of trying new things, not an end.

5.   We can confess what is important to God by our actions as much, or maybe even more than our words.   In one hymn we sing, “They shall know we are Christians by our love.”  With economic challenges abounding, opportunities rise as well.  People often feel discarded an uncared for in our fast paced world.  How will we show them that they are indeed important?  Answering that question alone is an important key to the future.

Great opportunity is out there for us if we are willing to be 21st rather than 20th century Christians.  The second decade could be one of the best for the church if we are ready to change.

What do you think?

Until next time,



3 thoughts on “The Hard Decade for the Church

  1. Tom – terrific CrossRoads post! We can either learn how to “think outside of the box” – or decide to put this in the “too tough box”. I prefer to think outside of the box. And although I’m sometimes very set in my ways to “think outside of the box” – it’s a good exercise for all of us to attempt to look at our traditional way of worship through someone else’s eyes.

  2. Thanks for the post, Tom. I think you hit on several key points. The small vision of God – and his Church – is a crucial misstep for many churches. I know I struggle focusing on heavenly things over earthly ones. I believe in keeping that priority straight, we’ll be compelled to deal with earthly things naturally.

    Polity and a sense of meaningful involvement go hand-in-hand, I think. Incidentally, I’m pretty sure the Book of Order only requires one committee – for nominating elders. I think Parkway missed a great opportunity to work with Tom Bandy on this front. Here’s one of his articles on developing and empowering mature lay leadership (PDF).

    What about extending the participatory sentiment to worship itself? Most churches view worship as a service, but we only see this biblically as evangelistic preaching. Most churches going in this direction develop small groups. The key, I believe, is that the group is self-directing. Different churches place more or less conditions or requirements on groups, but I think the results are almost always positive. Many non-Christians are much more comfortable in a setting where they can engage with other people directly and informally, which isn’t available in services or classes. I’ve felt strongly a church would find far more mature believers by focusing members on small groups and focusing services on evangelistic inspirational preaching and celebrating members’ work and perosnal or group ministries.

    Anyway, a few more thoughts. Thanks again for the great post.

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