Oct 162017

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.

Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD

The Project

  49 Responses to “Loss of Faith: Dr. Duane Arnold”

  1. “Consider starting an after school day care center to serve the young families”

    This is a great idea. I’d skip the door to door, though. LDS and JW’s ruined that.

    Just be more human and less salesman.

    My take as an outsider misfit.

  2. Joel

    This is just one thing among many that can be done…

    I trained up among evangelicals, but when I became an Anglican, I had good people as examples – Ted in Grosse Pointe, Bert in Detroit and John in NYC. They were all slightly eccentric, but they knew and required a high standard of pastoral practice. At the back door after every service… at the coffee hour until the last person left…hospital and nursing home visitation… thanking the altar guild ladies EVERY service… dinner parties for parishioners 2-4 times a month… being in clerics every day except for one day off a week… responding to enquiries within 24 hours… meet with the family at the death of a member… go to the visitation… funeral and burial attendance until the last person is gone… Every time we preached, a well prepared 10-12 minute sermon ready to be printed… saying the eucharist with dignity… keeping the church service to under one hour and fifteen minutes…

    It’s not rocket science.

    We were all expected to attract new members through our work, whether in liturgy, teaching or preaching. By the way, if I had failed to do any of the above, I would have been fired – immediately… without recourse. We’re looking for “miracles” and “models” instead of what we used to call “the work of ministry”.

    We’re not attracting people to the church because we are no longer “doing” church…

  3. Our ministry as laid out by our mission statement is through our school. Most of our baptisms and new members come through the school – but you just can’t hope to start one up and go from 0 to 60 in a short time.

    Something we have spoken about before and if I were one to point fingers I would aim directly at those who pay attention to church polls – any of the church polls. I said on an earlier post that Barna and them are whores to those who want to sell “programs” – and in the story of this church, we see it in living color.

    Perhaps we need to knock on doors and ask people why they hate Jesus. 🙂

  4. this is an interesting Monday morning ponder… yes, go back to doing church and fire those manipulators… let them go sell soup or something
    not sure JoelG is correct about the door knocking, tho… a nice old lady at your door some evening saying simply, “hello, we’re your neighbors from the church over there and just wanted to let you know that we’d welcome you at our Sunday morning worship service; here’s a copy of the bulletin.” … that might just bring in a few – dunno

  5. Em it would be hard to shut the door on a nice old lady 🙂

    Duane’s #2 nails it. Kindness, service and attention from Pastors and Parishioners will make all the difference in a community. Forget the signage and programs.

  6. Duane,
    perhaps it isn’t so much “doing” church as it is “being” the Church.
    Treating a declining congregation as though it is trouble-shooting a failing business is mixing apples and concrete. They aren’t enough alike to confuse them, but the modern expression of Christianity is symptomatic of a loss of identity and purpose. To treat symptoms is to ignore the root of the issue. Your article reflects this perspective. Thanks

  7. At the same time, I wonder how we identify the church “doing” church or church “being” the church.
    I read something last week – I don’t remember where (it could have been Mad Magazine and a quote from Alfred E Newman – I do read it a lot) but was giving the stats on where private relief help has been coming from in the last 3 hurricanes. This would be funds, supplies and volunteers. Something like 80% was coming from churches and church organizations.

    If true, isn’t that the church being the the church? Following up that finding with this thought – if the world sees how the church responds to human needs, isn’t that enough to get them to perhaps change their attitudes towards church, Christians and Jesus just long enough to listen to a message?

    I say no – I see no one asking, “what makes you give of you time and treasures? Instead crickets because the holy spirit is not in them.

  8. Maybe what you think is crickets is the sound of seeds being planted.

  9. JoelG – that may be the case – then we should rejoice and recognize and applaud the church “doing” church and the church “being” the church instead of claiming it is not.

  10. Filbertz

    “Treating a declining congregation as though it is trouble-shooting a failing business is mixing apples and concrete.”

    One of the best sentences I’ve read in a long time!

  11. i remember a conversation i had with someone half my age who opined that going to church wasn’t too different from attending a rock concert
    i wonder – dunno – if the old fashioned way of doing church, hymnals and all wouldn’t still feed the soul today… maybe the cycle is complete?

    it was a different era, to be surre, but as newly married in a new housing development, we had a nice older lady knock on our door and do what i described above #4, she was obviously uncomfortable, but totally gracious and her effort led us to a wonderful country Evangelical United Brethren church … I am pretty sure that the Church is not denomination dependent

