Congregations must change to fit reality

Every week I receive Leading Ideas, a thought-provoking email newsletter. It has all sorts of articles, sometimes practical, sometimes theological. Often they’re both.

Last week, Lovett Weems wrote a brief article that effectively reminds us that most of the underlying assumptions for congregational life are just plain wrong. Sure, you’ll tell me about an exception somewhere, but Weems captures assumptions under which the vast majority of congregations operate. Here are some assumptions and the truth that belies them.

  • People in our communities are religious. The only religious preference that grew in every U.S. state since 2001 was “no religion.”
  • There are lots of “young families with children.” Married couples with children under 18 living at home represented 50 percent of households in the 1950s; today, only 25 percent.
  • Most adults are married. Married couples now make up just under 50 percent of adult households in the U.S.

We must — and I repeat, must — examine all of our assumptions about our context. As St. Paul said, we must be all things to all people, but that requires us to know who the people are. The days of people joining the church and “becoming like us” are over. No one’s going to do it. The collective failure of the Episcopal Church to acknowledge this reality leaves us with the precipitous decline in church attendance we’ve seen the last few years. (Want to see more hard news? Read this Barna Group research summary.)

There is some good news. Some congregations are finding ways to proclaim the timeless message of the Good News for our time. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Each congregation must discern its own way of living out the mission of the church faithfully. The Christian faith is inherently one of growth. If you congregation isn’t growing (spiritually and numerically), then the authentic faith is not being proclaimed and lived. I would be pleased to debate this assertion, if anyone wishes to argue the contrary. Churches that are not growing (and that’s most of us) are either asleep, or dysfunctional, or teaching things other than the transforming power of the Gospel.

The Good News is contagious. When we preach a message of “I’m OK, you’re OK” and “you can be just fine without bothering the come to church” then why would someone get themselves out of bed on a Sunday morning? How do we expect to help people find the life-changing power of Jesus Christ? Worse, if all we offer is pabulum and we also expect that nuclear families with 2.2 children will show up to volunteer for committees, we might as well put out the “For Sale” sign right away.

Let us all examine our assumptions about our faith, our culture, and ourselves. The mission of the church depends on it. Our own salvation depends on it.

Illustration from Creating Passionate Users.

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2 Responses

  1. Malcolm says:

    Thanks for the lead on the free subscription.

  2. Paul Walton says:

    If you congregation isn’t growing (spiritually and numerically), then the authentic faith is not being proclaimed and lived. I would be pleased to debate this assertion, if anyone wishes to argue the contrary. Churches that are not growing (and that’s most of us) are either asleep, or dysfunctional, or teaching things other than the transforming power of the Gospel.

    Just thinking aloud, don’t want to argue… I’d just suggest that all congregations should be growing spiritually (and they aren’t). There may be good demographic reasons why a congregation is or is not growing numerically.