Saturday, June 14, 2008

Membership Decline

The SBC and church membership decline.
(okay - for my many non SBC friends- SBC is the Southern Baptist Convention)
It seems many people are writing on this membership decline topic. I figured I would attempt at writing an angle.
I am not including a lot of numbers. You can find that elsewhere.
I read this in The Tennessean, a Nashville newspaper this week.
"The resolution (regarding church membership) , which reflects the growing influencing of Calvinism in the SBC, comes on the heels of denominational statistics that showed the 16 million-member convention shrinking. Membership fell in 2007 for the second time in a decade. Even more discouraging, officials said, baptisms in SBC churches dropped for the seventh time in eight years – down 5.5 percent in 2007."

So there you have it. The SBC is in decline.
What do we do about?
I am sure there are lots of reasons that people are citing.
  • Too narrow as a denomination
  • Too broad as a denomination
  • People are not loyal to denominations any more
  • We have lost the passion to evangelise
  • The SBC needs new programs or methods for evangelism
  • The SBC needs reach the next generation of leaders
  • They need to come together as a convention and work together
On and On the reasons go.
Some of them could even make sense.
I am also sure that this list is not extensive.
I want to explore another angle. It is simply an observation that I want to make.
One reason I feel we are in decline is that most churches (I would venture to say inside and outside the denomination) are churches who are more "attractional". By this I mean their primary way of growth is to invite people to church. This can be done in various ways but often through cool programs or outreach events. A lot of energy and resources are spent on building the church to be an attractive place for the community to come. I have been a part of this approach for nearly all of my ministry.
However, I believe this approach makes a dangerous assumption. It is assuming that people want to come to church. It is assuming that people are looking for a church to attend. I am not that old but I do remember the late 80s and 90s in church growth. I was a young child then. smile.
You could offer quality childcare, relevant preaching, good programs with cool logos and brands, a great band and then you could "attract" a crowd. We have seen churches grow in this way. I personally think much of that growth has always been transfer growth but nonetheless many churches gained a lot of attention by growing in numbers and thus many people felt - IT IS WORKING and this must be the way. However, I would not want to minimize what some times took place in those days for I know that many people came to know Christ personally. Many others renewed their commitment to Jesus. Some great things happened and their are places where great things are happening today.
BUT --- I noticed upon living and ministering in Europe that it is an uphill struggle when you are trying to use attractional methods in a post Christian culture where the vast majority of the people are not looking to go to church. For the majority attending church of any sort on Sunday is not a blip on the radar screen. I think America is quickly following suit and we need to discover ways to minister amongst this culture or we will continue to see decline.
The HOPE is this.
I would say a couple of authors Allan Hirsch and Michael Frost articulate this much better than I in their book "The Shaping of Things to Come". I think the church has to become "missional" in it's approach to ministry. The church has to get out of it's building and programs and traditions and get into the streets and neighborhoods and take the Gospel to the people by living amongst them. Our lives as Christ followers should be the attraction to our lost friends not the building or programs of the church.
Instead of extracting new believers out of their culture and into the church where we expect them to be many hours during the week we must find ways to evangelise, disciple and plant churches (or cell groups / small groups) amongst the people where they are living and working. I believe this is best achieved by what is called "incarnational" ministry. Living as a Christ follower intentionally amongst the people who need Him the most. Sharing Jesus in a natural yet intentional way.


Gene said...

Amen, Larry!

Good stuff.

Camel Rider said...

Great post. What we're doing is like trying to come up with an add campaign for liver. Good luck. People aren't looking for involvment in church...they're looking for authentic relationships and an authentic knowledge of God. The programs are easier and less messy but who cares...they're not working.
::: Camel Rider