Saturday, December 21, 2013

Withering Churches

I have been to a number of churches, partly by moving a lot but also because of my desire to find a place that will be there for my family ten, twenty or even fifty years in the future. 

However, so many churches are content to lose their vitality and die.   Oh, they think they want to grow.  In particular I remember one small church that my family and I attended which was always wringing their hands about diminishing attendance. 

 They would say that church growth was very important to the congregation, but the fact of the matter is that they did almost nothing to promote it, and the numbers had been going steadily down since their heyday in the 1950s.   

    I was kind of drafted into being the Youth Director of that Church on the basis that I've been academically trained for such activities, and I was one of the young parents in the congregation?  Young?  At that time I was in my mid 40s.  Kids would normally identify better with someone that was in their 20s.  

    One time we had a big self assessment initiative, and we gave ourselves a favorable rating on how hard we were working and so on.   We hoped that our visitors would like our 19th century church music played by talented musicians, and actually quite proud that our music was not entertainment, as the bigger growing churches liked to provide.  

      I dissented mildly, not wishing to create much of a stir.  But I thought that my job could be done better by someone closer in age to the kids, and I thought our 19th century music program was not likely to appeal to newcomers, and that we needed to make better use of the internet in order to allow new people to find us, and stuff like that.  Well, people listened politely but it was clear that they thought I was from another planet.  

   But a few weeks later a visitor came to the church.  A visitor! It was then that I realized that the church had no brochures to hand out, no one set up to welcome visitors, no newcomers packets, no nothing.  We liked worrying about diminishing attendance, but were not really interested in welcoming strangers come to our church, thank you very much.  

Young people may struggle with the idea of attending church.  Attending a rock concert is an easier first step for many to make (Thank you Chad Griffith Photgraphy!).

   Frankly this is not Biblical.  Matthew 28:16-20, the Great Commission, tells us that we need to reach out and spread the Good News.   Well, ok. 

 Flash forward to another church, which was growing rapidly.  The first time we visited, the minister explained that altough church growth was great, it would certainly change in the future.  In particular the church needs to greet the next generation of worshippers, and we don't know yet how they will communicate (Twitter? Facebook? something else?) or what kind of music they will like.  "We have ten years to figure out how to minister to people who are presently ten years old!"   I thought long and hard about that one.  

     Future worshippers will  probably prefer music that oldsters like me don't especially like.  But I'll put up with it if my kids and future grandkids are coming to church.  One of my friends put it this way:  "You know, the Apostle Paul never sang The Old Rugged Cross or any of our familiar hymns.  So as long as the theological content of the hymns is sound, what's the problem?"

     Exactly right.  If they want to sing Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing in a rock mode, who cares?  At least they are in church singing and celebrating, which is what they are supposed to do.   But I know many of my friends of withering churches are very put off by the idea.   

    I might also mention that I have been blesse to have been able to visit Seoul, Korea, home of the MEGA Mega Church.  One church I visited had seven services on Sunday, and the church was the size of a basketball arena with a full orchestra and choir, AND they had to build a second santuary next door with a closed circuit TV link to handle the overflow.   The total seating was some 30,000, and I can attest that the first service at 6 AM was FULL.  So I would have to say that it is very plausible that 200,000 people attend church there on Sunday.  

That church was Yoido Full Gospel, but it is not particularly anomalous.  The Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists and others have churches in Seoul which claim over 100,000 worshippers on a given Sunday.  

Yup, that's the way I remember it.  It's hard for me to understand why many churches prefer to wither away and don't realize that there is anything wrong with doing that.  

Kumnan Methodist Church in Seoul is also a very large church with multiple services on Sunday.   

   It's not necessarily the case that bigger is always better, but if a church is small, there had better be some reason for it.  Otherwise, the natural tendency of the church is to grow and to spread the message and the love.  

 This point was brought home to me, when one time a young man with autism got lost in a huge state nature preserve.  Well, a withering church would have said prayers for him and that would be that. Our minister did that too, but also told the congregation, "Now go find him!" And so we sent 300 people to the other side of the state to help look for him.   And find him we did! 

    That's why you have to grow, Church!  There are certain things that you simply can not accomplish without growth.  In particular, withering churches everywhere often have some kind of wonderful rationale why withering away is the best that can be hoped for.  And in some cases I'm sure that that is true. But for most of us, there are a few things that God wants us to accomplish while we are here on this earth.  And that process of fulfilling God's will leads to spreading the word and growing as an organization!


  1. Great post but the question remains is what are good methods for attracting more people.

  2. Well, there are several examples that can be followed. In my town (Dayton Ohio) there are liberal churches, conservative ones, big ones and small ones. Some grow and others decline. My point is that if the church is declining there is probably something wrong somewhere and it needs to be fixed. But declining churches are often loathe to emulate the methods used by growing churches. Often,common problems are that they don't want to serve young people, and they don't like evangelism and they won't consider modifying the liturgy to suit the needs of their present and future congregation. So they don't.