I confess I am hesitant to offer a perspective on our diminishing numbers. Having spent time in many corners of our church, I hear a lot of ideas being discussed—and blame assigned—about why our numbers are shrinking. I want to be careful not to add even more dissonance to the already noisy marketplace of ideas and refrain from offering insight as though I were an expert on the matter. I admit my perspective is grossly inadequate, and I am still learning to move from theorist to practitioner on these matters. So I thank you for your grace.
I believe we are at a confluence of many streams merging to create a swift current of change affecting the church today. Change is happening more quickly than many of us could have imagined, and the reasons for our diminishing numbers will require a complex answer that goes beyond theological and ideological differences.
I live in a part of the country that lives under threat of tectonic shift. When the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate eventually releases its pent-up pressure, geologists predict a powerful earthquake-tsunami punch would wipe out everything west of I-5. According to the experts, a third of our state would be wiped out in no time at all.
On many levels, we sense the same thing has already happened in the church. Where have our people gone? I offer three perspectives:
Tectonic cultural shifts
There are massive cultural shifts directly affecting the church that we cannot afford to ignore. These include the increasingly transient nature of our population, rapidly diminishing institutional loyalty, the rise of personalized and eclectic spirituality, the increase of information available through technology, a declining trust in authority, and a generational disconnect from organizations that lack a sense of purpose and vision—among many other things. I don’t know how prepared we are for such widespread changes, but the impact is being felt hardest among mainstream American churches. Not all American denominations are in decline, however.
There has been little joy in our life together as a church for some time. We are battle-weary, and many of our gatherings have become joyless slogs. I wonder sometimes if what holds us together is little more than a love for Nigeria and the occasional a capella singing, with a sliver of brand loyalty thrown in—and even that is not holding everyone. In an era when loyalty to institutions has greatly diminished, people just don’t stick around anymore to work through the hard stuff. They are not afraid to move on. Exhausted, many people either withdraw or go elsewhere. I don’t think we can downplay the toll this has taken on us.
Our mission needs to be so much more than preserving our institution and saving ourselves. We must recover our mission—the mission of Jesus to make disciples—if we are to regain our vitality. As we gather around the Scriptures and work toward theological and missional integrity, the Holy Spirit will again turn our eyes outward in Christ-centered mission. What other outcome can we expect than decline if we refuse to embrace the mission given to us by Jesus?
As we wrestle with numbers, grieve the loss, and grapple with the outcomes, I am encouraged by this thought: This is the Lord’s church! While we may love our church, he loves his Church infinitely more. Led by the Holy Spirit, the Church has remained fluid throughout history, able to move around the restrictions of government, systems, and societal change that have attempted to restrain, weaken, or destroy it. We must trust Jesus in the midst of our challenges—and be willing to do the hard work that trust requires.
Mark A. Ray is pastor of Covington Community Church, a Church of the Brethren congregation in Covington, Wash.