This sermon was preached at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Richmond, KY on Sunday, May 15th.
The Christian Church is a dying church.
That is an alarming statement, isn’t it? Yet surveys, studies, and scores of statistics seem to indicate that mainline churches like this one are on the way out. In 1958, The Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ) reported over 2 million members. In 2006, we reported fewer than 700,000 members. And we aren’t alone. In the last ten years, the Presbyterian Church (USA) has seen 800,000 members, or 20% of its membership, evaporate. And the United Methodists aren’t too far behind. Some wonder aloud, “is our future churchable?” “Will we soon witness the end of church?” Even though a huge number of Americans still report an affiliation with Christianity, fewer folks are coming to church. The declines have been quite stable.
And we know this, don’t we? The statistics are alarming, but not surprising. We’ve seen membership decline here in our own church over the years, have we not? We’ve made “slowing our shrinkage” a goal in some of our ministry teams, right? We’ve shared in conversation worrying about the future of this church, haven’t we?
And we’ve wondered what to do about it? How do we get back to that golden age of membership abundance, when, as we read in Acts, “day by day the Lord added to their numbers those who were being saved”? How do we see that kind of growth again? That kind of vitality? Whatever can we do about it?
One strategy we might turn to, and one many churches employ, involves a turn to “the future,” that is, the young people. We worry about the future of the church and so we look to those who have the longest future ahead of them. We know full well that a growing, vibrant youth group and a robust children’s ministry are correlated with church growth. So we re-prioritize our budget and we gather energetic leaders to grow the youth program. And then we wait… we wait as the program shows signs of new life and growing interest. We wonder, will it work? Will this spark catch the church on fire?
Another strategy, often complementing the focus on youth, is to find a really young, devilishly handsome clergy person with spunk and imagination. We trust that his energy and creativity will be attractive to those who are otherwise put off by church, or who have just not found anything interesting at church recently. Maybe this will be the spark that sets the church on fire! New ideas, new energy, surely we’ll discover a new direction!
Some churches even decide that a new future calls for a new structure, a new building. If we could just make our church building more beautiful, more appealing, more inviting, then, yes then, surely we would see growth! We might have such aspirations for our own renovation and building campaign.
And there are signs of hope, whispers of a churchable future. A huge Easter crowd. A few new faces on Sunday morning. Some new baptisms.
Encouraged, we might re-vamp our evangelism efforts—redouble our attention to visitors and reach out openly to the community. Yes, we might make it a priority to invite others to church so that this new growth trend will continue. And all these efforts are important, all these programs and staffing matters do make a difference. They have an impact. But aren’t we really caught in a downward trend of inevitable church failure?
Maybe the question for each of us today, in the face of all the gloomy statistics, is: why haven’t we simply left our pew empty? Why are we still here?
Our Scripture passage in Acts offers us the contours of a vibrant church. We see a growing community rich in learning, sharing, and praying. We see a gathering where people eat together and give generously. And we can almost hear their laughter, feel their joy, sense their intimacy. We might wonder, what does it take to find that? Surely that is a church we can learn from, a church that isn’t dying!
Yes, that is a church we can learn from—but it is also a church that is dying.
Friends, churches are meant to die. The church is what it is only when it embraces its own death, its own end.
What we need to be clear about is what this death, this end, is really all about. I want to suggest this morning that a dying church is not necessarily a failing church.
We should not be fooled into believing that a decline in membership indicates the sure failure of an institution. There are those churches who have seen the end of their institution, but who, in closing their doors, were faithful to the call of God. Some reopened their doors with a new name, new leadership, and a wildly different demographic. Dr. Betsy can share with you a marvelous story about one church she knows that did just that. Other churches, upon closing, reallocated their resources to the denomination or a nearby church, thereby extending the life of their church in the work of another.
We should not be fooled into believing that a decline in membership indicates the sure failure of an institution…
Nor should we be fooled into believing that rapid church growth indicates something good is going on at a church, or any institution for that matter. Churches can grow, as well as shrink, for the wrong reasons. Some grow like a club, where the reputation of members pulls in others—what matters is public exposure, not the gospel of Jesus Christ. Other churches shrink rather than change their worship patterns to reflect the needs and desires of the surrounding community. They would rather close than change.
Now we must be honest, numbers are important and churches who ignore their numbers—their budget, their attendance patterns—aren’t in any better shape than those who focus exclusively on them. Still, growing and shrinking cannot be our final barometer for success. If it is, we will surely fail, and fail forever more.
That’s because our purpose is what calls for our attention, not our numbers. Our measure of success is our faithfulness to our mission and vision as a church. Dan Hotchkiss writes that our mission and vision is the little piece of God’s grand Will lovingly entrusted to us. Churches that become overly focused on numbers lose sight of their mission, or, worse yet, make numbers their mission. And they can only walk blindly into momentary growth or stagger into the darkness of church closure.
Despite the scary numbers reported by many, scholar and author Diana Butler Bass believes the mainline church is not declining, and definitely not failing, across the board. She points to a number of congregations that have experienced great renewal. She suggests that renewal has occurred because those churches embraced “intentionality” over “conventionality”–in other words, mission over tradition or trendiness. Rather than rush to new worship styles simply to be attractive, or cling to old worship styles simply because that’s how we operate around here; rather than find flashy ways to be exposed to the public, rather than offer so many programs that leaders were overloaded and the congregation stretched thin; rather than do all this with an eye towards generating visitors and growing the church, these mainline churches decided to focus long and hard on what they were already doing and why they were doing it. They looked closely at their worship, their habits of prayer, their meal sharing, their efforts to learn, and their practices of hospitality. They decided to take what they did and do it with purpose and clarity, and the deep sense of mission caught the church on fire.
And the good news this morning is that First Christian Church has a mission—we have formulated what we believe is God’s will for us here in Richmond:
Our Mission as First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is to share God’s love with all people, by developing our spirits, creating ministries that will improve lives, and becoming a hub for all in the community who are working to help people.
We have a mission to direct our strengthening youth program, to inform our exciting building project, and we have a mission that gives us something to invite others to join. We have a purpose.
By taking on and staying focused on our purpose, our mission, by moving from conventionality to intentionality, we can defy the decline—we can deviate from the statistics and reports heralding our impending failure. But we will also come face to face with our own end. For in God’s time, what is church but a temporary incubator for the Kingdom of God. For what is church but an institution that hopes beyond hope it will melt into the free, unbidden love of God and neighbor. We do not, we cannot cling to our life as an institution, worrying frantically about our numbers and scrounging up strategies for church growth.
No, we work hard, with God’s help, to realize our mission—to live out our purpose; and in the culmination of all things, to see our own end. We hope our final future is not churchable. We work to share God’s love, develop our spirits, and improve lives so that one day there will be no need for preaching, there will be no need to pray for healing and wholeness, there will be no need to care for the poor and outcast. And to get there, to reach that day when no more tears of pain and torment flow, when no more mercy and justice is required, we must be nothing other than the church God has entrusted us to be: a church with the Son’s purpose, with the Father’s clarity, and with the Holy Spirit’s power—we must be like the church depicted in Acts who prays, worships, learns, shares, and loves.
When the church is determined to die, and when it welcomes its own end; then it will be surprised to discover that day by day, God adds to their numbers those who are being saved. As Jesus reminds us, only when we lose our life, can we find it. And, oh, what life we will find. May this Christian Church be a dying church. Amen.
 See the most recent numbers in the National Council of Churches’ 2011 Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches.