Tag Archives: decline

A Full Church is not Measured by the Number of People

John 10:22-30

At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe.

(Read the whole passage)

Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. Each 4th Sunday in the Season of Easter is reserved to hear about Jesus the Good Shepherd. And here at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, we could consider this Sunday an opportunity to celebrate our congregation. Just as congregations with names like St. Matthew’s, or St. John’s often celebrate on the feast days of their saints.

But this year we get short changed in the shepherd department. We are in the 3rd year of our 3 year cycle of readings for each Sunday. And last year and the year before, Good Shepherd Sunday got the good readings. “I am the Good Shepherd” readings. Today we get a passing reference to sheep and that is it.

In fact, as we encounter Jesus, it is an entirely different celebration. The festival of Dedication. Or more commonly known as Hanukkah – nothing to do with shepherds.

Instead of Shepherds, sheep, meadows and spring, we get the dead of winter. Jesus is walking through the temple, the Portico of Solomon. A space along the East wall where crowds would have gathered to celebrate Hanukkah – a winter festival of lights. It was an 8 day celebration to commemorate how the temple had been liberated 200 years earlier from oppression by the Seleucids – the empire of Alexander the Great. The liberating rebels found the temple defiled and the only undefiled thing was a sealed bowl of olive oil, enough to light a lamp for one day. But the oil lasted 8 days, long enough to complete the ritual cleansing.

Hanukkah, this winter festival of lights was a time for families to gather, to remember how they had been freed from oppression and how the nation of Israel had been restored. But by Jesus’ day, the celebration would have been bitter-sweet. The people now lived under different oppressors – the Roman Empire.

And so the crowds gathered at the temple for Hanukkah see Jesus, and they are looking for liberation again. They want to be saved, restored to former greatness, they want control of their destiny and future. They press in on Jesus wanting answers. They long for the day when their nation would be their own again – they want a Messiah to come and lead them to greatness, just like the rebels had done 200 years before. “Tell us plainly” they demand of Jesus, give us the quick and easy answer to our problems.

Jesus doesn’t give them answer they are looking for, instead he talks about sheep knowing his voice and people being snatched out of his hands. A cryptic non-answer for a crowd wanting a plain and straight forward response.

In many ways, the bitter-sweetness of celebrating liberation while living under oppression is something we know too. No we haven’t needed liberation from anything here in Canada. Nor do we know what it is like to live under oppression.

But we do know what it is like to feel like for our identity and place in the world to be taken away. On a day when we could be celebrating Good Shepherd, it is easy to carry concerns about the future. It is easy to feel like an older, thinner and more tired version of ourselves. It easy to feel like those crowds did, like we are celebrating something that is already gone from us.

This week as the ACTS group met for bible study and considered this gospel lesson, it was Jesus’ answer to the crowds that generated questions. One question in particular stuck with me throughout the week, “If Jesus says he won’t let us be snatched from God’s hand, what does being snatched out look like.”

What I think our group was really asking was, “If Jesus is the Messiah, why does it feel like our church is shrinking and dying. Why does it feel like the world doesn’t care about us anymore? Why do people who were once here, once parts of our family, once parts of our community, no longer come? What about all the people who are gone? Have they not been snatched away?”

The question that the ACTS group asked is most certainly on the minds of Christians all over. And it is one we consider lots here at Good Shepherd too.

And we get frustrated too when we just want a plain answer from Jesus, but he gives us something vague and cryptic. Or at least he gives an answer that doesn’t satisfy our questions.

When the crowds demand to know if Jesus is the Messiah, he rejects the premise of their question. “I have told you, and you do not believe”

The crowds are asking for their temple and nation to be restored. They want a Messiah who will bring back the glory days, who will make Israel great again (as some politicians these days are fond of saying). The crowds are looking to return to the glory of Hanukkah… to relive the story of human triumph in the world. Of one group overcoming and having power over another.

But this is not about God’s work in the world. They are not remembering the covenant with Abraham, God delivering them from Egypt, nor God giving them a King in King David (despite God’s objections). They remembering their own glory.

And Jesus is not talking about a Messiah King, or Messiah warlord or Messiah President. Jesus is talking about a Messiah who has been sent for God’s work in the world.

So what are we asking of the Messiah? What do we want Jesus to tell us plainly? Sometimes we get wrapped up in asking the Messiah to restore our church, to build our membership, to increase our attendance. Sometimes, without thinking, we can equate how we feel about church with how we talk about God. We say that our church is shrinking, dying, getting smaller, becoming tired, a shell of what it once was… we say that God seems to be shrinking, dying, getting smaller, becoming tired, a shall of what God once was in our world. How we feel about church is how we talk about God.

Jesus is reminding us that it is actually the other way around. How God feels and acts towards us is how we should be talking about church.

Who is here and who is not hear is not a measure of whether or not we have been snatched out of God’s hand. How many people keep up weekly attendance is not a measure of the church or the Good Shepherd.

Jesus is telling us today the fullness of the church, that the aliveness of the church is about what God is doing here.

The church is full because the Word of God fills it with the Good News of God’s love for sinners, for the broken, for the forgotten and marginalized. The church is full of God’s love for us.