  12. #11 Em

    Recently went into the local coffee shop and saw a poster put up by a local mega-church. It said, “Musicians Wanted for Worship Team” and “No Church Experience Needed”. Now, maybe this is an “evangelistic” effort, but I don’t think so. My bandmate, Michael, teaches guitar. One of his student said she can’t wait to be good enough to play in her church’s praise band because “it’s like being on stage at a rock concert”. Something tells me that these are the wrong values…

  13. #12 – the words/warning rings in my ear, “depart from me… i never knew you…”
    i know that Paul said “To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.” … but i don’t think a modern worship-so-called oriented church was what he had in mind… dunno

    it isn’t new, however, the Presbyterian church in which i started my Christian walk (1951) hired professional choir director (head of college music department) and soloists (opera)… i doubt that they required a profession of faith from them – dunno that either, tho

  14. I find your post to be a very sad read, Duane.

    “…. an absolute faith in the proposition that Christ could transform a person’s life.”

    All the actions this church took – not one of them is actually sowing seeds, in faith. Almost all of the suggestions you stated (had you been asked for your advice) involve sowing seeds, and /or watering the seeds already sown.

    I have to agree, it seems the basics were left out.

  15. #14 Owen

    “… the basics were left out.”

    Yes, but I increasingly concerned that the problem is not limited to the church I described. For instance, many here (including myself) are willing to level criticisms at evangelicals. Additionally, some of us have moved on in our theology. Nonetheless, most of us initially came to faith as a result of a personal conversion (a bedrock of evangelical theology). Yet while that “conversion” was real for us, we seem to be less than certain that it can be real for others. So, we wrap ourselves up in the theology of our tribe, and spend our time arguing the fine points of that theology with those of other tribes who have done likewise.

    I think Stott was right. In many cases we simply don’t believe in an evangelism that calls people to a personal faith in Christ. We “say” that we believe it, but too often our actions say otherwise. We are more comfortable preaching the faith of our tribe to other believers than we are preaching Christ to those who do not know him.

  16. I’m late in responding to Duane’s article here, but I believe he makes some good observations and gives some solid advice. I do think that church consulting services and church growth organizations can be of benefit if everyone has their priorities straight in the first place. Unfortunately, the priorities too often seem to be too much on the superficial elements of attracting more people rather than on some of the items and issues that Duane identifies in his experience here.

    For a mostly positive example, my previous church had used a church consulting service in the past and I do think it was of benefit because it was not all about what can we do to attract more people to church. The church over a period of several years had transitioned from one having a regular attendance of around to 150 to one of around 400. Additionally, there were some newer staff changes going on, including with the senior pastor. The consulting service focused more on the internal strengths and weaknesses of the church, including what things needed to be different to serve a congregation of 400 versus 150. It also focused on the make-up of the immediately surrounding community and what kind of things may be best in reaching out to them. In the end, it seemed to help initiate some positive changes without going hog wild on “church growth”.

  17. #16 Kevin H

    “…if everyone has their priorities straight in the first place.”


  18. How are consulting services any different than the “methods” brought on by Wesley and then Finney?

  19. #18

    Well, the “methods” of John Wesley included members taking vows to lead holy lives, taking Communion once a week, praying daily, and visiting prisons regularly. In addition, they were to spend three hours every afternoon studying the Bible and other devotional material.

    Not sure I’ve heard of a consulting service suggesting something similar…

  20. Maybe … Maybe … Maybe

    Ding… Ding… Ding… !

    So much to Amen there

    Instead of starting a school, why not cater to the needs of homeschooling families as a co-op?

  21. Another thing I have always wished would change was the 15% labor force vs. the 85% pew sitters. Seems to me a focus on serving one another in the church, prayer, with some creative scheduling there could be many more hands made available if Sunday wasn’t made to feel like another workday. One of the greatest ways we can exemplify the gospel is by loving one another within our walls. I attend a Penty church that has suddenly taken a left turn at Albuquerque, focusing on the recidivist homeless pop and letting the small congregation flounder a bit. “…;but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.”

  22. #21 Descended

    Yes, I’d agree with you concerning the 15% who seem to do everything… or more truthfully, get stuck doing everything! The willing hands often get worn out.

  23. Having coffee with my bandmate Michael this morning, we were discussing how many people really believe in the idea of someone “being saved” these days, apart from the television preachers. I, for one, am slightly embarrassed to use that sort of language these days… even though it was how I described my own conversion for many years. Have we become socially uncomfortable with even the language of evangelism, or do we need to change the language of evangelism?

    I wonder how many others have the same feelings about the terminology we do or do not use?

  24. When I first attended St. Seraphim’s here in town 16 years ago, there were very few people in attendance. As I visited sporadically over the years* even that small number dwindled. I remember one terrible Sunday when Fr. G. came out with the Chalice and there was not one person in the room who came up for Communion. I heard rumors the diocese was thinking about closing the parish.

