Tuesday, May 18, 2010
Random Thoughts on Why Our Churches Are Dying
I started this post some few months ago, and then let it "sit," wondering if I would have much else to say. I didn't, not 'til the last couple of days, when I see from our local Baptist newspaper and some of what I see on Facebook that changing this situation is going to require the finger of God. If you're a Baptist, read on at your peril. I have added only a small amount of material since the original writing. I apologize if it doesn't seem a model of coherence. It was, after all, intended to be a "random thoughts" sort of post.
Of course, your church may not be dying. "Church death" may not even be on your radar screen for one reason or another. You might find some of these thoughts useful for future reference anyway, if only to give yourself some ideas on some things to avoid.
Our congregation was told some time ago that one of our full-time ministerial staff was being let go, due to a budget shortfall. In a way, it didn't really surprise me. I've been wondering how we afforded so much staff.
I'm not being negative about the man. The person who was let go is a wonderful guy. Very knowledgeable, very capable, universally loved (I know he's universally loved; I took over teaching the Sunday School class he taught. It took months for that stuff to settle down!). I'm sorry to see him go, I really am. But you have to wonder just how much full-time staff a church that (to the best of my knowledge) averages no more than two hundred people in worship on Sundays (and actually, I think it's less) can realistically afford to support.
You have to understand: it wasn't always this way. This church is somewhat more than fifty years old. Built shortly after World War II, as, I understand, a church plant from First Baptist, Tulsa. At the time, it was on the outskirts of town. Now, the part of Tulsa it's in is considered somewhat old and dilapidated. When it was built, the United States was in the middle of the legendary "baby boom." American economic power was at its zenith (economic power fueled, in large part, by a policy involving consumption taxes, the specific variety being tariffs, I might add). The population was growing and people had money. This church was built where all the young people with money were moving. It grew and grew rapidly. I believe that at one time there were about six hundred or so people in the services (I could be wrong on this), just like there was at another church built in the same time frame only a mile or two down the road. The population out there was growing so fast that you could hardly build churches fast enough or big enough--or at least I'm sure it seemed like that.
Take heed, those of you who live where the young people with money are moving now--places like Owasso, Jenks, Bixby, and so forth. There was a time when those old churches in central Tulsa fit the same profile you fit now.
I'm dead certain that when those rapidly-growing churches of the fifties and sixties were experiencing explosive growth, quite a lot of people saw that growth as a blessing from God and not a whole lot of people gave much thought to the possibility that they were doing some things drastically wrong. Why would they? I'm not sure it would occur to me, either. But in retrospect...
...You know, years ago I worked for a rather large restaurant chain. We had a location in Claremore that did pretty good business. One day I chanced to talk with the district manager who had that location. It seemed that a Wendy's had opened up down the road from our store--we called our restaurants "stores," for some reason--and business at our store had gone down. The district manager told me that he had been told that our store must be dirty. In other words, the problem, the business downturn, had to be the result of something the management and crew were doing wrong. It couldn't possibly be the result of a new competitor opening up. It couldn't be the result of a business plan that assumed the absence of real competition. It had to be something going wrong within the store. And before the Wendy's opened up? Presumably, their bang-up business must have been solely the result of excellence in product, cleanliness, and service. It must be very difficult to examine yourself and your business model for deficiencies when things are going smoothly and you are making good money. Why wouldn't you assume that what you are doing is correct? After all, you are making money--and isn't that the ultimate criteria for most businesses?
In the same way, I can't help but think that it must be very hard for a relatively new church experiencing explosive growth to examine itself and decide that it is doing some things wrong, or at least not as wisely as they might. It seems to me that just as most businesses operate on the assumption that massive profitability validates their business practices, most churches operate on the assumption that massive growth indicates that they are at least not doing too badly. When I've visited churches that are growing rapidly--the ones I've visited in the last few years are mostly out in Owasso--it seems to me that they have an undercurrent in their thinking, an assumption that their exploding numbers are at least partly the result of God's blessing and their own evangelistic fervor. Some seem to have a handle on the reality that Owasso and its churches are the beneficiaries of young couples with money moving out to the 'burbs, but others don't quite seem to "get" this and assume that their model of ministry must be okay.
To be fair, I'm not altogether sure that I would do things any differently in that situation. Looking at the situation in central Tulsa, my first thought was that it would have been better for those then-rapidly growing churches to have spun off more local, neighborhood churches than to build large buildings and grow themselves to enormous size. That way, I thought, when the younger folks moved out to go to college, then to the 'burbs and even to other states, the remaining, smaller congregations wouldn't have been faced with the problems of trying to maintain large buildings and large staffs on retirees' budgets. But then I remembered that the two churches I was thinking of most were within a mile-and-a-half of each other. How much more "local" can you get? Both those churches were running over 500 in attendance at one point! And they weren't the only churches in the neighborhood, not by a long shot!
Try convincing crowds like that that they do not, as a church, really know how to evangelize. I bring that up because, in retrospect, it seems clear that they did not. If they really knew how to evangelize, then would it not have been inevitable, as families moved out of the neighborhood and new families moved into those houses, that those new people would have been brought into the church in numbers proportional to those who had left? But that didn't happen. Instead, as families aged and children moved out of the neighborhood, those churches' attendance gradually dwindled. Since the houses in those neighborhoods are still occupied, I have to conclude that--for whatever reason--we are not taking the gospel to those new residents, at least not in the same way we did to the former residents.
This would certainly be consistent with my experience. Time and again, I'll bring up the topic of personal evangelism and witnessing and visitation to folks in our Sunday School class, and the folks in our Sunday School class will, time and again, aver that overall, they prefer "lifestyle evangelism." (They did not use this term; it is something I introduced to them.)
Do you know what lifestyle evangelism is? It is operating on the assumption that the people around you, on seeing how differently you live, will eventually be drawn to ask you what makes the difference in your life, giving you an opportunity to share the Gospel. And it is certainly true, in my opinion, that if you are going to go around sharing the Gospel, a lifestyle consistent with it certainly helps! And maybe this sort of thing was more effective back in the fifties and sixties, when central air conditioning and cable tv weren't ubiquitous and people spent more of their time outdoors, where their neighbors could see them. But now? Friends, for the most part, your neighbors don't even notice you, not unless your car is blocking their driveway. They are certainly not going to take notice of how holy your life is. And, too, ironically, the same people who seem to think that their lifestyles are so holy that they will attract people to Christ as lights attract moths will consistently confess that they need to grow in holiness! So, overall, what is lifestyle evangelism worth these days?
Sooner or later, you've got to go knock on some doors and at least pass out a tract. It's better to be able to say something, but--and yes, I have asked--most Christians don't feel terribly confident in their ability to clearly articulate the Gospel, or to answer questions and objections, so they don't even try. They just keep coming to Sunday School and church services, hoping all the while, I guess, that they will eventually gain enough knowledge to be able to tell other people what they believe about God, life, death, eternity, and salvation. To my mind, the situation looks like a massive, systemic failure to educate and train, despite a massive Sunday School program and the availability of enough literature to choke a moose.
You know how I teach Mexican immigrants to speak English? (I teach an ESL class on Sunday nights.) We have books, of course, and we use them, but class after class, I, as the teacher, get up there and make them speak English. They can help one another answer questions all they want, but they have to do it in English. The hands-on practice is far more valuable than the textbook study, important as that is.
I can't help but think that for decades, we've had evangelism books, seminars, and so forth, and all we've succeeded in doing is so clouding the issue that most people aren't sure that they can share the Gospel "correctly!" Great result, isn't it? Perhaps it would have been better to focus first on hands-on experience and supplement with the training. Perhaps not. Perhaps yet another model would have been better. But because we confused demographically-driven church growth with successful evangelism, the idea that the core of our evangelistic practices simply didn't work and needed to be revamped never gained traction. If the thought was ever voiced, which I rather doubt. And now, our once-full churches in central Tulsa are dying on the vine, despite the homes around them being occupied, and I predict that the same thing will eventually happen to the now-full churches in Owasso.
The final nail in the coffin of how I think of our evangelistic methods, so to speak, was a thought that--in all seriousness--took me years to develop. You may remember, if you're from around Tulsa, that Franklin Graham came to Tulsa several years ago. Of course, I signed up to be a counselor and went to all of the BGEA's training sessions. Most were forgettable, though I remember enjoying seeing some of the other churches 'round town, but one--I think it was the third one--was something I'll never forget, not as long as I live.
You see, at one point, the person leading the training session--it was at Christ United Methodist, I believe, and it was packed out, brothers and sisters--asked all the assembled, "How many people here came to Christ at a revival?"
And a few hands went up.
Then, "How many people here came to Christ because they saw Billy Graham on TV?"
And a few hands went up.
Then, "How many people here came to Christ because of an evangelistic tract?"
And a few more hands went up.
And then, finally, "How many people here came to Christ because a friend or relative told them about Christ?"
And the whole place went up!
And I thought, "Brother, you don't know it, but you just told me that I'm wasting my time here." And that thought stayed in my head for a long time, even though I continued with FAITH evangelism, with "Share Jesus Without Fear," and so forth, and was one of the most consistent people in visitation the church had.
Some few months back, I was, like I alluded to earlier, talking to my Sunday School class about personal evangelism, and a light bulb went on. "How many," I asked, "of you live within a three--mile-or-so radius of this church?"
One hand went up, as I recall. Then I asked, "How many of you have friends or relatives that live within a three-mile-or-so radius of this church?"
And nobody, friends, nobody said a word. And that is the reality, friends, of most of the churches dying around you, I am quite sure. Yes, your church members fail to evangelize--to strangers, with evangelistic models that were assumed to work because the churches that used them grew so rapidly in the fifties, sixties, and even seventies. But they continue to talk to their friends and relatives about Jesus, and their friends and relatives often end up coming to Jesus. And friends, if you haven't figured it out by now, by and large, your church members' friends and relatives, unless your church is in a growing suburb, don't live around your church, so, ironically, your church members' perfectly normal evangelistic practices don't actually end up doing your local congregation any good.