The church is full because the waters of baptism overflow here with grace and mercy. Just as Jaxson is baptized this morning, so to are we reminded that because we are baptized too, that God’s grace is overflowing here, filling this place. The church is full of God’s hope for us.

The church is full because the bread and wine of new life are in abundance here. Because when the Body of Christ gathers, we become bread for the world and we are send out with good news for the world. The church is full God’s gifts for us.

Like those crowds gather for Hanukkah, we can easily can get wrapped up in wanting to restore former glory, with wondering what God is doing with a seemingly shrinking, dying place, with measuring our fullness by who is here and who is not. We can starting talking about God using the language of how we feel.

But Jesus reminds us of how God feels and acts towards us.  That the Messiah is about doing God’s work. And that God’s work fills this place, not with us, but with God. God fills this place with love and mercy and grace – God’s work done here and done for us.

Amen. 

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Why nothing seems to get people back to church – The issue at the core of decline

“People just aren’t committed like they used to be”

This week, I came across this satirical article from the site BabylonBee “After 12 Years Of Quarterly Church Attendance, Parents Shocked By Daughter’s Lack Of Faith

The article humorously reveals an issue facing many churches today. I can’t tell you how many times (56,819 times) I have had the conversation where someone talks about the fact that young people aren’t as committed as they once were. People aren’t coming to church like they did in decades past, and those left behind have started to notice. Many congregations are feeling older, thinner, and tired out. The future feels bleak. The studies tell us that the church is declining.

And so churches try any number of things to attract people back to church. Youth group programs, revamped and modern music, renovated worship spaces, hip and cool pastors with tattoos and any number of other gimmicks.

But nothing seems to work. At least I haven’t heard of any churches successfully bringing back all the members who drifted away. And yet we keep at it, week after week, year after year worrying about people who were once here. Our grand plans for revitalization is to try and appeal to people who have already chosen to leave. Sure, it works once in a while, but this is probably not a strategy for success.

Yet, while churches fret and worry about those who were once there, we rarely take the time to understand what we are asking people to come back and commit to.

Commitment to church

A lot of sermons, bible studies, meetings, conferences, lectures, consultants, coaches and more have been spent analyzing and communicating the message that the social advantages of church that drove attendance in decades past no longer exist. It just isn’t the case anymore that good citizens born here are expected to become good church members. Schools, work, neighbours, businesses, governments don’t do –  society-at-large doesn’t do – our evangelism for us anymore.

Church isn’t an expected social commitment any longer.

Yet, almost always when we speak of getting people to start coming back to church, we say it just like that – ‘back to church.’ And the issue goes deeper to than that. So often when I ask church members what reason keeps them coming to church, there is almost always one things at to the top of the list: Church feels like family, church is a community.

Churches should be communities where we feel connected to each other in deep ways.  But family and community are still social commitments at the end of the day.

Social Commitment

Most churches are, at their core, institutions formed around a social or societal commitment. The core of churches have been based on the fact that people are expected to attend because of societal pressures. And when society taught us through family, friends, neighbours, schools, workplaces, TV, movies, newspapers, courthouses, and governments that being church attenders was important, churches organized around social commitment worked well.

These churches did good ministry, they reached people with the gospel and they were servant communities.

But now that society is no longer providing the pressure to be church attenders, attracting people to a social commitment doesn’t work.

In fact, it may be the very thing that is driving people away.

Our pitch for church has often become some version of “come to church because you should” or “come to church for your family” or “come to church for the community”

Yet, people are choosing sports or music or clubs or brunch with friends or sleeping in with family because they love those things. People are choosing things that they are passionate about, things that they love. Social pressure doesn’t hold much sway anymore, even if our society did push church on people.

When you love soccer, finding a team to play on is also finding a community with a shared passion. When you love brunch, finding a brunch club means joining a community that shares your love of brunch. When you love lazy Sunday mornings with family, you have a community that also loves sleeping in.

But what is our shared loved at church? Are we just communities to join without a shared passion?

Commitment to Jesus

If I had to guess, the vast majority of people who still might be looking for a church in 2016 are not looking for a social commitment to church.

As a millennial, I never lived in the era of social commitment or social pressure to go to church. While most of my peers growing up weren’t interested in church, nor exposed to it beyond Christmas and Easter, the ones who did express interest did not do it for the social commitment.

My church going peers were interested in following Jesus.

Now, imagine someone is looking for a church. They are looking for a church with a commitment to following Jesus at its core and they show up at a social commitment church. It would be like showing up for a soccer team that stopped playing soccer years ago, and who instead gathers for coffee and donuts with friends and family. But this gathering of people still call themselves a soccer team.

Now imagine members of that “soccer team” wringing their hands week after week over the fact that no one wants to join the team to clean up coffee and pick up the donuts. You can see why soccer players looking for a team wouldn’t join. You can see why many members of the team left a long time ago.

As churches try to understand why all the attempts to attract people back to church haven’t yield better results, I think it is because the core foundation that brings most church communities together is fundamentally at odds with what people who are looking for churches are seeking today.

If I had to guess, that if people are looking for church these days, they are doing it in the same way that someone would look for a soccer team. A soccer player looks for a team because they love soccer. A church seeker is looking for a church community because they love Jesus and want to follow him. They are not looking for a church because they love church.

