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.