Back in my seminary days, when I was young and idealistic, I took great comfort in the knowledge that men like Peter Wagner, Donald McGavran, Win Arn and Lyle Schaller had authored books containing all the wisdom necessary to bring numerical growth to any church I ever served. A comfortably warm feeling came over me when I read the lists of bullet points and action plans which seemingly guaranteed that I would baptize more saints than I buried and that more people would be discipled than would depart.
More than twenty years later, almost 90% of our churches are not growing through healthy evangelism, according to a 2004 study by New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Strangely, at the same time we’ve had more church growth literature than ever before, we are experiencing rapid numerical decline, except among the ten percent of churches experiencing healthy evangelism. Perhaps it’s time to ask some hard questions.
- Are the 10% of churches experiencing healthy evangelism being served only by those pastors who read the books?
- Did any pastors of the 90% of churches not experiencing healthy evangelism read the books? Are they all slow readers?
- If the answers are really found in these books, shouldn’t we all be experiencing healthy evangelism? What if the books were wrong?
- What if healthy evangelism is not explained by the factors listed in the books but by other factors the books avoided?
For 28 consecutive years, under three pastors and two interims, the church I currently serve has registered fewer members each year than the year before. We still have a meaningful ministry. We still reach souls. We still baptize. We still preach and pray and visit and counsel and minister. We’re just growing older and smaller every year. Here are a few of the reasons, as I see them:
- Our community has aged and new housing is very rare. Many of the homes close to the church were built over 50 years ago. The typical home that furnished our congregation a family of six in the pew every Sunday morning now contributes only one, a widow whose husband I probably buried at some point over the past twelve years. The children have moved away.
- Things around us are closing. The flower shop across the street is boarded up. The high school one block down relocated. Even the football stadium at the end of the street will not feature games on Friday nights this fall, replaced by the newer one near the new high school. Once upon a time, our inner suburban ring was a highly desirable location for families. Today, they are choosing to locate farther away from the central district of our small city where our majestic steeple rises high.
- With a median age in the sixties, we bury between 25 and 35 people per year and typically baptize about half that number. More congregants move away from us than move to town. This is especially evident the week after our teenagers move off to college. We will rarely see them again except for holidays, weddings and funerals.
- Following a widow’s funeral, the children come to town and sell the house in order to liquidate the estate. Typically, it sells to individuals or families of an ethnic or socioeconomic group that is not attracted to the worship style, age, manners and customs of our church fellowship. We have many lovely society ladies who attend meetings, study books, participate in projects and then enjoy finger sandwiches. It’s fair to say that the new residents of our community aren’t like that.
- Frankly, as a socioeconomically lower class of people move into our community, we are open to ministering both to and among them. We feed many people locally through our food pantry. We minister to their children at Fall Festivals and Vacation Bible Schools. While it’s one thing for our new community residents to let us minister to them, it is another thing for them to feel comfortable joining us and being a part of us. Last year, I baptized the first black church member in the 137 year history of the church. While that may be a start, our congregation simply does not look like our immediate community.
- A fair number of people in our local community get in their cars on Sunday mornings, make their way to the highway, and travel twenty or thirty minutes to a megachurch in the socioeconomically privileged areas either to the south or to the north of us. One imagines that they may often stay in those communities Sunday afternoon for lunch and shopping before returning to our area which features fewer such amenities. Basically, the megachurches have often done to us what Walmart does to the corner drugstore.
Perhaps you are beginning to get the picture of the systemic problems inherent in a formerly large neighborhood church located in a transitional community. Running just over 800 in 1984, we are now just under 300 in 2012. It’s not really that hard to lose a net of eighteen people per year. All you have to do is baptize 20 and receive 15 by transfer of letter, while simultaneously conducting 30 funerals, sending 12 off to college and wishing 11 all the best as they move to their new homes.
I think Wagner, McGavran, Arn and Schaller had the very best of intentions. And yet, for the transitional community church, the downtown church, and the open country church, the painful reality is that factors are driving the church’s numerical condition that are simply beyond the control of even the most gifted pastor. Frankly, the prognosis is not all that great, and I am beginning to suspect that part of the problem stems from a diagnosis that falsely attributes church growth outcomes to ministry methodologies.
To further the medical analogy, and draw this article to a close, allow me to borrow an illustration from the television show House. Frequently, the brilliant but arrogant doctor will upbraid his medical students, chastising them for ruling out a diagnosis simply because there is no cure. If they come to a certain conclusion, they must face the painful reality that there’s nothing they can do medically to turn it around. Not wanting to admit the futility of this explanation, they continue arguing in favor of inferior theories for which there does, at least, exist a cure. When being right is hopeless, do we not prefer to be wrong?
Many churches similar to mine are also aging and dying. We must never give up or give in. We must keep preaching and reaching and teaching and serving and loving and caring and doing everything we can to fulfill God’s mission in our lives. But after more than twenty years of this, I cannot help but wonder if the diagnosis of the Church Growth Gurus was wrong after all. What if the one indispensable factor contributing to church growth is for your church — regardless of style, structure, pastor, doctrine or methods — to be located in a growing and financially secure (usually suburban) community? What if only ten percent of our churches happen to be located in communities with such potential for net numerical growth? If we accept this diagnosis, it means that our church growth books simply cannot solve the problem. Although such a conclusion may be excruciatingly painful, if it indeed has the advantage of being correct, then we should be courageous enough to embrace this reality, and cheerful enough to look on the bright side by admitting that at least all the books written by those Church Growth Gurus are now half price.