Sixty-five years ago it was popular to be a church goer, to wear a label of the name of a Church or a denomination. In the mid 1940’s and 1950’s, as the baby boomers were being born, families wanted to be in church on a Sunday morning. Being a part of a church gave people a sense of identity and of purpose. That reality no longer holds true.
Today churches struggle to keep their attendance up. We attended a church recently that was blessed with a long history of illustrious pastors and long standing members, many of whom have passed off the scene. The church has all the appearances of being an impressive ministry: there is a school, there’s several educational buildings, the church enjoys a large, comfortable and historic building. But, what the pastor is facing is the tremendous challenge of finding people to fill the buildings (not to mention, to pay the bills and keep the property in good operating condition).
I cannot speak authoritatively to the complex issues of the modern day church scene in the United States. There are godly, serious students of this phenomenon. I recommend that if you are struggling to keep your church afloat and if you are concerned that the issue of attrition is putting at risk the future of your church, that you contact some good friends of mine, Dr. Howard Bixby and Dr. Milo Thompson of “ChristWay Ministries.” They have a heart and the skills, blended with over eight decades of ministry experience between the two of them, to give timely encouragement and insight concerning your church’s needs. Here is the link to their web page, which I highly recommend:
From my perspective, as a foreign missionary, however, there are a couple ideas I would like to share. The current trend of attrition in our local churches does have identifiable sources. In that sense, the life of a local church is no different in the United States than in Chile or the rest of the developed world.
The first idea is that of the vision and purpose of a church. A local church that ignores Christ’s command to evangelize and disciple, no matter how glorious its past, will soon shrivel and dry up. The life blood of a church is to continuously intersect with the community around it. That means it must be intentional and personal about reaching those outside its doors.
One of the ministry experiences that has been a tremendous challenge for me is that of taking a group of two distinct church families, two different memberships that met in two different locations, and merge them into one cohesive, purposeful body. One group consisted of some 35 new believers, the other consisted of 10 believers who had been in or been a part of a church for many years. At first they did not share the same vision of what their church should, or could become. The church ministries were disjointed, because they were focusing on divergent, even though somewhat parallel purposes. They needed to blend their ideologies and their visions to identify and thus aim to become what God had intended for them in their particular location.
What solidified their vision as one? A year and a half of studying the New Testament paradigm for the church. They drew hope from the command of Christ to make disciples of the people that surrounded them right where they were. The church needed to express in its own terms and objectives what God wanted of them and how they planned to fulfill that plan. With a clear purpose statement on the table, one that articulated in simple but convincing terms what they must become, then the church knew that it had no time to waste! The world was not going to beat a path to its door, in spite of being surrounded by over 250,000 people in just a 15 block radius. Now the focus became: how can we reach our “Santiago Sam” (the nick name we gave the typical person in the downtown area)? Plus the vision soon took a daily and weekly ministry plan when we answered the question: how will we facilitate that objective in each and every aspect of the church life?
Focus is critical. The purpose a church exists cannot be watered down, nor accidental. Much less an “inherited” or “traditional” shell of a ministry. Churches that have no clear vision soon drift from their moorings, and lose the hope that God intended them to transmit to the world around. But many churches in the USA and in Europe, and sadly even some of the older churches in Latin America, are being neutralized by the lack of a vision and the lack of a unified purpose. If a church anywhere has come to think that they exist to keep themselves happy and comfortable, that church is only 10 to 15 years away from becoming a sterile environment wherein there is no growth or health, spiritually speaking.
In Chile, after 13 years following the initial step of defining a clear vision for the church that I pastor in Chile, the vision is what keeps the people in tune with a vital ministry. Our purpose statement is the standard by which everything is measured. Each ministry, on a yearly basis, evaluates the previous year using its own specific set of goals based on the vision statement and purpose statement which serve as a ruler. In just the past two years, three new ministries have been birthed through the process of asking ourselves: how well are we carrying out the vision and purpose that God has given OUR CHURCH? When we’ve seen a weakness or a gap in the overall church function, we seek God’s leading to know what new forms of ministry can be launched to help fill that gap.
In this context, there is no time or thought of just “getting by.” Each member and leader of the Church are in step with the goal and each believer knows he or she has a part to help make that happen. The result? Steady growth and steady opportunity to care for new believers and new disciples.
Purposeful, biblical and outward focused church ministry is one sure way to avoid the pitfalls of church attrition. Let us keep pressing toward the prize of the upward calling in Christ Jesus. The cause is too great to let it be buried under other concerns.
May God give us churches that live to carry out their divine design!
My other ideas will be forthcoming in a subsequent post. For now, this gets us talking.
David L. Rogers, M.A.Min.