Over the past few years, my bandmate Michael and I have been aware of a church in our fair city. It is part of a mainline denomination. The church building itself sits in a prime location, moments from the interstate ring road and within sight of the most upscale shopping mall in the area. Within walking distance are two middle class apartment complexes that seem to cater to singles and young married couples with one or two children. A small access road behind the church is frequented by enthusiasts of all ages making their way to a premier health and sports club facility.
While not enormously wealthy, the church in question has a moderate endowment fund and is able to support a full time pastor, a part-time organist and a church secretary.
When first visited a few years ago, there was a congregation of about 30 people. Most of them looked to be in their 60s or older. They were concerned about the future of their church and we were informed that they had just hired a church growth consultant group (paid for out of their endowment) to advise them on how to move forward. At that point, we decided that we should look in on them every few months to chart their progress.
The next time they were visited, we noticed some changes. The first thing that caught our attention were the two large screens flanking the altar area. As Michael was offering special music on this occasion, we also noted the new professional audio set up, with all new microphones and an expensive 24 channel digital mixer set up in the balcony. We were informed, however, that they did not yet have anyone who knew how to run the soundboard but that a high school student, whom they paid for such work, would come in and run the board while Michael sang. As the service began we noted the same 30 older congregants sitting in the pews. When they stood to sing the opening hymn, almost everyone was using a hymnal with no attention being paid to the lyrics appearing on the suspended screens. The order of service continued, Michael sang (the high school student showed up for 10 minutes to run sound) the pastor delivered his sermon and we made our way through to the final blessing. After the service, the pastor informed us that he had three people who, with him, would be attending a Willow Creek conference that he believed would really make a difference. As there was no coffee hour, we made our way out and home.
About six months later we stopped in again. The same 30 people were in the pews and, as there was not special music, we didn’t get to see the high school soundman. We saw no other real changes apart from a new member of staff. Their church growth consultants had informed them that their lack of growth was the result of not having a real “identity” in the community. They were told that they needed to decide as a congregation what sort of image they wanted to project to the city. Well, after some discussions of the church board they decided that they wished to be know as a social justice congregation. Not knowing how to go about this, the pastor and the church board had decided to dip into the endowment once more in order to hire a person, part-time, who would involve himself in social justice issues on behalf of the church and then report back to them. We were fortunate that he was there on this particular Sunday as he only attended once a month to deliver news of what he had been doing on their behalf. So, instead of a sermon that morning we heard a report on three committees in the city whose meetings the new man had attended as a visitor. The congregation looked puzzled, but prayers for the good work of these committees were offered and we moved to the end of the service.
We visited one more time about two weeks ago. Slightly less than the normal 30 people were in attendance – two couples had moved to Florida and one parishioner had died. As we spoke to the pastor, it was apparent that although they were still paying the consultants, and the social justice activist (not present), as well as the high school soundman (not present) nothing had changed. Nonetheless, we were now informed that they were considering an outdoor digital sign along with changing the church’s name on the advice of the consultants (who had been signed to another year long contract). Michael and I could only look at each other, not knowing whether to laugh or cry…
Now, these are not bad people. In fact, they are very good people. We saw several who brought their bibles to services, they love familiar hymns and, if approached, will readily engage in conversation. The pastor, while obviously not a dynamic leader, is a good man who prays, cares about theology and has a genuine desire to see his church grow. If we had been asked for advice (which we were not) we might have pointed out the obvious –
- Start knocking on doors in the apartment complexes
- Consider starting an after school day care center to serve the young families
- Erect a sign for the church on the health club access road
- Create a welcoming environment within the church
- Have an after service coffee hour
- Start a midweek Bible study
- Provide meaningful opportunities for service and fellowship for the many retirees
- Create an adult Christian Education program for Sunday mornings
The list could go on and on. In any case, if it had been offered, such a list might merely be a different version (perhaps more practical) of what they had heard from their consultants. All of that, however, does not address the real issue that, at least in my opinion, is staring us in the face. It is a loss of faith, among the laity to an extent, but even more so among those of us who are called to ministry. As John Stott has said, “The principal reason in my judgment why there is so little effective evangelism to-day is that we clergy have, in many cases, ceased to believe in it. We are no longer expecting to see moral miracles.”
Maybe we’ve become too theologically sophisticated for our own good.
Maybe we’ve seen too much of the “dark side” of church life and/or imbibed the cynicism of the age.
Maybe we are so concerned about raising the flag of our own tribe that we no longer see the multitudes who have not yet heard even the simple outlines of the faith we claim to share in common with others.
Maybe we’ve allowed ourselves to be blinded by the promises of corporate church growth consultants and the semi-secular culture that surrounds them.
We often talk about what took place in the late 60s and 70s. For those of us who were there, I can tell you one thing – It wasn’t planned! For the most part, the vast majority of us had no idea what we were doing. We did not think about buildings apart from having enough space to gather. Unique “identity”, apart from our identification with Christ really did not enter our thoughts. We had no thoughts about “church growth” or corporate models. What we did have, however, was an innate conviction, an unshakeable certainty, an absolute faith in the proposition that Christ could transform a person’s life.
In my opinion, until we have that faith restored and made active once again, nothing in the current downward trend will change.