And it goes deeper than that. If getting people to church is the chief concern, than we will always be looking to draw people in.

But if following Jesus, and letting people know about this gracious, merciful and compassionate God, is at our core, we will reach out. And reaching out to let people know about Jesus, may or may not include more bums in pews. Either way, building the church is not the goal, but at best is a symptom of reaching people with Jesus.

So how can churches address this? How can churches built on the social commitment to church have the conversation about the fact that the very thing that brings them together as a community is their biggest problem?

With a lot of soul-searching, a lot of questions, a lot of discerning and a lot of prayer. Changing our foundations and cores will not be easy. In fact, many churches will choose to die instead of changing to the core of following Jesus.

Despite the social commitment at the core of our churches, I think that many churches and church members do want to follow Jesus too. And it isn’t that a church has to choose between being a community or following Jesus. One doesn’t exclude the other.

But churches DO have to choose what is at their core. Churches need to choose the foundation that gathers their community.

Is it a social commitment to church?

Or are we followers of Jesus whose shared passion brings us together?


What is the core passion that brings your church together? How can churches change their core? Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

5 Loaves on the Water

John 6:1-21

When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going. (Read the whole passage)

Sermon

Usually, when preachers come across two stories jammed together into one Gospel reading, it is a disappointment. A disappointment, because you can really only focus on one story in a sermon. And so you have to choose. Today, that choice would be between the Feeding of the 5000 or Jesus walking on the water. A story about abundance in the midst of scarcity. Or a story of a miracle meant to show us who Jesus really is.

6 years ago, this story was the text for the fourth sermon I had preached after becoming a pastor. I chose to focus on the feeding of the 5000, and to tell a story of encouragement… that despite a seeming decline in what we seem to be in as churches, that there is abundance in the midst of scarcity. That God is able to with incredible things with just a little, with 5 loaves and two fish.

And this is most certainly true… and yet, the message of scarcity and abundance feels different today. Six years later, the challenges that churches like ours are facing across the country are much the same. They have been the same for a decade or two even. Yet, the longer we struggle with doing incredible things with 5 loaves and two fish, with doing more with less as churches… maybe we are missing the point.

Maybe that second part of today’s story is more significant than it seems.

 

The story of Jesus walking on the water speaks to us today at little more directly than the feeding of the 5000. Churches probably feel a little more adrift on the rolling and windy waves and less so like we are on the mountain top dealing with the nice problem of having too many people and not enough food.

These stories of ‘Feeding the 5000’ and ‘Jesus Walking on the Water’ are powerful images on their own, but there is something about them, when taken together, that speaks to our current circumstances.

Sure the disciples were afraid of the wind and the waves as they crossed the sea, but as we will hear more during the next 4 weeks, they were also just as confused by what had happened on the mountain with the 5 loaves and two fish.

And think about it. It isn’t just the crowds on the mountain, it isn’t just Jesus appearing on the water… it is the experience of going from mountaintop high to stormy waters threatening to drag us under. If there is any part of the story that we totally get, it’s that one. It is the experience of not knowing why all those people were drawn to the mountain top, and then being tossed into the storm before sorting out what 5 loaves and 2 fish really mean.

We have been talking about decline and change for years now… and still the need for us to face these issues has never seemed more urgent than today. And it will be even more urgent tomorrow.

Yet, most of us, maybe none of us, have really had the chance to understand where we have been. We haven’t had the chance to really reflect on why the crowds came to the mountain top. The story of Lutheran churches in the past 100 years has been one of small faithful, mostly rural communities planting small churches around 100 years ago, and then experiencing incredible growth about 50 years ago and today experiencing decline.

And that is why we understand the disciples’ predicament. We know what it is like to be on the mountain with the hungry but happy crowds. And we know what it is like to be on the stormy waters unsure of where we are going or what God is doing. But we really know what it is like to come tumbling down the hill only to land in a boat set adrift on stormy waters. This is the story of Lutherans in Canada.

 

As the wind blows the disciples across the sea, they were still struggling to understand what happened up on the mountain…  and then Jesus strolls by, walking on the water.

He strolls by and declares, “I AM. Do not be afraid.”

And if the disciples haven’t figured it out yet. And if we haven’t figured it out yet.

Jesus makes it plain.

Whatever miracle was happening on the mountain, it is here in the midst of the wind and the waves that the  real action is happening.

It is here on the water that the spirit of God hovers over creation. And to underscore that point, Jesus uses that name that God gives God-self when he is speaking to Moses in the burning bush. “I AM”.

The water is where the Great I Am, where the creator is bringing about something new. The water is where God created all things and brought life into being. The water is where God delivered Noah and his family, where God brought the Israelites out of Egypt and into freedom. The water is where Jesus was baptized by John.

And as we will be reminded as Deakyn is baptized today, the water is where God first meets us.

So being on the water with the wind of the spirit blowing our boat somewhere new is exactly where God wants us to be. The mountain top is just a pit stop for us, it is not the destination. Yes, the 5 loaves and two fish can feed 5000, but most of the time they are only needed to feed five. The point is that God is feeding us, it is not about how many God can feed. The food is just meant to keep us going on the journey. On our journey where God is leading us from water to water, from bath to bath.

