Tag Archives: church decline

Ponderings on Donald Miller Dustup

So Donald Miller wrote a series of why he doesn’t go to church posts and its caused more than a bit of a stir. He is a fairly big time Christian author, so as one might expect, his honesty caused no small amount of teeth knashing and other bits. Alas, out of 526 blog comments I read, no one tore their clothes… not sure what that means, but it was interesting.

There were two things struck me with the commentary on Donald’s series… First, many of the issues he brings up are spot on. Secondly, I perceived an underlying tone of many of the most ardent objectors that seems to indicate they are trying to convince themselves they are holding to a right position. If my perceptions are correct in this, no wonder church growth has been going negative… its not just more folks not believing.

Its not a new deal either. Folks have been leaving churches behind for centuries. You have folks in early Christian and other histoircal writings leaving the church for the desert. You have the Didache going so far as to state  itinerrant preachers and prophets who stick around for more than a couple days are not cool. Alas, leaving to get closer to God is probably not the largest cohort of folks leaving, but it most certainly is part of it.

My guess is that the larger number of folks who don’t attend is that church doesn’t seem as relevant to their life as it once did. In folks I’ve talked to over the years, Jesus most certainly is as important, or even more important than when they were regular attenders, but formal worship not so much. I’ve heard many a story of folks digging into the scriptures more, praying more, and being closer to God post leaving than they did when frequent attenders.

individual vs communal vs scaling vs bidirectional vs unidirectional

Thus we are at a paradox, but I sort of wonder if we haven’t been there for much longer than is apparent. My guess is a lot of things served as masks, and now that a couple bits have changed, the light penetrates deeper than it did in the past.

In the glory days of church growth, attendance was often by social command. Christian privilege was also a huge deal. If you didn’t show up, your name was mud. If your kids didn’t show up, your name was mud… peer pressure kept a lot of folks in churches. One problem with this of course is the lack of authenticity it creates. Ie Christian for 1 hour on Sunday and then its turned off until the next Sunday. A positive side is that repetitive experience, even if ones mind is 99% turned off can have lasting effects.

Beyond the social pressure of worship to maintain Christian privilege, we also have the scripture bit about not forsaking the assembly. I’m not convinced this is anywhere near the global prescriptive we read into it. Ie, its one thing to be encouraged to assemble to stay on track to build one another up etc… its something else when it becomes just another must do thing to get the suffering over with as quickly as possible. From Donald Miller

The subtext of these comments seemed to insinuate that God wants us to suffer for Him. But not suffer by reaching the poor or by being outcast, suffer, literally, by standing in a church service singing songs you don’t find catchy. Really?…..

He’s not calling us to be sanctified through dutiful boredom.
Yep, the whole gnostic leaning thought that we go to church for the spiritual side and we should ignore feelings and such is pretty counterproductive. Granted I’m not saying church services should be like a Journey, Grateful Dead, Def Leppard, Vikings, Packers, Bears, etc (insert favorite concert or sporting event here), but they ought not to be totally ignore folks feelings either. I remember a Catholic priest friend some years back telling me if he consistently didn’t get anything out of going to church, he wouldn’t be going either. I think he was right on the mark with that. Church cannot be a one way deal… consider the bride of Christ thing, and how no one in their right mind would enter a marriage if it was only a 1 way deal from the get go. Of course recognizing this is one thing, addressing it another. The trad vs contempo vs mixed vs integrated vs age specific thing is likely a bandaid deal.

I think there is also an issue of expectations… remove the social pressure to attend, and the scrutiny increases. Consider that Acts 2:42-47 presents a pretty hardcore model for church… Such might fly and sort of does in some university constructs in part due to their transitory nature… but in a regular community, such is near impossible human nature being what it is. Consider the following discussion from Carson T Clark and a church leader related to his ordination process.

After I’d carefully laid out my understanding, he replied something to the effect of, “That sounds more like AA than a church.” Wanting to make sure I was understanding him rightly, I asked for clarification.
He explained that that degree of transparency about psychological struggles, intellectual doubt, broken relationships, spiritual confusion, and the like was simply impractical for a local church setting. It was unfeasible.
“People may need to go outside the local church for that kind of growth and healing.”

Carson T Clark’s view was probably close to the Acts 2 texts…. I’ve seen many a recent grad carry similar idealism, only to have it blown to bits when its execution is attempted. This is not to say its not valid and/or that it can’t be done via picking and choosing bits and pieces here or there, but holistically it can’t work. Churches are hospitals for the broken, run by broken people, and crashes and burns are inevitable, its not a matter of if, but a matter of when… which is why such can work out better within a university context that a traditional parish… ie the membership is continually moving, long term scars and institutional pluses and minuses don’t have enough time to become dominant. This does pose a problem for the recent grad though… their experience has created Acts 2 expectations in a given form which is near impossible for a typical local parish to meet. (Or at least if they are brutally honest, it is near impossible to meet.)


