The end of the church as we know it

While the institutional church is in decline, possibilities abound for new ways of producing faithful followers of Jesus Christ.

By Amy Butler

Has anybody out there noticed that church attendance has been lower lately? The church budget is stretched thin because fewer people are giving? You can’t get a commitment out of people who are so busy they are already making summer plans -- for next summer? Welcome to the reality of church decline.

There has been quite a bit in the media lately about the trending decline of the institutional church and ongoing conversation about what strategy might ensure its sustainability. Countless observers of American religious life have noted that the church, all versions, is struggling. What they mean by decline is that fewer people are attending church, churches and denominational entities are getting organizationally smaller and there’s less money to go around.

This decline is not a suggestion or a guess but a fact. Even with the occasional mega church on the corner or some communities where these symptoms of decline don’t seem to be readily evident, they are there, just beneath the surface, or they are coming soon.

As a result, some church professionals are feeling a growing panic. What do we do with a church that looks different than it did, say, 50 years ago? It looks smaller and less popular. It has less influence on society as a whole. It seems to have lost its place at the center of most peoples’ lives. And we don’t know what to do.

If we churchy folk think like our society does, then results like money, growth, membership and buildings are measures of the quality, and maybe even the godliness, of our work. So, if our strategy is to keep measuring success by those markers, we find ourselves with two options:

We can keep going as we are, determined that a significant measure of good luck -- or, alternatively, shutting our eyes really tightly to the reality around us -- will keep our heads above water in the long run. (At least until we can pass the church keys along to the next generation and let them deal with the problems we’re beginning to see.)

Or, we can paddle as hard as we can, applying and reapplying common best practices as frantically as possible, hoping that somehow we can stem the tide of decline, avoid the waterfall, plug the hole in the boat. This could work, for a little while, at least.

While “How can we fix this?” is the logical question to ask in response to the realization of church decline, I am just not so sure that it is the right question. There may be a deeper question before us, a spiritual question, something like: “How do we make faithful disciples of Jesus Christ?”

Our work is not to control the trends of society or to prop up a comfortable model we’ve become accustomed to. Our work is to make faithful disciples of Jesus Christ: to bring the gospel to the world, to nurture people in their faith, to live as good stewards of what we’ve been given and to bring justice and peace to a society desperately in need.

We’ve done all these things with varying degrees of success for years and years with members, money, programs and buildings. Now, with this new reality confronting us, how can we continue to make faithful disciples of Jesus Christ?

I think it’s an exciting time for the church. Society has handed us a reality we’d hoped we’d misread, but instead of lamenting our plight or struggling to get things back to the way they used to be, think of all the possibilities that await us.

The church as we know it is in decline, it’s true. And we anticipate the future with the assurance that God, most certainly, is not.


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