    Last Sunday, the Church was packed with participating people of all ages. Maybe 40 went up for Communion, which is very good for such a small parish.

    So what happened to draw this modest crowd of active Orthodox believers?

    Well, Fr. G. kept on being an Orthodox priest who faithfully served the Liturgy, heard confession, etc. He prayed. He was faithful. People came.

    *I was a member of a different parish but visited them from time to time. I am a member of St. Seraphim’s now.

  25. Xenia,

    That is so great!

    In my community, the Orthodox Church is growing rapidly!

  26. @23

    “When we set out I did not believe that Jesus is the Son of God and when we reached the zoo I did.” – CS Lewis describing his conversion riding in a motorcycle sidecar.

    This describes well the kind of conversion I experienced as a kid. At some point I just believed. I personally have been soured by the evangelistic tactics I’ve seen: giving people just ONE MORE CHANCE to come forward and get saved etc. If churches are putting ladders to climb between people and their savior then thats not good, IMHO. If evangelism is simply telling people the good news, then great.

  27. #15 Duane,

    I gathered that you weren’t just concerned about the church you described, your closing statements made that pretty clear.
    Several years ago, our oldest child was attending a Christian school, supported by a local church. We left when they brought in the income requirement – families had to give a yearly income statement, and commit to a financial plan for the school. That told me that they weren’t running a ministry – they were running a business.
    How many churches are operating with that priority? And what does it get them?

    #23 – Good point with “being saved” – that term seems to carry a negative connotation these days, for some reason. Scoffed at, even.
    Ask someone these days, “have you found Jesus yet?”, you often get a weird look and the possible response, “I didn’t know I was supposed to be looking for Him..”

    ” Have we become socially uncomfortable with even the language of evangelism, or do we need to change the language of evangelism?”

    –maybe we do need to change it. Maybe that’s something Paul was talking about in 1 Cor 9 : 19-23. “I have become all things to all people, so that by all means I might save some.”
    Not watering it down, not changing the Gospel message itself – but the language of the day doesn’t seem to be “finding Jesus” or “getting saved” any more.

  28. @ JoelG,

    Where is that quote, I’m curious…. which book?

  29. Owen,

    Surprised By Joy….. a very tedious read that I couldn’t finish. Zzzzzzzzz

  30. Joel,

    LOL!! Okay then…. actually, there was one of his books I kept trying to read but couldn’t get into it. And I can’t even think of the name of it right now, one of his fiction works. It was like it just never got moving.

    However, he’s still one of my favourite authors.

  31. #27 Owen

    “Not watering it down, not changing the Gospel message itself – but the language of the day doesn’t seem to be “finding Jesus” or “getting saved” any more.”

    Agreed and, to be frank, I understand. As I said, I’m uncomfortable with that language. It seems to me, however, that along with abandoning the language we’ve also, in many cases, abandoned the idea that evangelism should still be a priority – if not THE priority. I still wonder, do we really believe that encountering Christ will change people’s lives? I’m not talking about encountering CC, or Lutheranism, or Anglicanism, or… No, just encountering Christ. These days there seems to be a good deal of preaching to the choir (or each other) rather than those who have not heard…

  32. There it is – “That Hideous Strength”, from the space trilogy.

  33. #29 Joel

    Funny story on that book – My wife’s great-aunt Danni was lecturing at Oxford when the book came out. From the title she and all her colleagues at the time thought that it was going to be about Lewis meeting Joy Davidman and marrying her!

  34. Great story, Duane. That would make much more sense.

    Owen, agreed about Lewis. Mere Christianity is a treasure to me.

  35. #31 Duane,

    So, another question arises (at least for me), then….. how best to preach to those who haven’t heard?

    Should the emphasis be more on actions, or words?

    For me, I think lives would be changed more by encountering Christ in the actions of his followers – the foolish yet amazing grace and mercy, the selflessness. Then, when asked why we do this, or how we could possibly, simply explain who’s behind it.

    In your opinion, would that draw people, more than simply preaching?

    On the other hand -I have mentioned to our pastor a couple of times that I really appreciate his sermons because he is not afraid to tell us the truth, and he always ties it into the Gospel at the end. We’ve also seen slow but steady church growth over the past several years, and most of the new people are staying and becoming more regular. I’m no analyst, but I do know we’ve not added any programs, hired any consultants, or any other changes, so I suspect the growth has at least something to do with what they’re hearing.

