Tag Archives: dying

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

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6 Ways Churches do Ministry like We are Dying Anyways… (or how keeping everyone happy is killing us)

When I talk to colleagues and church members it doesn’t take long to hear stories of congregations and churches fighting over the details of ministry: the style of worship, the number of staff to hire, the colour of the carpet, the need to have a Sunday School (even in churches with few or no kids).

Most of the fighting is about opinion and preference rather than issues of substance. Churches are great at having disagreements over the details and turning the details into insurmountable differences. A good friend of mine (also a pastor) has often said, “Church politics are so vicious because the stakes are so low.”

Image source - http://donutchurch.com/tag/comfortable/
Image source – http://donutchurch.com/tag/comfortable/

Church leadership, church boards, staff and pastors wring their hands and tying themselves in knots trying to keep churches happy. I know pastors who run around 7 days a week working themselves to death trying to be everywhere, do everything and make sure everyone gets what they want from church. It is almost comical that so many of us consider this “ministry.”

As I was writing my sermon for last Sunday, it occurred to me that a ministry focused on making people comfortable and happy is doomed. In fact, it sounds eerily like palliative care.

The amount of palliative care ministry that many congregations are doing is incredible.

Now to be clear, true palliative care for those facing the end of life, particularly with illness is very important work – holy work even. However, when the regular ministry of the church starts to look like the holy work of making people comfortable as they face the end of life, we have a problem.

Here are some examples:

1. Trying to keep everyone happy.

Hospitals generally try to treat illnesses and make people better. Schools try to teach and form students. But the only institution that I can think of, whose chief goal is keeping people comfortable, is a hospice or palliative care institution. Churches and Pastors whose primary aim is keeping people happy are basically doing palliative care.

2. Focusing exclusively on people already here.

Churches have become really good at focusing on insiders. Churches worry about what their members will think about new initiatives or programs. They are concerned about losing even a single discontent member and are constantly searching for any hint of displeasure among the rank and file. Churches like this worry about new people showing up and upsetting the established, delicate balance. Palliative care is about focusing on those in the program, not about seeking new patients.

3. Avoiding conflict at all costs.

When there is only a limited amount of time left, why ruin it by fighting? Avoiding conflict is rooted in the hopes that problems will just go away if we ignore them. And the reality ism in palliative care most problems do just go away eventually – you know, that whole death thing. Death is a great problem solver. When churches simply brush conflict under the carpet, they are hoping it will just go away. And yet, the only way conflict goes away in churches is if all those involved die… and even then it can linger.

4. Being comfortable.

Comfort is a big concern for those in palliative care. It is also a big concern in churches. Many churches want members, visitors, seekers, basically anyone who enters to feel comfortable. They say things like, “people shouldn’t have to work to understand what is happening.” “It should feel like you are in the comfort of your own home.” “Church should be casual and welcoming – make people feel comfortable in their own skin.” Last time I checked, comfort was not really on high on Jesus’ priorities. I don’t recall him ever praising anyone saying, “Your faith has made you comfortable.”

5. Everything becomes about preference.

Churches worry a lot of about people liking things. We fight over getting our own way when it comes to worship, programs, facilities, planning. How we worship, the bibles we read, the food we eat, the chairs we sit in, the paint colour on the wall all becomes a matter of preference. Pastors and leadership can start to worry whether they have provided the right mix of preferences for members. We become like a nurse asking if a patient wants more pillows or blankets, chicken or beef for dinner.

6. We talk a lot about decline and dying.

Maybe the biggest resemblance to palliative care is when churches begin talking a lot about decline and dying. Now, I am not saying we should avoid identifying trends and history. But unlike someone with a terminal illness, it takes a certain amount of hubris (conscious or unconscious) to think we are finally the ones who will kill all our churches. But more importantly, churches are not terminal patients. Imagine someone who gets to a certain age, starts getting a few grey hairs or wrinkles, maybe has some aches and pains, and then starts talking all the time about dying imminently. It seems absurd. Because it is absurd. Yet this is what so many churches are doing whenever they meet to discuss and plan their future.

As I said before, true palliative care and palliative care institutions do important work. They provide care and dignity to people who are facing their last days. Please don’t take what I am saying to be a condemnation of that work, but rather a lens through which to see how we as pastors, leaders and church folk are approaching ministry.

When our ministry as churches and congregations takes on the character of palliative care, we have lost the plot. We become insular groups of people, looking after our own and worst of all, waiting to die (even if we don’t know it).

Comfortable-Georgian-Church-Interior-DecorBut the thing is, God doesn’t do palliative care. As far as I can remember, Jesus never helps people die in the gospels. God is about Life. New Life. Abundant life. Life where there should only be death. God doesn’t make us comfortable as we die. God makes us uncomfortable so that we can live.

And I would like to say that I don’t have answers for how to turn self-centred ministry to our dying selves into life-giving God-focused ministry…

But I do know.

We all know.

  • Stop talking about how we are dying all the time. Or at least recognize that our dying is only a part of God’s alive making.
  • Turn our focuses outward, stop worrying so much about people who are in the pews already and think about ministry to those who are not in the pews… yet.
  • Conversation. Dialogue. Talking. Communicating. We need to talk less about the things we like or don’t like about church (maybe forget talking about them at all), and begin talking about what ministry is happening. Talk about what God is doing in our lives and in our communities.
  • Do the hard work of living as a community, instead of dying. Living is uncomfortable, it is conflictual, it makes some unhappy at times, and requires us to live with uncertainty about what is coming next.

Ministry that looks like palliative care is killing us. Or least it us letting us as pastors, churches, and Christian hasten our journey towards communal, institutional death.

