Reasons for Decline

As in many congregations, I suspect, I have been in repeated conversations with our congregational leadership about the future of the congregation.  After a period of growth that I categorize as fairly typical following a change in the pastorate, we’ve leveled off and have slightly declined in our average Sunday worship.  Sister congregations nearby are struggling and one has closed down for good.  Discussions often focus on the why of the decline in our congregation and in churches in general, since the why ought to drive the what of what do we do about it?

Here is some food for thought on the topic.  Overall I think that these are reasonable things to consider.  While I find his dismissal of gifts of the Spirit to be a bit broad-brushed (Is he saying that these things can never be legitimate, or just often aren’t?  And how can he quantify/qualify that assertion?), beyond that he makes sense.  And, as clarification, I’m not sympathizing or trying to defend charismatic practicies, per se.  I just think we should be careful in how we dismiss them, and in the process perhaps inadvertently deny or dismiss the possibility that the Holy Spirit could still be at work at least some of the time in these ways.

His solution is basically to keep what we’re doing – to not compromise on the Gospel, to continue to convey the Sacraments of God to his people, and to continue not doing the things he thinks have led to our decline.  I tend to agree.  But what we have to recognize is that this is not necessarily the prescription for growth in our congregations.  Doing what we do is in faithfulness to the Gospel.  If remaining faithful means that our congregations are fewer or smaller, then that’s what we need to cope with, as disheartening as that may sound.

However his solution is based only around the worship and study environment that is a hallmark of our denomination (not a bad thing!).  I would add to this that we need to seriously tackle the issue of domestic missionary work.  Much has been made of recent surges in overseas missionaries (though I question a great many things about that hype and the changes in process which made the surges possible), but much less has been made about domestic mission work.  We need to keep doing what we’ve been doing, but we also need to do it in different places.  We need to be willing and able to come to grips with the reality that if people won’t come to church on Sunday morning to receive the gifts of God, then we need to go to the people intentionally in order to share the Good News, which hopefully will result in people coming into the traditional congregational structure.

How we do this is the hard part.  Doing what we’ve always done isn’t so hard.  But finding ways to actually expand upon what we’ve done, to expand the scope of our ministry rather than to shrink it back as our congregations grow smaller, that’s a much harder thing to plan and buy off on.  But I think it will be critical in the coming years.  Is it a guarantee that some congregations will survive while others don’t?  I don’t think any such guarantees are worth much, given that our Lord promises only that the Church will survive, not specific parts of that Church.  But I think that doing things differently, while keeping things the same, as ironic and complicated as it may sound, offers our best hope of continuing to proclaim the Gospel in an increasingly disinterested culture.




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