  36. I know my former church in Orange County worked at engaging people to encounter Christ without going all Ray Comfort on them.
    2 weeks ago they had the blessing of the animals which was advertised to the immediate neighborhood
    On the 31st they will hold the annual Truck or Treat in the back parking lot that faces a 600 unit apartment complex – advertised in the immediate area.
    Mid November they hold an event called the Great Giveaway where the people of the church bring all there “garage sale” type stuff (must be in good usable condition) and again, fill up the back parking lot and give it away to neighbors.

    The kids in the neighborhood used to jump our fence to play basketball — so we opened up, provided supervision and security and after our remodel, opened up our gym to the neighborhood.

    People hear Christ, hear about Christ and see Christ in action. We don’t see them in church (although some may come) and we have no way to measure ‘results’ – but we feel very confident we shared the love of Jesus.

  37. #33,

    I always thought that was the meaning of the title, surprised to hear it’s not, actually.

    Joel, also my favourite of his books. Screwtape Letters is a very near second.

    The Narnia series is right up there also.

  38. MLD,

    I like the sound of that (The great Giveaway) and would love to get our church going on something like it. That’s outreach, right there. We could do more of that.

    And if nothing else, it gives God a better name to the public.

  39. MLD that is awesome. They won’t forget that love.

  40. #35 Owen

    I think it must be actions and words. Maybe my question is even more basic – What does “conversion” mean in 2017? Mere intellectual assent? The old idea of the conversion of “morals and manners”? When we look at Luther in the forest (or the tower), Paul on the road to Damascus, Wesley or Francis of Assisi or any others, there seems to be, dare I say it, a supernatural encounter. Because of the excesses of television preachers are we afraid to go there in our understanding of encountering Christ?

  41. And there you have it – the supernatural. Yep, you went there…..

    And I think you’re right, it seems to be mostly intellectual assent, which not only doesn’t really change a heart, but it doesn’t really require any sacrifice, either. You can intellectually agree with it , and then go about your life.

    I’m still comfortable with the term “conversion”, myself. And we have to believe in the encounter (although I think sometimes it takes more than one). I think we have to go there, because they need to encounter Christ and that IS a supernatural thing.
    But maybe we don’t have to verbalize “encounter” or “conversion” to them. Having said that, I can’t come up with alternatives right now, either. We don’t have to look or sound like a television preacher.

    I just realized I didn’t really answer your last question. So yes, I can speak for myself at least, I’m a little afraid to suggest to someone that they need to encounter Christ in a supernatural way. I’m more inclined to plant all the seeds I can and leave the encountering to God. Whether or not that’s enough, I’m still chewing on it.

  42. #41 Owen

    I agree and I think we are in new territory. Terms such as “conversion”, “evangelical”, “catholic”, “social justice”, “values”, etc., have been politicized or popularized (in the wrong way) so as to have been co-opted. A while back, when I did a piece on Augustine using love as a hermeneutical tool, I suddenly found out that even “love” has been co-opted (must mean you’re liberal or pro-LGBTQ).

    Not sure what to do, unless, like Bono with ‘Helter Skelter’, we take the terms back…

  43. MLD, what I like best about your Orange County church’s events is they all involve giving things away for free with no strings attached.

  44. Here’s the thing MLD is always trying to get across here: Rather than complaining about the wretchedness of some vague entity we call “the church” why not get to work in your own church? Why not start giving things away? The basketball example is the best one, I think because MLD’s church was willing to take the risk of damage to their property to let the neighborhood kids play basketball. How many churches would allow this, mumbling about “insurance” and “the lawn” other excuses.

  45. #44 Xenia

    As I said in #2 – There’s a reason it’s called “the work of ministry”…

  46. Xenia, I’m in agreement. The Gospel is all about what God freely gives. It’s all about God doing what nobody else would think of (how many free garage sales do you see?).

    But, as Duane mentioned in #40 – actions and words. What we’re really discussing, I think, is while we’re doing all these wonderful actions, how best do we put across the reasons behind them without turning people off? (I realize that some will be turned off anyway….)
    Given the ways in which our culture has changed, the sharing of the Gospel becomes trickier – that’s our current point.

  47. Would it be fair to say that most people in this country have heard of Jesus? Maybe not the Gospel for them, but at least Jesus.

    One of the hardest things for me as a believer is understanding God’s “hiddenness”. I’m sure it’s very much the same for unbelievers. When the church, as a group or as individuals, serves their neighbors, it’s like being able to see, touch, hear and feel a part of this invisible and silent God we have. Jesus, the eternal Creator, came into our mess to be seen, touched, heard and felt. Actions are vital to “preaching” the Gospel.

  48. Just a thought…the mandate is “go into all the world making disciples…not attract all the world to your building. Ditch the business model and start over?

  49. #48 Richard

    Indeed… the business model needs to go. Especially “business as usual!”

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