Calculus Matters – ELCA Membership Decline

@Feralpastor posted a excel chart of ELCA and predecessor groups membership levels from around 1950 up until recent times. A quick glance might lead one to think doomsday scenario… but I thought I saw some wobbles in the data.

As a result, I pulled the data off the ELCA website and took a look at the 2nd derivative… basically how quickly the change in membership numbers are changing, or in car talk, whether we are braking or stomping on the gas.



While a near continual loss of members since the ELCA”s inception is not good, to see such a change in rate of decrease is a significant positive.

The following graph adds in the yr-yr loss of members in green.


In a nutshell, we are no longer in brake lock up mode post CWA09, In fact, once the 2013 numbers come out, I would not be surprised if we are back to the same state we were in pre CWA09 as concerns the yr to yr loss of members.

Causality is always a tricky thing, and often is not correlation, but I’ve been pondering this for years and more and more my hypothesis seems to make sense. Namely I believe the ELCA since its beginnings has been undergoing a long term shift to higher Fowler models.

The predecessor bodies were quite ranging in approach. Some catered to a lower Fowler model, some catered to a higher one. Since the ELCA”s formation, many CWAs have leaned towards a higher numbered model. This seems to correlate with the negative peaks in the 2nd derivative as folks self selected out. The overall trend to a smaller size would also make sense, as the higher numbered Fowler models embrace smaller numbers demographically. Ie, a Fowler 2 or 3 is often a growing stage, where membership decline is pretty common in a Fowler 4-5.

Millennials Don’t Find Jesus There?

I’ve read upwards of 1100 comments across the blogosphere on the Rachel Held Evan’s blog post on the Millennials. Within her post, she has the controversial statement, “we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.” Um, ok…

In reading all that commentary, certainly there were a number where it seemed that Jesus was the last thing on folks minds… some suggested that the we need more morality and OT stuff in church in Sunday school and if we have enough fire, brimstone, and condemnation folks will come back. Others thought way cool, we can have more liturgy, the old organ hymns, and all sorts of high church stuff and get out of our financial bind. Others seemingly blamed everything on LGBT folks, evolution, and critical thinking. A few were pretty blatant and told folks they were not wanted, and should go away. In some cases, the comments were so extreme, it makes one wonder where the fruits of the spirit are or if something else is there…

As such, it does seem pretty reasonable to come to the conclusion that Jesus isn’t there, or as some have said. “Jesus has left the building”

On the other hand, when you have that the 2 or 3 are gathered thing,  the word is being preached thing, to say nothing of the omnipresence thing, Jesus is there… Alas, just because He is there, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee that folks are listening… much less acting on His words.

In part, it seems the seed scattering thing may apply. Seeds don’t always take root, some wither away, some seeds get eaten by birds… which then may get re-scattered with fertilizer in another location (Hat tip to Pastor Steve on that one!)…  but this is only a part. It explains much of the off the wall, non fruit of the spirit stuff in the blogosphere, but it would be an exceedingly rare church where no seeds took root at all.

More so, I wonder if Jesus not being there thing is a framing issue on the part of the congregation and projection issue on the part of the millennials.

Many evangelical churches focus on the individual more so than the communal, but do so in a tribal like manner. Things like personal piety, holiness, purity etc end up as as huge deals, in some cases, perhaps swinging into Ecc 7:16 territory as to over-righteousness when they become idols… Rachel Held Evans had some good depth on this with Sex and the Path of Holiness a while back.

A few of the vibes I picked up from social media seem to lead some credence to a more Sermon on the Mount / Matthew 25 focus among the millennials than individual piety. Homelessness, food shelters, poverty mitigation, and wealth disparities seem to rank pretty high on the hypocrisy detection meter of millennials… Ie, if you preach on sexual abstinence, Dave Ramsey, and patriotism but not on poverty, global hunger, or the least of these, its reasonable for the projection and framing not to align, with the result that Jesus appears absent.

Another aspect of framing, is the lack of intellectual rigor, sort of the reverse of Ecc 7:16. More than a few millennials came to the conclusion that Jesus is not there as he doesn’t exist. While one can debate whether Christianity is intellectually viable, it seems far too many churches take the stance that it isn’t, more so by actions than by words. Canned and know it all answers, bad apologetics, and in general philosophical ineptness set the stage for this. Its not evolution, science or critical thinking that’s the problem, its a problem of our own making.

Lastly, I think a timing issue is involved. Jesus did a ton of ministry in a lot of places over a very short time frame. Millennials having recently come out of university experiences where you go from knowing no one, to hard core discussions of theodicy in a month are not conditioned to wait… This shows up in a soc media where folks are making yea or nay judgment calls on communities with only a one or two visits.

Bottom line, Jesus is there… but there is a sort of hiding of Him going on.