Churches of Christ are declining! That’s what I’ve been reading about in the blogosphere as of late.* I tend to agree bur beyond the reasons for decline, I want to talk about the way forward…at least where it begins because I don’t believe in waiting around for the bells to finally toll.
As far as decline is concerned, the reasons are larger than any simple answer. Part of the problem is that like many other Christian tribes, the Churches of Christ came of age among Christendom era where almost everyone understood the basics of Christianity and the Bible. For Churches of Christ, who became very sectarian, evangelism was often nothing more than convincing others why we were the “right” church.
This became the tribal DNA but as things have changed, this has been found in wanting. For instance, many Churches of Christ have shed their sectarian skins and therefore what motivated evangelism has lost power. I suspect this has also created something of an identity crisis (if not the only right church, then what reason is there for existance?). I also suspect that some congregations see the need for new wineskins but keep pouring new wine into old wineskins (cf. Mk 2:22). Added to this is two other fairly new realities that has created much confusion. First, there is the reality that North America is now a post-Christian world of religious pluralism where the religious question of society isn’t “which church” but “which god or gods.” Added to that is the increasing number of “dechurched” people (those who at one time belonged to a church) who are never going to encounter our churches unless it is outside the confines our Sunday gathering
Of course, not every Church of Christ is in decline. But for those that are, what should the response be? Some churches will remain as they are, either denying the reality before them while spurning any change or hold out hope that members of another congregation might transfer (which only prolongs the inevitable). Other congregations might see the situation as hopeless and, throwing in the towel, die a slow and sad death. I, on the other hand, believe there’s another option that is future oriented…mission oriented.
Where Future Becomes the Present
With the increased number of people who either do not or no longer believe in and follow Jesus, I certainly believe the need for churches living on mission with God is clear. But how?
I serve as a minister for the Columbia Church of Christ and we are a small congregation that has been in decline for some time. We could pursue one of the options mentioned above but we’re not. We believe God still has a place for us to serve in his mission as we follow Jesus and so we are trying to do just that — following Jesus into our world, beginning in a neighborhood.
For the last six months a few of us have been meeting every Sunday after worship to pray specifically for our church and how God is calling us into the future (prayer should always proceed and envelope mission). The shepherds and I have also started journeying with Mission Alive as we seek church renewal. In the meantime, my neighbor has been battling with breast cancer (she expects to be declared in remission this coming May). Consequently, this has opened up some opportunities for our church to help her while she goes through this ordeal with her health. However, come this May we plan to throw a BBQ and invite the entire townhouse complex to come and celebrate my neighbor’s new lease on life. Not only is this a great way to celebrate with my neighbor but it is also a great way to begin subtly saying to the townhouse complex that the kingdom of God is here.
What might come of this? That’s a good question and we won’t know the answer until it happens. In some ways, this is an experiment. We’re not throwing the BBQ with any other motives other than to live as kingdom people among our neighbors, loving them and sharing the beauty of life with them. But we have to believe that as we follow Jesus into the neighborhoods, that there are those who are seeking God (even if they don’t have the language to express that desire) whom we can share the good news of Jesus Christ with. That’s why we can believe that there is a future full of mission and therefore a future for our church as participants in the mission of God.
I am not so naïve to believe that this is it. There will be other systemic changes that we will need to make in time as they are revealed. But this is where we start, where the future church begins. So if your church is in decline, I hope this post offers you hope as a way forward beyond decline and eventual death. While every church has different circumstances, the future church always begins with a renewed commitment to following Jesus.
* If interested, check out James Nored, who has written a series of posts on this issue (read here, here, and here), and Sean Palmer, who recently wrote a guest blog post for Jason Locke’s blog about this issue (read here).