You will say, "But MOTW, just like you said, we've got to revamp evangelism training, have people learn by doing, so that they will evangelize strangers! We're supposed to carry the gospel to everyone." I would agree. I am not saying otherwise, not at all. I am simply pointing out that the actual evangelistic practice of most of the people in your congregation differs considerably from what your theoretical model of church growth would like it to be, that it conforms, I have no doubt, to the actual evangelistic practice of most believers throughout Christian history, and that if you succeed in turning the situation around in your church, the entire Southern Baptist Convention will immediately be beating a path to your door.
Somewhere along the line, we built our ideas about church growth and evangelism around an ideal model that we would like to see in action, instead of the actual practices of the people in the pews. How to solve it? I'm not entirely sure. But I am pretty sure that if we keep failing to work with the way most people actually evangelize instead of against it, we are not going to be altogether successful.
There are other problems. One of them is a cloud of ideas revolving around giving and money. I can't tell you the number of times I've heard sermons or comments to the effect that if only church members would do what they were "supposed to do," that is, to tithe, to give ten percent of their income, that we'd have the money to maintain the building, pay staff, and do ministry and evangelism correctly. "Correctly," of course, being the way it was done during that era of explosive church growth. And since that way wasn't/isn't working anymore, and most people don't actually tithe, it is pretty much a slam-dunk for many ministers to conclude that failure in evangelism is somehow connected to poor stewardship, to a failure to tithe. As a matter of fact, I just read another such column to that effect by the director of the BGCO in the Baptist Messenger!
It's an easy out that allows people to continue to ignore the massive failure of our evangelistic models. So is the classic, "There's sin in the camp!" (Somebody in here drinks beer!)
You know, the word "tithe" is not to be found in The Baptist Faith and Message. You know why? It's because--and this will come as complete and utter shock to some of you--there is no command, not one, not anywhere in Scripture, for Christians to give a specific amount or percentage to the work of the church. Go ahead. Use your Bible software and spend some time looking for one. You won't find it. It isn't there. No preacher in the world can point to one. Instead, they will tell you what all preachers tell their congregations when they want them to believe something that they can't actually find in Scripture: that there is a "principle" found in Scripture to that effect. And that isn't true, either, not on close examination. Not that these people are lying. I don't think that at all. They are just parroting what they've heard all their own lives.
The reality is that there is plenty of Biblical admonition for the Christian to give joyfully and generously, but there is no guidance as to specific amounts or percentages--and the further reality is that on average, if memory serves, most families give about three percent. You might argue that they should give more, and they would probably agree. But this is the situation that you, and they, are facing: they have so arranged their finances that they can't, not without leaving some bill or debt unpaid. Does it reflect poor financial practice? You bet it does--and I'm as guilty as anyone, trying to claw my way out of all my non-mortgage debt over the next two or three years. Perhaps it would help--over a period of years--for the church to teach sound personal financial management, but that is hardly a short-term solution.
It doesn't help to tell families in this situation to "step out on faith." Telling them to have faith that God will bless them--somehow, usually, the impression is left that the blessing will somehow be financial--for their obedience to a command that any idiot can see doesn't actually exist insults the intelligence of a ten-year-old.
At any rate, we have this situation: we have churches that were built and staffed back when the population was growing and personal income was high, that now do not draw percentages of neighborhood residents similar to what they once did, and even if they did, most of those residents are either retirees on relatively small and fixed incomes, or they are younger families who moved into the neighborhood specifically because the older homes there were cheaper--in other words, nobody in the neighborhood has big bucks, many, if not most of them, are hard-pressed financially, and yet we keep trying to operate those churches and to evangelize on the very mistaken assumption that all good Christians will give ten percent of their income to the church, when any idiot reading the Scriptures can see that such a command just isn't there, and ten percent of the "not much" in those neighborhoods might not be as much as our ministerial models would like to think anyway!
That's why I asked, back at the beginning, how much of a staff a congregation that averages two hundred in attendance (at best) can realistically support. When we were running five or six hundred, perhaps it made sense to have a full-time preacher, a full-time music minister, a full-time Sunday School minister, two secretaries, and a maintenance guy (and maybe more). But now? What's the point in suggesting to a financially limited and much smaller congregation that they aren't doing what they are supposed to do, when they can't possibly support a staff like that? Doesn't it make sense the staff be cut back to a level commensurate with the congregation's size instead? Doesn't it make sense to operate on the assumption that what members you do have will give what people on average actually give? Why continually operate as though the fact that a congregation of two hundred cannot do ministry on the same level as a congregation of six hundred means that the smaller congregation is somehow failing to do something the larger congregation did? That isn't the way it is, or was. The larger, richer congregation was the result of a unique confluence of demographics and economics, and may not ever be duplicated.
We can either change our assumptions and expectations, or we can teach people--perhaps, ironically, by immersion--how to clearly articulate the Gospel to strangers, and teach people how to manage their money, and how to give biblically--it's often called "grace giving," if you want to know. But that will take time--and a willingness to admit that despite having ostensibly been completed devoted to evangelism for decades, the reality is that we really only manage to successfully pass the Gospel on to our children, and some people don't even do that.