Jesus comes to meet us on the water, because the water is where the action happens. The water is where God is creating something new. And as scary as the water is, as terrifying as the wind can be, as much as we want to go back as figure out the bread, fish and 5000 of the mountain top, God is dragging us down into the water, and God’s spirit is blowing towards something unknown, but something new.

And, it is here on the water, here in baptism, here in the very foundations of creation that God finds us. And it is here in the stormy waters of creation that God is steering us to something new, steering the whole church, the whole body of Christ, into new incredible new life.

Amen. 

On Being an iPhone Pastor for a Typewriter Church

The ‘Millennials and Church’ thing has been written about to death in recent years. Theories about what millennials want in church range from the newest, flashiest most technologically advanced thing to the oldest, most artisanal traditions. If you are sick of reading about how to get millennials back to church,  join the club. In fact, I wouldn’t blame you for not reading yet another blog post about the topic… but bear with me, I promise not to talk at all about what millennials want or how to get us back to church.

That being said, figuring out millennials is big business for Christianity these days… and finding the magic bullet to get us all back to church would make someone rich.  Lots of church consultants and ministry experts are making the speaking rounds telling the church all about millennials and the big “change” the world is experiencing.

And yet, as a millennial myself, I am rarely asked why I didn’t follow the rest of my exiting generation… and when I am asked why I am still around, it is usually after I have pointed out that I am rarely asked.

Being a millennial and an ordained Lutheran pastor has provided me some insight into the Church’s quest to regain millennials. Almost always the starting point for this conversation is, “how do we get the young people back?

Yet, it is almost never asked, “Why are young people leaving?”

Church people are convinced they know the answer to why people are leaving. The surface level answers have to do with sports on Sundays, shopping on Sundays, lack of commitment, not having prayers in the schools, boring traditional worship, not enough youth ministry, too many rules, too much organ, etc…

The experts have more sophisticated reasons like people being busy and carefully choosing how to spend their discretionary time.

Yet, none of these things seem to really name the reason that my contemporaries are not going to church. None of these reasons seem sufficient to explain my anecdotal experience.

Admittedly, I have never had parishioners my own age in the last 6 years of ministry. Yet there is one area where I have consistently done ministry with millennials.

Baptisms.

I have met with dozens of millennials who are bringing their babies to be baptized, but who don’t otherwise go to church. Since, I require that I meet with them for friendly conversations about baptism, I have the opportunity to ask about the role of faith in their lives.

And there are two things I have taken away from these experiences:

  •  Even though I fit the big teddybear-like white-guy-with-a-beard mould of the stereotypical pastor, I don’t fit the age mould. And I don’t talk about faith like they expect me to. And I tell them way more about baptism than their parents, grandparents or my predecessors have. Almost always, the millennials I meet with find it refreshing that I didn’t just expect them to magically know everything about church and that I encourage questions and skepticism.
  • While the first takeaway is troubling, the bigger takeaway when I meet with other millennials (even ones that are almost completely unchurched) is that I don’t have to make the cultural commute that I am constantly making with most of the people I serve.

What is a cultural commute you ask?

Well, it is the whole “iPhone pastor for a Typewriter church” thing.

It is the idea that in order to engage or interact with a certain community or group of people – or generation of people –  you need to speak in their cultural language.

An easy example is actual languages. Even though I am an English speaker, I took grade school in French. It was draining to operate in a second language all the time.

It is the same for immigrants and foreigners, even when they already speak English. You don’t just speak the same language, you learn  a whole system of symbols, images, colloquialisms, inside jokes, history, and baggage that go along with a group of people. And when you don’t get that culture, you feel constantly like you are on the outside.

I remember when I first got my iPhone and would pull it out to make appointments or send messages in front of parishioners. They would often look at me like I just beamed down from the starship Enterprise; these were people who remember riding to school in a horse and buggy.

But more than that, when I sit in most meetings or conversations with church people, the discussion ends up being full of cultural references that pass me by. TV shows, music, movies and historical references from the 50s, 60s, and 70s, of which I don’t understand the meaning, are regular parts of conversation. While at the same time, I have to park my cultural baggage. I can’t make Friends or Breaking Bad or Jay-Z or Mumford and Sons or Hipster or Twitter references because most people won’t get them.

But it isn’t just pop-culture symbols. It goes deeper than that.

It is the whole way church and faith were approached 50 years ago versus how things are approached today.

The most draining cultural commute that I experience as a millennial pastor is the difference between congregations who still expect that every good Canadian (or American) citizen would be a church goer versus my expectation that only people who are interested and for whom faith is very important would be a church goer.

It is a cultural commute that takes shape most clearly for me in this way:

When I go and talk to unchurched millennials about baptism, I often get asked about why faith and church is important to me. This is often is the most exciting part of the conversation.

Yet, when I ask churched boomer and older members about why faith and church is important to them, I get uncomfortable looks and uncertain answers.

Now don’t get me wrong.

I love the people I have served and do serve. And I don’t begrudge them this in anyway. If anything, this is a failure of church leadership to not help people think through why church is important to them.

