Friday, October 2, 2009

Mainline Decline and a Radical Response

Phillip Clayton, who teaches at Claremont School of Theology and leads a Transforming Theology project, recently posted some reflections from a conference that explored the reasons for mainline denominational decline. The article concluded:

"Effective answers to the current situation will require us either revivify the older beliefs and institutions or to invent radically new forms of Christian community."

Well, I had some thoughts, both on the why of decline and on a radical response, so I put up two comments on his blog and thought I'd share them here as well.

First comment:

Re. the original question “Why? … what has changed..?” to account for the decline, I offer this analogy.

Consider a pond. It grows larger when the inflow exceeds the outflow.

Mainline denominations (like my own Lutheran tribe) previously grew through immigration from the old country and childbirth. (My believing parents had 6 children: 400% church growth!). In addition, societal pressures “herded” people into church as a necessary entry point into civic community, as you noted in point 1 of the initial post.

All of these have changed and no longer feed people automatically into our congregations. The “tributaries” have largely dried up. One additional tributary is conspicuous by its absence: Evangelism. It seems never to have been a substantial feeder to the mainline pond. It’s been easier to rely on the other tributaries.

On the outflow side, there has also been change. People still die, of course, presumably at more or less the same rate. (If anything there’s been increased longevity which prolongs the life of the pond.) What’s changed is the erosion of the banks that have kept the water in place. The pond “leaks” like never before. Again, this is related to the sociological landscape you mentioned in 1 above. It is no longer a scandal for people to leave the church and have no formal “institutional” spiritual life.

So: less inflow, more outflow; shrinking pond.

Second comment:

Re. your second question: “HOW radical do the changes need to be to respond to the reality of the situation that the mainline is facing today?”

Pretty radical I’d say.

For starters, we’ll have to discover how to do evangelism in our current context. Just doing evangelism at all will be a big leap for a lot of us! (Among Lutherans, it’s often noted that we invite someone to church, on average, once every 20 years. Maybe 30.) Add to that the fact that our context is radically different than what we’ve known and it’s a tall order.

But more than that, I think we need a radical revision in the way we “do church.” (That really should be “the way we be church” which is unfortunately awkward to say.)

Conventional congregational life – across the denominations and across the decades of decline – centers around a weekly large group gathering. For most, this is their primary if not sole experience of Christian community. Yet in these gatherings, it is essentially impossible to experience the “one anothers” that are truly at the heart of being a people sharing a life of faith together. That kind of substantive community requires smaller groups to flourish.

We invest vast amounts of time, energy and money into maintaining a weekly event, in the hope that substantive community will arise around it.

We need to invert that. We need to invest primarily into nurturing small, self-reproducing faith communities where people actually grow as disciples. That’s a radical change.

Whether this results in larger gatherings arising from the small communities or not is secondary, icing on the cake.

Can existing, conventional congregations can make that kind of transition? It seems doubtful, though it would be exciting to try. Whether they can serve as a launching pad for new expressions of Christian community seems more likely, and I’m hopeful there. But whether they can or not, I think these communities are on their way, thank God. We need them. We have a lot of Kingdom work to do!


Ron Amundson said...

I was thinking on this a bit. In years past, and in some churches, circle is pretty huge. I seem to remember my grandmothers circle meeting nearly every week back in 1970 or so. It was the proverbial small group, and I think the church had perhaps as many as 10 of them, each comprising 5-10 women. All of this in a church with a membership of about 300 or so.

In checking contemporary websites, such seems to be the exception rather than the rule like it was back then.

Mike said...

I think your analysis rings true. The Christianization of the west has provided a variety of social motivators for church membership. I'm not sure what you believe on this matter, but in my view these social motivators were not present in the early church. They emerged when Christianity became the official and respected institution at the center of western society. Centuries of dependence on these "tributaries" have made us flabby evangelists. I believe we need re-learn how to engage in dialog with the culture. Small groups as you have suggested, where believers meet face to face and share their lives together would be the ideal place to do that.

Charles said...

I think there are several reasons for mainline denominational decline, speaking as one who no longer attends one:

1. In trying to intellectualize and contemporize the Christian message, they've watered it down. People who are searching want to know the unadulterated truth, not a rationalized version that attempts to please everyone.

2. Calvinist denominations have what I'd call the "Shaker" approach to evangelism. If God has already predetermined who's going to be saved then why evangelize? Unless you are born into it, why would you be one? Why would you want to?

3. Trying to "engage" the culture is a recipe continued decline. The mainline churches have been doing that for the last 40 years. Talk about "losing their saltiness." It's hard to differentiate a "mainline" Christian from the rest of the population. The Jews were separated from the rest of society and provide an example for the Church. We are called to be in the world but not a part of it.

So, there you have my two cents, which is probably what it's worth.

Mike said...


If you are referring to my comment, where I say "engage in dialog",(when you call it a loosing proposition) I just want you to be aware that I am referring to the act of evangelism. The engage vs disengaged distinction rather than the confrontational vs accommodating distinction. The fact is the church grows through evangelism and believers genuinely do not know how to talk about their faith. Learning how will only come from the act of doing, reflecting, and doing again - perhaps within the context of a supportive community which is also experimenting and taking risks. These are some of my thoughts anyway.

The Feral Pastor said...

Hey Gentlemen - thanks for stopping by!

Ron - I've made the same observations re. women's circles. Fewer of them and older members (which also describes the overall decline.) And while they've generally been welcoming to new members, intentional multiplication has been pretty rare, I think.

Mike - I think you're right. Social motivators kept people out of church at first, then rewarded membership, and now... not so much. Curiously, churches under persecution have often grown so I'm told. My suspicion there is that the social "pressure" increases the relationship "density" resulting in a "critical mass" for faith formation.

Charles - good pushback!
For Calvinist witnessing, check out this highly amusing video illustrating your point:

And it's true that by lots of criteria e.g. divorce, believers are not detectably different (much less better) than the surrounding culture. That's a scandal. Whatever happened to "And they had the goodwill of all the people?" (Luke 2:47)

But re. your point 1, I think there's a whole tangle of things going on there and I may not be reading you correctly. When you refer to the "unadulterated truth" that sounds to me like you're referring to a propositional expression of faith, which ironically, came about when the church 'intellectualized and contemporized' the message in response to the Enlightenment. Like many, I have found that expression of Christianity too rationalistic. At the center, as I see it, is a Greek vs. Hebrew understanding of "truth" itself. That's a whole 'nother deal but I do think it plays into the decline phenomena. For more on the truth issue from me, see this post:

Charles said...

I should have known people associated with you, Tim, would be smarter than I am! Let me take a stab at this, though...

What I was alluding to in my "unadulterated truth" statement was that while the Christian message is to the world, the means of salvation is exclusionary, e.g John 14:6 - I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

When the church starts saying that there are "many ways to God," it dilutes and "adulterates" the message and contradicts scripture. Let's face it, if there are "many ways to God" then why Christianity? Why not something else that's easier?

That's where I was also going with the engagement argument. I jumped to the conclusion that Mike meant compromise with the world (which I do too often, by the way). Therefore, I completely and totally missed Mike's point!

BTW, please hold me accountable if I come across ungraciously. My written language doesn't always reflect my heart.

Dennis Sanders said...

You hit on some good points, Tim.

As usual. :)

Anonymous said...

"Relationship density" starting with the log in my own eye, I think decidedly explains the weakening of truly spiritual movement. The pond model is very helpful to the demographic and cultural understanding of what has happened to the mainline church. So forgive me for saying it is a bit cruel to just shoot the remaining ducks on already dried up ponds.

As a former rural farmboy who has now spent an equal amount of time in cities what I have witnessed is fairly simple. The people continue to move, while the buildings do not. Whether it is from rural to city or inner city to suberb, people have raised their standard of living, becoming less dependant, less available, less trustful of and less supported by family and neighbors, less mono-cultural, and more involved in causes other than church.

Government and government leadership, education and educational leadership, corporations and corporate leadership, churches and church leadershp, synods and synod leadership ARE THE TARGET OF EVERYONES FAVORITE HEADLINE..."THEY ARE FAILING AT ALARMING RATES!!" I go back to Romans 11 for perspective and focus on respecting the root even dead branches, while growing new ones. The fact that many gentile churches find themselves in the position the Jews were trapped (Humanist and unwilling see Jesus authority through the fog of diluted organizational authority...Romans 6-8)is truly the opportunity for "Bible-Word churches" and communities of faith who live small with high "relationship density" through small groups but live big and sacrificially through mission and outreach AND WORSHIP. It human nature to want to be a rock-star for Christ and stand in a stadium of 20,000 singing the doxology...there is a reason God made mountain tops and designed us with a vision for heaven that includes a large choir of angels...He loves those loud joyful noises...even on the internet.

JB from CG