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Hope for a Church in Decline

Hope for a Church in Decline

When idealistic church planters like Daniel succumb to the inevitable temptations confronting pastors of a growing congregation, it typically takes more than stagnation to convince them to take a stand and reclaim their original God-given vision.  By that time, all stakeholders (leadership, staff, and members) and fixed costs (buildings, salaries, and programs) are heavily invested in the status quo.  A readily observable, possibly precipitous, decline in consumer-driven KPIs like attendance and giving may be required to reach rock bottom, the place where repentance typically occurs.

Given Daniel’s upbringing in a missionary family, he was more attune to less tangible measures of a church’s success like unity, discipleship, evangelism, and compassion.  Looking back on the past decade, Daniel understood how far his church had strayed from its initial BHAG (“big hairy audacious goal”) of radical life and community transformation.  Complacency had set in throughout the church’s ranks, but upsetting the apple cart at this point would likely jeopardize all Daniel and his team had worked so hard to build.

The only factors in Daniel’s favor, ironically, were the cultural dynamics of our day threatening “church as we know it” (where church is seen as a place Christians gather on Sundays and members are treated like “customers” rather than Kingdom workers).  In America’s post-Christian, postmodern society, even long-time members were attending less frequently and youth who’d grown up in church were becoming “Nones” (no religion) and “Dones” (with religion), only partially replaced by non-Christian visitors, who tend to serve and give far less at a time when the need for volunteers and funds was increasing.

Daniel knew the steps for leaving a life of sin, for an individual or a church, are Awareness, Awakening, and Accountability.  His entire church body first had to understand they’d diverted from the biblical definition of church and Jesus’ prayer, care, and share mandate.  Then each member would have to awaken to the imperative to turn from that disobedience and be held accountable for personally embodying “church” Monday through Saturday.

The Realization: Awareness

A decline in discipleship always results in a decline in church member growth but not necessarily a decline in church size.  In fact, the opposite is often true in America’s consumeristic culture – the more out of line with God’s will a church is today, the larger its congregation and budget may become.

Daniel allowed himself to be convinced by consultants, books, and conferences that if he didn’t make his church appealing he’d never get people in the door – and would miss the opportunity to teach them the importance of GC3 (the Great CommandmentGreat Commission, and Great Calling).  So lowering the bar in the short-term on intimidating tasks like discipleship, evangelism, and compassion would presumably allow him to raise the water level for more congregants in the end.  Unfortunately, that’s akin to expecting newly-elected U.S. Congressmen to maintain the ideals for which they won office when they compromise those ideals, acquiescing to the wishes of a political party in exchange for support in future elections.  By the time those Congressmen have significant power on Capitol Hill, they’ve lost touch with their ideals.

At Daniel’s church, lowering standards for GC3 had the same effect it always does – redefining and even reversing the roles of everyone associated with the church.  The following roles and responsibilities are those found within congregations like Daniel’s in a state of decline (in the Lord’s eyes), even if they are large or growing numerically:

  • Pastor – Daniel bore the weight of flipped expectations, not equipping members for their Kingdom jobs but assuming their (evangelism and discipleship) responsibilities as a “paid professional”.  He felt like a program manager, as if any tasks other than preaching, overseeing operations, or managing internal issues were to be done on his own (unpaid) time (e.g. Bible study, disciple-making, networking with city leaders).
  • Staff – Rather than preparing and launching the body into a week of ministry, the church’s employees were burning out trying to please a fickle audience expecting a spectacular weekend service, first rate programs that meet their family’s needs, and support for life’s challenges and events.  Any complaints from “customers” threatened their job security, so they hesitated to rock the boat, affirming pastors for doing far more than they should and members for doing far less than they should.
  • Members/Attenders – Viewing “church” as a building, pastors, and staff abdicated GC3 and reduced the congregation’s role to Invite, Involve, and Invest.  Passion for sharing about Jesus outside the “4 walls” diminished as churchgoers were simply asked to invite friends to services.  Excitement for worship inside the church waned as those who don’t love the Lord filled the pews.  Parents’ expectations were that the church would raise their children in the faith.  The primary role of lay leaders were “church chores”, underleveraging their capabilities and potential as “pastors” of their neighborhoods and workplaces.  Even most elders and deacons believed their obligations to serve the church fulfilled their responsibilities to serve the Lord.

Daniel recognized those role reversals but feared they were too entrenched to unwind.  Yet he knew awareness was a prerequisite for confession, and eventually repentance.

The Confession: Awakening

Daniel began to share his concerns and observations with his leadership team, but only those who had been with him from the beginning saw a problem.  If newer leaders were highly resistant to change, then new staff and members likely would be too.  Returning to a decentralized model of intensive discipleship, year-round poverty alleviation, and evangelism training where members are empowered and pastors are servants would almost certainly drive away cultural Christians and church “consumers”.

Daniel’s dilemma was the cost-benefit of making the entire church aware of its misalignment with the Lord’s will if there was little chance of an awakening.  Like Paul who saw no value in his letters if they only led to remorse but not repentance, Daniel’s church hadn’t made enough disciples to arrive at a consensus that the church was in a state of decline when “customer” satisfaction, acquisition, and loyalty appeared stable.  Daniel couldn’t envision any scenario where his church would collectively confess:

  • Life and community transformation are not taking place
  • Member comfort, staff job security, and church survival are too highly valued
  • Pressure was mounting for pastors to perform and portray a public image
  • Past challenges and splits had convinced leaders to assert more control
  • Members don’t care as much as Jesus said we should about the (materially) poor
  • We’re too critical and distanced from those who don’t look or act like “us”
  • Sermon and small groups aren’t making disciples – only disciples make disciples
  • An event mentality has infiltrated our church’s culture (e.g. worship, outreach)
  • Our spending and borrowing habits have made us too concerned about money
  • We’ve come to see church as the harvest field rather than our city as a mission field
  • Too many treat faith as a hobby, engaging in it and sharing about it when convenient
  • Most leaders and churchgoers are making prayer their last resort, not their first

No matter how aware Daniel was of those shortcomings, without widespread recognition and admission, repentance (a radical reversal of roles) would never occur at his church.

The Repentance: Accountability

Complicating the debate over how (or whether) to disclose those role reversals and deviations from Scripture was the influence of America’s fastest growing religion (Selfism) within Daniel’s church.  Selfism’s demand for independence and unwillingness to acknowledge that what makes a person happy can be wrong was infiltrating the congregation’s culture.  Confession that the church as a whole had ventured off track was conceivable, but expecting individuals to assume personal accountability and surrender fully to Jesus was a stretch in today’s self-centered world.

Would pastors, staff, lay leaders, members and attenders exchange corporate metrics like “nickels” and “noses” for personal measures of growth and godliness?  How many would leave for a more accommodating church down the road to avoid the expectation to wedge discipleship and disciple-making into their already overloaded schedules?  Who would risk friendships or careers in this politically correct society to speak openly about Jesus and His values, which run contrary to socially acceptable mores?  Do young families have time between soccer games and ballet classes to serve the (materially) poor when caring for their “own” occupies all their bandwidth?

It’s Your Turn…

Have you seen a church successfully navigate the entire lifecycle of Awareness, Awakening, and Accountability, going from consumer-driven Christianity to GC3?

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Root cause for the Church's decline & its path to Revitalization

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