I also think that it is an important part of ordained pastoral ministry to be constantly making cultural commutes to those whom you serve in order that they might hear the gospel (wasn’t the whole incarnation a cultural commute?).

But this cultural commute… this expectation that as a millennial I will always cross the bridge in the cultural gap and engage – work, speak and serve – in a world that is culturally different is not just because I am a pastor. Church people so often expect that anyone outside the dominant culture or generation – millennials, foreigners, seekers, new converts – will be the ones to make the commute. And often this expectation is unconscious.

It is okay for a millennial pastor to be the one crossing the bridge, making the cultural commute in order to be a part of a church community. But it doesn’t work for millennial church members.

And I think this is a big reason millennials aren’t in church. It just isn’t a world that most of us can even access.

I am about to go to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada’s (ELCIC) National Convention next week. The 4 day event is filled with important agenda items. We will talk about how to do ministry in remote parts of country where pastors are unavailable, we will talk about right relationships with Canada’s indigenous peoples, we will talk about working for justice in the correctional system, we will pass resolutions on climate change and immigration issues. And we might event talk about “how to get the young people back.”

These are important issues, things we should talk about, things we should speak out about.

But we aren’t talking about why people are leaving church.

And we certainly aren’t talking about how to translate ourselves into a church for 2015 and beyond. Instead, we are talking about restructuring, and right-sizing… the corporate language of the 80s and 90s.

I suspect that this is where a lot of conversations in local churches, in districts and national offices are going. Churches are trying to catch up to the 80s… while my millennial contemporaries are leaving churches because the cultural commute to even access church is just too far a journey.

Being commuting pastors is something that many of my millennial colleagues and I just accept. I know that helping congregations and church bodies into the 21st century (hopefully before it ends) is just going to be my lot… no, not just our lot, but our calling…

Yet I wonder as I prepare for this national gathering of my church body and as Christians across North America struggle with young people walking away… I wonder when we are going to start looking to the millennials still here to help us become a church for all generations faithfully looking forward into the 21st century.

Until then, I will keep being an iPhone Pastor for a Typewriter church.


What cultural commutes are you making at church? How can we help the church into the 21st century? Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

PS Thanks to Nadia Bolz Weber for introducing me to the concept of  ‘cultural commute’.

O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord – Pentecost for Today

Ezekiel 37:1-14

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.” (Read the whole passage here)

Sermon

Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost.

For a significant portion of medieval Christianity, there were 4 major Christian Feast Days that all Christians were obligated to attend. Easter, Christmas, All Saints Day and Whitsun Day.

Whitsun Day is also known as the Day of Pentecost. On the 8 Sunday after Easter Sunday, 50 days afterwards, Christians gathered to celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit to the disciples early in the morning. On that day the disciples spilled out in the streets, with tongues of fire on them, and the preached the Good News in all languages.

It is an incredible story, a miraculous story. Pentecost has more recently become strongly associated with the idea of speaking in tongues. Pentecostals, a movement born in Azuza Street Revival in early 20th century Los Angeles have become strongly associated with Pentecost and speaking in tongues.

As interesting and perplexing the idea of speaking in tongues might be to a bunch of stayed and stoic Lutherans like us, the most interesting part of the Pentecost story comes just after the speaking in tongues part. After Peter finishes his impromptu sermon to the people of Jerusalem, 3000 people are baptized.

And with that Pentecost becomes birthday of the church.

2000 years since that first Pentecost, the church has survived much. 300 years of marginalization in the pluralistic and pagan world of the Roman Empire. The church has kept going despite bing co-opted by that same empire for political reasons. The church has survived schism, crusades and holy wars, upheaval and reformation, renaissance and scientific revolution, World Wars and Great Depressions.

Pentecost shows us the resiliency of the church, or more particularly, the faithfulness of God. This community of faith born in the Good News and nurtured by water, bread and wine is the ongoing sign of God’s great love for world. And while Acts brings us back to the beginning of this community, it is in Ezekiel that we might find more in common.

The idea of 3000 people being baptized today sounds frightening and exciting, but that is not where we are. It is not where the church or where our congregation has been at for a long time – if ever.

The words spoken by the House of Israel in Ezekiel’s vision sound more familiar:

Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost.

2000 years after Pentecost, the vision that Ezekiel describes, seems to resonate a little more with us. At least the first part, the valley of dry and dead bones part.

Just this week, Pew Research in the US released a report detailing the decline of church attendance. Nothing that we didn’t know of course. Except, the report contradicts the common narrative that evangelical and conservative churches are still growing or maintaining. Attendance is dropping across the board. Declining for every group except one. The ‘Nones’ or the group the group who describe themselves as belonging to no religion.

Christianity is declining around us – our bones are dried up.  And those who are leaving are leaving for nothing – our hope is lost.

The prophet Ezekiel lived in world much more like ours than the Pentecost moment. He was a young man when Jerusalem was sacked by the Babylonians, the temple was destroyed and all the elites of Israel carried off into exile in Babylon. And for 5 years Ezekiel started preaching about and re-enacting the destruction of the temple. 5 years.