And worst/best thing is, we aren’t terminal.


Has ministry become like Palliative care in your context? Should we be focused on making people comfortable? Share in the comments, or one the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

Can we kill the church?

It is no secret that Christianity in Europe and North America is in decline, at least in terms of numbers, attendance, budgets and societal influence. Christian leaders in the United States, in particular, are really starting to name and deal with this reality more and more. What many Americans may not know, is that Canada is about 20 years ahead  in this process, and the UK 20 years ahead of Canada. In a way, I am speaking from the future of American Christianity, if things continue on the same path of decline.

dying churchThere have been a number of articles and/or sermons, making their way across social media, exploring the “Dying Church.” Sojourners (sojo.net) has recently run a series called “Letters to a Dying Church.Mark Sandlin’s letter, in particular, articulates the decline of the influential church of the middle 20th Century that rested at the centre of western society. Mark describes a church that has moved into a fringe community that exists in the largely forgotten margins. The letter also articulates great hope in dying, and promise in God’s resurrecting work.

Meanwhile, while Sojourners was running their series, Nadia Bolz-Weber published a sermon entitled, “Stop Saying the Church is Dying.” Her sermon also articulates the distinction between the social-cultural church of influence, which is in decline, versus the church that proclaims the Gospel, administers the sacraments and declares forgiveness of sins. While her title provocatively suggests the opposite of the Sojourners series, the point is largely the same.

So, we all know that Christendom or imperial Christianity is losing ground and is, by all economic and social measures, dying. 

And we all know that the Church – that is primarily concerned with announcing the Gospel, providing the sacraments, providing the Body of Christ a time and place to gather and reconciling creation with creator – is alive and well.

But there is an aspect to all this dying talk that I find curious, if not troubling. It is hard to argue that the church isn’t dying or transforming from what it was a generation or two ago. However, I think there is a flaw in our diagnosis.

I think there is no small amount of hubris in the notion that the church is dying and we are killing it. Consider the weight of this claim. In nearly 2000 years, the church has survived barely getting off the ground for 400 years, it survived being imperialized, spreading across the known world, going to war, reformations, counter-reformations, splits, scientific revolutions, the discovery of new worlds, nationalism, revival, charismatic movements and global wars.

2361002313_58cdf68fffAnd while yes, the church is in decline by all social metrics and economic indicators like membership numbers, budgets and sociopolitical influence, do we really think that because current generations are more interested in iPhones, new age spirituality, worshipping God in sunsets and grocery shopping after kid’s soccer on Sunday mornings, that the church is going to die because of us.

Now let me be clear like Mark Sandlin and Nadia Bolz-Weber were clear, the Church, as the body of Christ, the spirit-led community tasked with proclaiming the gospel, administering the sacraments and declaring forgiveness of sins will continue to exist long after the structures of imperial Christianity are gone, long after the institution is gone.

But even that claim misses the point.

When I hear Christians talk about this institution-less, egalitarian, consensus church to come, I think we are dreaming. I think we have forgotten the realities of human communities. I think we have forgotten that almost immediately after the Ascension, Christian communities started setting up structures and systems to govern church life. And over time, these institutions have grown, changed, become flawed, reformed, and declined. But they are necessary.

Just like the rules of grammar that allow language to convey meaning, foster creativity and breed emotion, the structure, institution even, of the church allows the gospel to be preached, sacraments administered and forgiveness declared. More importantly, the free, open, consensus based community that many Christians hope for in the midst of decline is a church that will cease to exist faster than our current iteration. Without structures to carry on our practice, everything that we believe would be forgotten in a generation.

Even though the institution is guilty of oppression, violence, murder, war, discrimination and many other atrocities, the institution is also what carries the community through history. The institution bears the life of the community in a way that we time-bound humans cannot. The institution has preserved the good along side the perpetration of tremendous evil – a sinner/saint motif. All along the way, the institution has borne the witness of those who have gone before, whose words and music and art and actions are worth remembering beyond the lifespan of their originators. The institution is imbedded in our doctrine, theology and liturgy. The church is one, holy, catholic and apostolic, not because human beings have kept is so, but because in the traditions, structure and institution those four marks have somehow remained, by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. 

So what does this mean for our declining church? As much as many of us would like, we are not headed to a Christianity without buildings, budgets, and constitutions. We won’t get far without hierarchies, structures and systems. We will always need pastors, leaders and teachers. We even need, dare I say, bishops. Here is the thing, we can’t all preach and nor can we all listen. There will always be some doing one and some doing the other – that is structure.

So yeah, our current version of the institutional church will probably continue to decline, at least for a while. But church has never really successfully changed itself… rather the world has changed around it. In in 1950s, the church did nothing to create a society in desperate need of an institution to rely on, to find hope in, to experience reconciliation with. Decline has mostly happened to us as the Church today, and before we can adapt to that, our world will change again.

In fact, as economic inequality grows, as conflict looms in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, as the environment faces crisis, as nations and economies become increasingly globalized, I don’t think it will be long until people start looking for organized communities and institutional structures that proclaim the gospel, administer the sacraments, and declare the forgiveness of sins. Before we can do ourselves in, the world will need us again… in fact, the world needs us now. 

So, can we really kill the church?

We never had a chance.

The Featured Photo at the top of this post is the burned down St. Boniface Cathedral in Winnipeg - this is the new rebuilt one.
The Featured Photo at the top of this post is the burned down St. Boniface Cathedral in Winnipeg – this is the new rebuilt one.

So what do you think about all this dying talk? Is the church dying? Can we kill it? Share in the comments, on Facebook: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik