Much has been made in the blog-o-sphere lately about the decline in numbers in Churches of Christ, my tribe in the Christian landscape. Some folks who hang out in my little corner of the CoC have had a similar take, as if its obvious what these numbers mean. “See, told you something was wrong. Change or die.”
I’m sure that if you searched everything I’ve ever said about the future of Churches of Christ you could find me saying something like “change or die.” But I say that not as a specific indictment of Churches of Christ, but as a general principle related to any human community traveling through time. Change is part of the deal. If you’re living, you’re changing.
The fact that this is the reaction to this particular report bugs me, and I’m not sure I know why exactly. But here are the questions that make my brain itchy.
Can we only tell our story as a God-story if it is a story of progress? Have we been so co-opted by the Western myths of progress and technical mastery that we can only attach God or “blessing” or “validity” to the term “growing”? Are we saying that numerical growth is the only indicator concerning our value in relation to the Kingdom of God? If our numbers were moving the other direction, would we take that automatically as a sign that God was with us? Would we be willing to be a part of a declining group numerically? Put another way, would we turn our back on God’s calling if it meant being a part of a group in numerical decline?
I have become more aware in the past few years how a bias toward progress in terms of narrating self-understanding has left me clueless to major movements in Christian history that don’t fit neatly into that (Western) story. And this is a crying shame. Truth is, we have a hard time asking a different set of evaluative questions given this massive cultural bias, and the question of progress might not be the best one to ask of a God whose clearest moment of self-disclosure was death on a cross.
As with all data, the theological question is not more or less, bigger or smaller, successful or not, but what do we think God might be calling us to given these particular set of circumstances.
God might be calling us to die–to spend our life given our belief in resurrection. Because I don’t believe that Churches of Christ comprise the church, I’m open to the possibility that we might be called to surrender our life into the larger Christian story. But my hunch is that typically all groups are called to realize their gifts as God’s people through both death and life, through both gains and losses. And its not always clear in any given moment which is which. As Paul put it, for some its a fragrance from death to death, for others a fragrance from life to life.
The question is, as always, given our unique story–our belonging in time and space–to what is God uniquely calling us? I am confident that there is a satisfying answer for those of us who serve God in Churches of Christ. This question allows me to be thankful for where I am without envying someone else’s place or calling among the various movements of God’s mission for the world. I can love my tribe for both its strengths and weaknesses, knowing that both might be preparing us for answering God’s call to serve the Kingdom in increasingly meaningful ways.
I agree with what you’ve written. And you may be right. My only clarification is that the decline in the C of C is no worse than and in fact better than a great number of evangelical and fundamentalist churches. Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians and Episcopals are all outpacing our decline (over the past 10 years; as a percent of US population). If we are dying,we are not alone or even at the front of the line!
You may or may not have had in mind the Last Will of the Springfield Presbytery: Imprimis. “We will, that this body die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large; for there is but one body, and one Spirit, even as we are called in one hope of our calling.”
of course, this sounds noble. but i’ve also heard this rationale along the lines of “we’re small & shrinking b/c we’re right & we refuse to compromise & churches only grow b/c they’ve watered stuff down — blah, blah, blah.”
the truth is: churches devolve. there is a strong, almost irresistible gravitational pull away from health. unhealthy cultures attract & keep unhealthy people — they also repel healthy people. unhealthy people are prone to panic & hyper-reactivity. unhealthy cultures are slow to adapt to change — often even refusing to acknowledge the inevitability of change. eventually, the level of toxicity makes death inevitable.
yes, healthy things sometimes die, too. God has our days numbered — that probably applies both individually and corporately. but healthy things also have a greater chance of growing, adapting and flourishing over the span of multiple generations.
so, perhaps Churches of Christ should be less concerned with how to reverse the trend of loss vs. growth & concentrate more on fostering healthier systems.
John, thanks for the thoughtful response. Let me be quick to say that there is no virtue in smallness. I also do not think that big or growing churches are suspect simply because of their size. All I’m trying to say is that we are so culturally conditioned by one question–related to progress, that it keeps us from seeing other possibilities.
Also, I agree that health is better than focusing on numbers, but I think that’s still not sufficiently theological. Health can be defined in any number of ways. I know a lot of congregations, for instance, that have done NCD but still have little idea of what God has called them to be. That’s why I prefer questions related to Gods calling for specific communities of faith.
I’ve been meeting for prayer with several pastors of various denominations for years now. We’re praying for renewal and spiritual revival in our region.
It seems we all have the same problems with dying traditionalism in our individual groups, and we all want the same thing. More of God without the hindrances of religious trappings.
Terry Rush once said, “The trouble with spiritual growth is… it feels like death.”
I like Terry’s quote. Pat Keifert is fond of saying, you can’t always tell by the symptoms whether you are dying or giving birth.
A few non-antagonistic musings, Mark … “first,” I sincerely appreciate your thoughts about the narrative of progress. Seems to me that neither Scripture nor history supports a meta-narrative of progress, e.g. the Revelation 20 word-picture: even though Jesus Himself were personally ruling on earth in Jerusalem for a thousand years, the whole world (for the 3rd time or more) would unite against Him/us to destroy us, and God would have to intervene to save us – again. Progress?? “Second,” I’d be very curious to know how “we” are doing outside of the USA. Isn’t part of the challenge the USA-centric nature of the way we feel about the question of “growth” and “decline”? “Third” … I’m struck by how much we’re conditioned to thinking of ourselves in this denominated way. Is it spiritually healthy for “us” to be so focused on “us,” when the whole concept of “us” would be unrecognizable in Scripture anyway? Of course we have to think this way a little, ’cause it’s where we are. But how much “us” language is required for following Jesus? do “we” figure uniquely in God’s calling at all, as “us”?