It took 5 years for the people to believe that the temple was gone. That the world they once knew was gone. It took 5 years to sink in that there was no going back. It wasn’t  enough to see the temple destroyed. It wasn’t enough to be in Babylon. It wasn’t enough to be conquered and forced to worship new gods. They needed to hear the story over and over again for it sink in. For them to accept their new reality.

Sounds familiar yet?

We too tell the same stories. The stories of our decline. The stories of our destruction. We lament and long for a world that is gone. We grieve for a world that we cannot go back to. And it might take us years to admit to this change, for our new world to sink in. Accepting our reality is just as hard.

Our pews will never be full of the people that filled them before. Our Sunday School and Confirmation classes will never have the students they once had. School children will never pray our prayers again. Sports, music and dance will never be banned during our worship again. Shopping hours will never be reduced to accommodate church attendance in our lifetimes. There are fewer Sunday sermons on radios and prayers at town council meetings. We will feel like we are having to make room for other religions and like we are being pushed out of public space for years to come.

Our bones are drying up, and our hope is lost.

And still,  standing with Ezekiel with the valley of dry bones spread before us, God will speak to us too.

“Mortal, can these bones live?”

Ezekiel’s responses is one of powerlessness. It is a sentiment that we understand. It is an utterance of exasperation that we speak often.

“O Lord God… you know”

50 years ago… if you had been sitting in a full and bustling church on Sunday morning, the only show in town, the place where many of your family, friends and neighbours were week after week, and the preacher stood a the pulpit and said,

“In only a few years this place will be a hallow shell of itself”

You might have laughed. It would seem unbelievable. It would sound crazy.

And yet, here we are.

Here we are with Ezekiel standing at the valley of dry bones and we are admitting, we are giving in, we are hopeless. “Only God knows what is next for us”

And God says,

“Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

Today… as you sit in a church with more empty spots in the pews than occupied ones on Sunday morning, as we are just one Sunday morning activity option among many, where friends, family and neighbours are rarely seen.

And the preachers stands in the pulpit and says,

“In only a few years this place will be full and alive with the spirit again”

You might laugh. It would seem unbelievable. It would sound crazy.

And yet, that is just what God is saying:

Then God said to us, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of [Good Shepherd], the whole house of [Christianity]. [You] say, `Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, [and hear the word of the Lord for you], Thus says the Lord GOD: I am going to open your graves [I am going to open your doors, open your hearts, open your communities], and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of [Christ]. And you shall know that I am the Lord [you shall know that your church does not live and die by you], when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.

Today, a new Pentecost is dawning on us. Today, the spirit is blowing again in our midst. We might feel like our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost. We might only see a dying church… but God is about to do something new among us.

God is setting to the task of making dry bones walk. God making us ready for what is coming next for the church. And that might begin with years of telling the story of our decline and destruction. But like Ezekiel, once the story has been told enough, God will provide a new vision. Ezekiel saw a vision of the new temple and God is even today giving us glimpses of a new church, a new way to be people of faith in a changing world. It still took 200 years before the exiles returned to Israel to rebuild the temple, and it might just as long for the church. But this is how God works. God is making us ready for what is coming next.

Today the Lord says to us, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy my church, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live”

Amen.

Everybody Panic! – Why We are All Wrong About Church Decline

Unless you live under a rock or only get your news from the Farmer’s Almanac, you have probably heard about the recent Pew Research report detailing the decline of Christianity in the US, and the rise of the ‘nones’ – those who claim no religious affiliation.

Predictably, people are up in arms. Bloggers are writing doom and gloom pieces. People are trying to explain the decline. Some are saying that the decline is the result of lax theology and drifting away from traditional / conservative beliefs and values. Others are saying that liberal mainliners are providing what the ‘nones’ are really looking for, especially what young disaffected millennials are looking for.

Perhaps the only new, but unsurprising, find of this recent Pew report is that Evangelicals are declining too. This contradicts the often lauded trope of the last few years that decline is a mainline thing.

Well I have to admit, that this all feels like a tired rehash of what we already know. But in particular, as a Canadian, I see the panic happening among US Christians as something we felt about 20 years ago. We are a lot farther along the social secularization path than our dramatic neighbours to the south.

And as I have blogged about before, as a Millennial Christian in Canada, the only church I have known is one in decline. I have only ‘heard’ the stories of everyone in town being in church on Sundays… I haven’t lived it. Being a church-going person was the exception among my peers growing up, not the norm. We used to sing the national anthem on Monday mornings in school but we never prayed the Lord’s Prayer. In fact, the idea of one of my grade school teachers leading the Lord’s Prayer sounds absurd.

Yet, the analysis, panic, fear, and explanations of the past few days is not what we are all getting wrong about this decline thing.

I think there are few things that we miss when we panic about a society and culture that is no longer evangelizing for us. And these things should be the first things we name when talking about church decline in North America.

1. The Golden Era of Church attendance in the 1950s was the abnormality.  

So often our discourse on decline assumes that wide-spread socially motivated church attendance is normative. So many church people are used to a world where the question was which church to attend on Sunday mornings, not whether or not one should attend at all. During the Reformation, many protestant groups were born out of the fact that most people were nominally Christian, and did not attend church or “show their faith” in how they lived. North American society in the 1800s and early 1900s was not one that ubiquitously attended church. I think the big bulge in church attendance, church planting and growth of the 1950s was due to a global experience of PTSD following World War One, the Great Depression and World War Two. The church was convenient place to land for a world looking to make sense of decades of suffering. 60 years on from then, I think decline is a correction, rather than a failure.

