Changing the Church

There’s a lot of conversation these days about the decline of various Churches of Christ and the hope for renewal. Churches of Christ are certainly not the only group of churches facing decline but since I minister with a Church of Christ, my interest is piqued by this conversation.

The conversations range from the reasons why many churches are declining to the sort of changes needed for renewal. For the most part, I think these are necessary conversations to have. Most declining churches are doing so for a myriad of reasons, rather than any singular reason. So it’s helpful to give attention to the reasons for decline as well as knowing what sort of changes might be warranted. And let’s face it, if a church is in decline then something needs to change!

Change That Matters!

The only alternative to change is death, so change a declining church must! But what sort of changes? I would like to suggest a differentiation between cosmetic change and character change.

Cosmetic changes include issues like finding a new location for the church to gather in, incorporating more technology during the worship gathering, new worship styles, adding/revamping small groups, advertising, developing new a new website, etc… You get the idea. Regardless of how easy or difficult making  such changes might be and regardless of how necessary the changes appear to be, they don’t change the character of the church. When a church suffers from unhealthy conflict, apathy, toleration of sin, traditionalism, or some other spiritual dysfunction then cosmetic changes are nothing more than dolling up a pig with lipstick and make-up, so to speak. You can put all the lipstick and makeup on a pig but at the end of the day, it’s still a pig.

The first change required is character change. This is not to say that the members of any declining church are unchristian or anything of the sorts. Sometimes that’s the case, in which the church needs to be pruned so that it can grow on mission with God (cf. Jn 15:1-4). Character change means:

  • The members of the church become (re)engaged with the mission of God. This means the church is passionate about the things God is passionate about, such as offering hospitality to others, doing justice, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, and so forth.
  • Members of the church become (re)committed to living in the way of Jesus. This means that there is a coherency between the message the church proclaims and the life it lives. This doesn’t mean that the church is ever perfect but neither will outsiders have any grounds for accusing the church of hypocrisy.
  • The church is no longer reduced to a “Sunday event” for consumption but, as the body of Christ, is seen as the present expression of Christ in the world. . . in households, neighborhoods, work-spaces, and so on.

Character change here begins with God. At it’s core, it’s a transformation that comes through encountering the appearance of God’s grace in Jesus Christ which teaches the church to live as the people of God zealous for good works (cf. Tit 2:11-14). It’s a change brought about by the Holy Spirit. It is a change in the culture of the church.

Leaning Into Change. . .

What then must a declining church do? Hear the gospel preached again (read Chris Altrock’s blog post Why the Restoration Movement Needs a Gospel Revival). Then as the gospel is freshly encountered, change accordingly. . . lean into the gospel character God is calling the church into and live out of that character. This is a lean bathed in much prayer, Bible-study, and communal discernment but without any willingness to change, then continued decline and eventual death is the only outcome.

However, once a character transformation begins taking place, then the cosmetic changes necessary for the church to live contextually on mission with God are more than possible. But until there is a character change. . .

So if your church is in decline, the questions that must first be asked have to do with the character of the church. What are the character problems that must be addressed? Then preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, pray much, repent as necessary, and trust God.

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5 responses to “Changing the Church

  1. The only thing that I would add and stress to your article is, we always need to remember that God’s word is the power unto salvation. The word must be preached. The doctrine of Christ can never be changed, the church cannot be changed. Can we be better Christians? of course, better examples? yes. What has to change is men’s hearts. On Pentecost the only thing offered was salvation through Jesus Christ and 3000 souls were saved and added to the Lord’s church. No gimmicks, just the truth through the power of the gospel to prick men’s hearts. it’s not our responsibility to come up with ideas in how to get people to obey the gospel. We are to sow the seed, plant and water, God provides the increase. So let us be very careful in promoting change for the sake of change. I agree our character does matter, and I still believe that people who are seeking Christ yearn for the truth, not gimmicks.

  2. Growing up in the church can be sort of a disadvantage, because we almost lose the ability to see things with fresh eyes. As good as our intentions are, it’s honestly difficult to, as you said, encounter the gospel freshly and change accordingly.

  3. The preaching of Paul every Sunday did not help matters. Peter, John, and the other apostles were never mentioned. I can’t remember the gospel being preached on or even read. I used to wish so badly that the gospel would be read in context, especially on the holidays when all the other Christians I knew were getting to hear it without threats. I had to wonder why for years that only Paul’s letters could be read, and they were only used for proof-texting, not read in context. Also the use of the bible for threatening people with hell far too frequently was, to me, tragic. I know many older people and hard-liners won’t like it or approve if it, but you should consider going liturgical. Now the opposition will say you are becoming too Catholic, but it merely means that a portion of gospel, epistle, and psalm is read every Sunday. It can wreak havoc on topical preaching because the sermon corresponds to the portion of gospel read. Also, the “11-minute homily” is usually used in that case. I find it quite refreshing to hear one.

    Jennifer, you’re correct about freshness.

  4. Pingback: Change Among the Declining Church | Kingdom Seeking

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