All that to say 😉 … thanks for putting your thoughts out there, Mark – you help us stretch and think more clearly.
Good post…some good and challenging thoughts to chew upon for a while.
You present a good question regarding progress. Perhaps a clear definition of what progress is would be helpful. I can tell you, I think, what progress is not – regression! While I think you have much to say, as you know, I’m a fan of your work, you run the danger of doing what I have seen so many do – spiritualize the problem. There is something in the Bible to give comfort to nearly anything a church experiences – growth, decline, stagnation, etc. But in some cases we have over-thought the problem. Does God want more or less people to come to faith? To be in churches? To experience community?
What the numbers reveal to me is that if churches of Christ were active in the 1st Century, at the rate things are going, the gospel would have never made it out of the 1st century. Do some of the churches that are dying need to die? Yes. Do all of them. No.
And it’s not enough to say, “Decline is happening to other groups,” as some people are wont to do. That’s like saying, “A lot of people are alcoholics, too.” How does that help anybody? And what about the people? What about those folks who have left the church, as myriad as the reasons may be? Some have simply gone to other churches. Fine. But others, because of a system humans have much control over, have left or abandoned the faith altogether. How do so many of our justifications help them? How would they describe or define “progress”? This is about people. They’re not concerned with “Western” views of this or that.
You’re right to call communities to their “unique calling.” I’m glad you do that, but I’m equally, if not more so, concerned with our generic calling – making disciples. This can be done uniquely – but it is a generic call. When we are in decline, we are clearly not meeting the generic calling. If churches cannot do what we are all clearly called to do, why would we expect God to reveal something specific or unique? I worked for years with people who wanted a special revelation from God, but routinely failed (sometimes deliberately so) to do God’s obvious will.
Anyway, I’m getting into a rant now…
Sean, are you saying this post makes my butt look grumpy and old? 🙂
Good points. Let me push back a bit. What would the criteria be for knowing if you’re producing disciples? How would you know? Would it always be that you are getting bigger? Didn’t Willowcreek decide that they had failed precisely at this level? Do Churches of Christ produce disciples?
And where are these disciples to be made outside of space and time? What is generic discipleship? Wouldn’t you want to say that part of our problem in Churches of Christ is that we’ve made discipleship a cookie-cutter affair? Looks the same, everywhere, every culture, every age? Wouldn’t being a disciple necessarily involve asking what God has called us to in this time and place? Wouldn’t that have to be a big part of what it means to follow a living God?
I’m not trying to turn this into a defense of Churches of Christ. I think our numbers likely mean something and undoubtedly point to some deficiencies. I’m just trying to say I don’t think we’re asking the right questions to determine what they mean. And I could be wrong about this, but I think our hard-wired cultural response is to ask questions that come from a Western myth of progress. I agree that many people don’t care about that. But I would think making people disciples in this day and age would have to include challenging that myth.
And now you’ve got me ranting.
Anyway, it makes me feel better about our chances in Churches of Christ having people like you in leadership positions.
I think there are miles and miles between churches of Christ and Willow Creek. Plus, what Willow found out is that their disciples weren’t developing. They spent several years and millions of dollars to discover this. I can tell you the same about most churches of Christ without going through all that trouble.
No the discipleships isn’t generic, the call to make disciples is. And what I mean by generic is this; what we’re all expected to do. We can do that uniquely, but we can’t afford to not do it at all.
What worries me about some will take from you post (and I know this is not what you’re saying) is ecclesial docetism – whatever happens, good or bad, is entirely God’s doing. As comforting as that is in times of decline, no one actually lives that way. I can’t imagine anyone saying of their children, “Honey, these grades are terrible. Let’s embrace the death of your education so you can experience intellectual resurrection.” Of their finances, “We’re broke and in debt, let’s embrace the death of our credit so it can be resurrected.” And as many marriages I know of that hit rock-bottom before they got better, no therapist worth their salt would prescribe that.
That being said, I know things like these examples happen, but no one chooses them upfront! Likewise, I don’t think we should grab on to theological romanticism about declining churches. Like you, I believe in the power of resurrection, but I fear some will take what you’ve said too far, that we’ll embrace resurrection because that’s all we have left. I trust that my grandfather will be resurrected, but it was cancer that killed him. We fought the cancer before he died.
And the cookie-cutter question is a good one. I don’t believe in cookie-cutter discipleship, but I do believe is predictable discipleship (to an extent). Disciples have some predictable traits and personalities – the fruit of the spirit, some may say. Is it cookie-cutter? No. Is it normative? Should be. Likewise, churches that deny the call to make disciples are foolish to think God will reveal some secret, special, or unique knowledge to them when they have failed to do what is clearly called for in scripture. They’re trying to do discrete math without knowing how to add, subtract, multiply and divide. They’re trying to run a marathon before they’ve managed to run around the block.
We do have a hard wired cultural response. But this doesn’t make it the wrong response. I think it’s the right response to want my neighbors to experience Jesus in a community seeking God. And I don’t think it’s a wrong response to work and pray to make that happen. And I don’t think it’s a wrong response to recalibrate our approach when we don’t seeing disciple-making happening on a wide scale, and especially when we see decline. And I think it’s a right-minded response when an entire movement is in decline to try to assess on a wide-scale what we could do better.
And then, if it dies, it dies. But it dies like my grandfather, having all the chemo, radiation, and healthy systems we could manage to give it. And in between the death and the resurrection is the mourning. And I know of no one standing beside a casket who wants to be left saying, “I wish we would have done more.”