2. What we are seeing is the death of Christendom… not the Church. 

Conversations about church decline are almost always accompanied by the lament of the loss of cultural Christianity. There is talk of prayer in schools and town council meetings, the 10 commandments on display at courthouses, sports, music and dance happening during Sunday morning worship, the church as community centre and neighbourhood gathering place. And yet, if we took a minute to really consider what that means, we are actually demanding a church that is dependant on empire, that is served by kingdoms and governments. We want a church that needs to have all other activities banned during its worship. We long for a church that needs its prayers taught in schools and that seeks power by influencing political leaders.

Is it really such a bad thing to see the decline of that church?

3. We like to think that we are the ones who can finally do the church in.

As if the church lives and dies by us. Christ’s church has been around for 2000 years. It began by spending 300 years on the margins of a religiously plural world. It was subsumed into being the bureaucracy of the Roman Empire. It has been nearly blown by up schism. Almost over-run by the empires of other faiths. It has crusaded and begun terrible holy wars. It has been cracked and splintered by reformation. It has been challenged to its core by renaissance and scientific revolution. The church has survived all of that, against all odds.

But now our social angst and apathy, and our institutional intractability is going to finally put the church out of its misery? Because we cannot be the church of empire or let social structures do our evangelism for us, the church will just fade away?

Sometimes I think that we tie our attendance to God’s faithfulness. We believe that God approved of the church more when it was full 50 years ago. And now God is frowning at us because we couldn’t freeze time, because the world changed around us and we weren’t sure how to deal with it.

This Pew Research report is nothing new. It is full of things we already know. But maybe decline, the more it gets thrown in our face, is telling us something important about the church – about God’s work in the world.

A declining church does not equal a declining God.

Nor does a full and rich church equal an increasing God.

Maybe God’s work in the world has nothing to do with numbers.

Maybe God’s mission through the church cannot be measured quantitatively.

Maybe what God is doing can only be experienced qualitatively. The Good News is not about winning souls by filling pews. The Good News is that Christ’s death and resurrection is our death and resurrection too – and this fact transforms who we are.

So maybe, just maybe, this declining stuff… this dying stuff that the church is doing… is just what always comes right before empty tombs and being known in breaking bread.

What we get wrong about decline is that we rarely consider that it just might how God is doing God’s work, in and through us – God’s church.


How did you respond to the Pew Research report? Can the church survive decline? Is the best thing to happen to Christianity in a while? Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

5 Truths we don’t want to admit about church decline

Last Sunday in my sermon, I wrote about Jesus overturning the tables in the temple, and noted that much of western Christianity is waking up the day after the tables have been overturned. Our prominence at the centre of society is long gone. Now we are dealing with the reality of numerical and financial decline. These days church leaders are looking to experts, programs,  and books that will help us figure out what on earth is going on, and why so many have just stopped coming to church.

As a millennial and a pastor, I regularly hear church people bemoaning the loss of young people. This is evident to me in the fact that I have been pastor to only a handful of people my age. The ‘Nones’ are the new buzz group that concerned church leaders want to reach. Church people want to understand why so many of my generation are opting for something other than church attendance and how that can be changed.

The other group current church people long for are the lapsed members I regularly hear church people wanting to “bring back.” Programs like Back to Church Sunday are popular. Mission and discipeship gurus are all over the place, helping pastors, church leaders and lay people figure out how to lead churches, how to figure out what on earth we are supposed to be doing as the Body of Christ.

And yet, with all the focus on our decline as Christians in the West, particularly, mainline Christians, important truths are rarely spoken about. There are realities that I think many of us can see, but we don’t want to admit are significant in our apparent “decline.”

1 Measuring decline by numbers causes us to lose sight of our mission. 

I admit, when I see a new face in church, or get asked to do a baptism, I am inwardly excited. New people, larger numbers of faces in the pews, increased giving. These are all easy indicators of success. Except they aren’t. Jesus didn’t say, “Go therefore and get bums in the pews and money in the offering plates in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

When churches measure our ministry by these numbers, our real purpose of preaching the Gospel and administering the sacraments becomes a selling feature. When our goal is full pews and offering plates, word and sacrament become the means of filling pew and offering plates.

“Success” takes on a different definition if we stop using numbers to measure it. Preaching the gospel is preaching the gospel whether it is to 2, 20, 200 or 2000 people. Oh, and yes, I have heard that accusation that this notion is just something that pastors of small dying churches cling to… yet if our success is measured by numbers we have lost sight of what the Gospel actually does in our lives.

2 Many of our sacred cows are causing our decline. (ie. Sunday School & VBS, Bible Study, programs, music groups, church committees)

There are always very important, very special things that churches do that we are simply unwilling to let go of. These programs or activities began as life-giving endeavours for congregations, but over time have lost their ability to meet the needs and purposes of congregations. I know churches full of seniors in communities that are populated with folks predominantly of retirement age who insist on having Sunday School. There are committees and programs that have become defunct or purposeless that churches refuse to axe, even though they become a struggle keep up and don’t achieve their founding goals.

