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.


Unknown said...

Great thoughts and points Tim! Did you post them on the Householder blog with the "90+" comments? I think you should!

Feral Pastor said...

Thanks Katie! I did comment on Dave's blog. I think I'm #93.

Anonymous said...

Gethsemane? Good Lord. You have the poster child illustration of what I'm talking about in my essay. You have the most amazing gallery of Lutheran fertility/decline on earth--your 100 yard long wall of confirmation pictures. I think it should be a national monument.

Feral Pastor said...

Yep, that 70 years' worth display of confirmation photos certainly does tell a story - or rather, several. Birth rates is one, for sure. (My two parents raised six sons - that's like 300% Kingdom growth, right? I remember pointing this out to my previous congregation once, then asking the new mother in the front row if she was planning on having five more for the Church as well. It was clear to all this was not a strategy she was eager to embrace. Yet nothing changed.) The confirmation photos also tell the story of suburban growth and decline, eras of conflict and so on.

But I'm more interested in your thoughts about my point that by overemphasizing large group worship we have inadvertently gutted the relational foundation that's a prerequisite for both discipleship and evangelism?

Do you agree? If so, what do you think the situation calls for in response?

Feral Pastor said...

Forgot to mention... I'm no longer at Gethsemane. Finished up an extended, "transitional" interim at the end of July. Guess I neglected to update my blogger profile.

Calandreya said...

I was born Lutheran and left. Guess I'm part of the problem.

Feral Pastor said...

Hi Calandrea -

I tend to think that people leaving is a symptom of a problem that the Church has yet to face. It's been observed that a lot of people are leaving the Church in order to preserve their faith. (See Reggie McNeal, Present Future. Anne Rice is a recent example.) Maybe that's a part of your story?

I often think of the early explorers and settlers who left Europe for the New World. When there is a pressing need or opportunity for "leaving," then the ones that go aren't so much a problem as a part of the solution.