Against the Grain of Church Decline

Patrick Duggan

This week’s post is written by the Rev. Dr. Patrick G. Duggan, Executive Director of the United Church of Christ Church Building & Loan Fund. Since 1995, Rev. Dr. Duggan has also served as senior pastor of the Congregational Church of South Hempstead in South Hempstead, New York.

In case you are a faith leader that has never seen church decline statistics that tell you how and why your church is headed toward oblivion, please stop reading this now, go to your web browser and do a search on the words “church decline”.  We will wait for you.

Glad to have you back. I know how you feel right now.

I first confronted the reality of church decline (or rather the reality of paralysis in the face of church decline) over 20 years ago in a meeting of a local judicatory. A presenter appealing to church leaders to increase mission giving shared the membership figures of the congregations in the judicatory. In one-year, the aggregate membership of nearly 80 congregations had declined by 10%. Surely the presenter would say something about that. No. Wait. He did not mention it. Let me raise my hand. Oh, someone else beat me to it. No. She did not ask about it. Surely this next one will. No. The next? No again. Wait a minute now, somebody ought to say something. I guess it will have to be me. OK, it’s my turn. 

“By these numbers, if this pattern continues, in 10 years there will be no more members in congregations of this region. Rather than worrying about mission giving, shouldn’t we be talking about growing the church?”

Source: Image: of hands cupping a mound of dirt, with a new plant growing from the dirt. Raindrops are falling.

Certain that I had made one of those “drop-the-mic” pronouncements, I sat down expecting an outpouring of commentary on what we congregations, together, might do to fight off our inexorable demise. Surely there would be agreement from some of the more robust congregations. Maybe the larger ones would offer words of advice or encouragement. Maybe one of the convenors would propose a study group, a task force, or a speaking invitation to the latest, greatest church growth guru. None of that happened.

In fact, nothing happened. It was as if I had not spoken. Perhaps the words were too painful to acknowledge. Whatever it was, instead of “drop-the-mic-and-hear-the-applause” there was drop-dead silence. 

That day I learned that for church folks, a strategic planning approach to church decline takes us nowhere. The decline within American Christianity cannot be solved by a church growth plan, or by adroitly navigating generational gaps to reach “lost” youth. The evidence is indisputable that for a long time, the institution has been in trouble. 

Mainline denominations have not prioritized solving the problem of church decline. Some of us believe that we should go back and do what we used to do when we had growing numbers of active members in congregations. We try the same strategies and fool ourselves into thinking that we will get new results. We know that times have changed, but we are slow to embrace that we must change.

And yet despite our inability to reverse the decline, clearly, God is not through with us yet. By the numbers, if the judicatory mentioned above had continued its membership decline at 10% per year, all of its church members should have been gone ten years ago. Instead, twenty years later, with the decline continuing, that judicatory has added a half dozen new churches and regularly gathers delegates from most of its member congregations at biannual gatherings.

Source: Image: Newly formed pink rosebuds returning after a dormant period, glistening in sun and moisture, preparing to bloom.

Rather than ending all conversation, the decline conversation must be our starting point. Rather than being afraid of what it means (I once calculated how long before the United Church of Christ would go from 900,000 members to “zero”), we must assume Mainline decline as a necessary truth. In the same sense that God spoke to Isaiah about reducing Israel to the “holy seed”, or the way that Jesus spoke of pruning the proverbial vine, perhaps God has decided that the Mainline must be pruned, hacked, and cut down significantly so that like the four-foot-high, three-foot-wide woody-limbed rose bush in my garden that I cut down every fall to an unrecognizable foot-high stump, new, supple, productive branches of the church may grow out of a remnant of people rooted and grounded in faith. 

Christians are of many kinds, but one thing at our core is resurrection. We argue doctrine, we debate Christian practice, we differ on biblical interpretation, but we share the heritage of an empty tomb. The cross of Calvary is our brand. The Risen Savior is our “thing”.  Resurrection is our defiant theological stance that death is not the last word.  Death is big, humbling, and we would rather talk about just about anything else, but what Jesus did at Calvary was to remove death’s supremacy over life. What the Lord’s Prayer, Psalm 23, and many other scriptures affirm for us is that through life, to death, and on the other side of death, there is still life.

Decline is not the last word. Our shared vision of the future must embody the question When the church as we know it passes away, what is God calling us to be and to do on the other side?  Inspired by this vision, we must live out our faith today like there is no tomorrow.

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