I was ordained in the church at a very interesting time in history. The Presbyterian Church as a whole was about five years into the beginning of the great decline which continues today. While the mainline church blamed the evangelicals for “stealing” their members, statistics pointed to the fact that while many mainline churches were facing a sharp decline, most evangelical churches, other than a few churches here and there, were facing a steady decline of their own.
Of course, with the growth of the “megachurch,” many denominations and congregations got jealous trying to figure out how they would be able to replicate or grasp the influence of those churches. The root of the problem for the church was, and is, basic: society has changed, and the church did not pay attention.
Not even getting into social issues which have proved devastating to many congregations, churches lost track of their purpose in the community. So as other social outlets grew, churches who relied heavily on fellowship as their community purpose lost to organizations who did it better, with less commitment. (This is also true of social organizations like the Lions, Kiwanis, etc.) For those born after 1970, joining things and commitment are not important; the feeling among most of that generation is, “Why join? I’m just going to leave.” This can be seen in the workforce as well.
But churches still sought to grow, trying to rediscover the past. Unfortunately, because the impact of the church was already slipping in society, attempts to grow turned quickly into struggles for survival, even though most congregations were not able to see that. It was like one of the first discussions I had when I was ordained, known to most pastors as the: “We just need to be patient until all the young people come home” talk. But just as they declined other commitments, most young people did not move back to their hometown, and many did not find a need to join a church. This left many churches asking why and how, and they began to dwindle and eventually close.
During the time from the 1950s to the 1990s, many churches grew by using a combination of some spiritual activities, some outreach, and a lot of social/fellowship activities. While the church sustained its most dramatic growth in U.S. history during those 40 years, for the most part, it was not growing because of faith or spirituality; it was growing because it was a place to be. Interestingly, our denomination is shrinking both organically from an aging denomination and recent groups leaving for various other reasons.
In my first call, we were faced with a very grim future. It would be a slow and probably painful death as the aging congregation slowly lost its footing. With an average age of 70 and no desire for leadership, we had to do soul searching and spend time coming to terms with the fact that the only way our unique witness to Christ in our community would stay would be to seek a radical change, meaning that we would die and seek rebirth. Their choice was to let go of their wants and desires and to instead fight to be faithful and listen to the needs of our neighbors and the community. From choosing death over life came a growing and healthy congregation that now thrives in their new reality.
While technically the church died, and both churches in the merger were closed, they realigned their goals by choosing to live as Resurrection people, choosing to live under the question of how they can best serve God in their community. As we continue to think about our life as a church, we must continually ask if we are aligning ourselves with our wants, or if we are aligning ourselves with our mission to be connected with God.
If we are about the church and its survival, we cannot live as Resurrection people, because our priorities are inward. But if our goal is to ask how are we building community, listening to our neighbors, and working to share the joy and witness to the Resurrection, we have nothing to worry about. The success we see is not that which is seen in this world, but rather the success and joy that is written on the hearts of everyone who hears.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen