Monday, September 13, 2010

Sunday Services: the Blind Spot and Sacred Cow in Church Decline

Dave Householder has written a bracing post about the decline of the Lutherans in North America that is well worth reading. He gets extra credit for leading off with this; "This article is not just for Lutherans. It applies to most North American faith families." I expect the comments are really good too, but with 90 at last count I confess I lacked the fortitude to actually read them all!

He cites ten factors contributing to decline, including:
  • Low birth rate
  • Poor retention of the babies we do have
  • Staggering ineffectiveness in evangelism
  • Unwelcoming if not toxic parish communities
  • Little or no effective use of media
Decline has been an ongoing topic of my blog. I've integrated several of his points into the "pond metaphor" where you can easily see why the church used to grow but is in decline now. I even threw together a metric for "evangelical effectiveness" that is pretty jarring to look at.

But after reading David's post I still think that one of the most significant issues is going unnamed: the inherent ineffectiveness of Sunday morning gatherings, both for discipleship and for evangelism. Yet we persist in making these gatherings the centerpiece of our faith-life culture, and investing the vast majority of our time, energy and money in maintaining them as I've discussed here. Sunday morning, large group, presentational, professionally led, property-dependent worship services are, I'm afraid, both our biggest blind spot and our most sacred cow.

And this central assumption about the way to "do church" is perhaps the most unifying feature of North American Christendom. It can't be much of an overstatement to say that we all do it that way. No wonder then, that the decline spans the decades so readily and cuts so easily across denominational lines, and the liberal/conservative divide.

Large group gatherings are not bad. But as the centerpiece of faith practice they can never be effective in spreading or nurturing the faith. That requires face to face, heart to heart conversation, which is notoriously difficult to have in a pew, disrespectful during the preaching, and drowned out by the performance be it the organ or the band.