As we cling to sacred cows we fail to see the unintended consequences that are hurting us. Sunday school was intended to teach kids the faith, but has allowed parents to abdicate responsibility of teaching faith in the home. Instead of empowering us to live out our baptismal callings, committees on Stewardship, Evangelism, Learning, or Support (among others) let us leave this important work to a committee that meets once a month. Programs allow us to turn basic practices of faith like studying the bible, evangelizing through relationship, ministry to children, youth, families or seniors into very compartmentalized sets of behaviour rather than natural activities of faith.

We so often hold onto things that are actually hurting us because of deep-seated senses of obligation or loyalty. We get so stuck wanting to not disappoint those who went before us that we fail to make our communities ready for those who will come after us.

3 God just might be calling us to die. 

So many churches (and people for that matter) live and behave as if they are going to last forever. We make choices as communities as if our current state is going to be our static condition for the rest of time. We don’t have urgency… or the urgency of our conditions causes us to respond with flight or fight or freeze responses. We freeze up and choose to do nothing in the face of crisis, even when we understand that doing something – anything – is necessary.

What if churches had “Bucket Lists”? What if we made decisions about what we choose to spend our time and resources on knowing that we will one day die? Instead of working so hard just to stay afloat in perpetuity, what if we looked at all the things we could do before the end. There are not many churches closing these days because they made bold choices, gambled their resources and failed. There are lots of churches slowly petering out, after years of just getting by.

Admitting that God might be calling us to die means changing the way we see death. We so often see death, especially the death of a church, as failure. What if we saw death as a natural part of life and ministry? What if death was expected for our churches? Maybe all those mission and vision, discipleship and evangelism gurus might not seem so important anymore.

4 Our problem isn’t lack of mission, it is wrong mission. 

Most mainline churches in North America were started less than 125 years ago. A lot were founded in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. Communities of the faithful saw a need for a worshipping church in their midst. So they gathered members, raised funds to build buildings and call pastors. Energy was high, excitement was infectious, people came because the purpose and mission was clear.

And then buildings were built, funds were raised, pastors called and programs started.

But the mission didn’t change.

Most of the gurus or consultants that church leaders are seeking today have the same message: we have lost sight of the mission. If this were true, I don’t think there would be enough to keep the members that most churches still have from dispersing to the wind.

I think churches still have a strong sense of mission – build the building, raise the funds for pastors and programs. We accomplished those things decades ago, yet we still are trying to organize ourselves around them. Maybe it isn’t breaking ground, but it is making sure the carpets are new, and light fixtures clean, and shingles are replaced. Maybe it isn’t calling that first pastor, but it is making sure the budget can afford to pay for a pastor.

We are still trying to band together around those fledgling goals of starting a new church, even though we achieved them years ago. We don’t realize how people who want more than buildings and funds for pastors and programs are put off by our single-minded concern for those things.

5 We have let worship become entertainment instead of community forming. 

Whether it is mega-church contemporary worship or cathedral mass, whether it is a small community gathered for song and prayer or simple liturgy… our attitudes about worship have been transformed by the world around us. Our consumer culture has been turning us into creatures seeking to be entertained, distracted, and looking for things that appeal to our preferences.

I have heard many faithful church members, who are generally concerned about growing in their faith, slip into talking about worship as if it was a menu of food to choose from or different acts of a play. We enjoy sermons, we like music, we appreciate readings.

We have stopped participating in worship. We have stopped seeing the role of the congregation as integral to worship happening. While most church members wouldn’t agree if asked, we act as if worship could happen without anyone in the pews. We approach worship like theatre that doesn’t need an audience, but that no one would put on without an audience.

Worship should be the ritual action of faithful Christians. Worship should be a way to grow in faith as individuals and as community through prayer, song, word, and sacraments. The things we do and practice in worship prepare us for life in the world. We practice confession and forgiveness, we practice sharing God’s story and our story, we practice washing and feeding and tending to the world around us. We practice reconciliation and prayerful concern for the world around us. The things we do in worship should shape how we live out our faith. Our desire to be entertained should not shape worship.

Admitting the truth to our decline.

Admitting the truth of our decline is not an easy business. When the mission, discipleship and evangelism consultants come by to tell us how to fix ourselves, the hand-wringing that results is easy. But talking about these truths about our decline and how these realities shape us is not easy stuff… in fact, it is nearly impossible.

The fact is, more churches tend to slowly die, rather than truly change and find new life. This shows that admitting these truths in order to change them is harder than dying. Most of the time we will choose to die.

But that is okay.

The flawed ministry that we are doing despite of and in the midst of these truths is not unfaithful ministry. In fact, working with dying, flawed, wrong missioned churches and people is exactly the kind of work our God gets up to in the world. And that is also where we are in trouble. Whether we like it or not, admitting these stark truths about ourselves as we die, is all too often just how God chooses to bring us into new life.

And that is the most important truth of all.


Are churches really facing up to their decline? What other truths are we failing to admit? Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

As always thanks to my wife, Courtenay, for her editorial help and insight. You can follow her on twitter @ReedmanParker