Beginning with New Questions for a Church in Decline, Part 1


Jabbing and slinging mud at the mainline church has become a new intellectual sport among church leaders, and at first glance, this blog may be yet another fruitless contribution to the worn out question, “Why is the mainline church dying?” It is not. I’m moving on from mudslinging to asking questions that might lead us into resurrection. How can the mainline church enter into Christ’s resurrection, and what does that resurrection look like?

What few church leaders seem to understand is how the negative bantering back and forth has contributed virtually nothing towards the church’s health. My attempts to sound more dire and apocalyptic than you don’t revive a thing. Besides, we’ve all seen the statistics: steep declines in membership and money, aging buildings and church members, ineffective programs and initiatives, an irrelevant vestige of religion from a bygone era, yada, yada, yada, etc, etc, etc… While we must confront the truth head on, break the denial, and accept that Church in the 21st Century takes on a shape markedly different than before, we’re still left asking, “Now what?”. Suddenly the room grows eerily silent. We then realize that those who complain but offer nothing substantive to mediate the problem are the problem.

So, beginning from my little island in the blogosphere, I’d like to offer a new set of questions for the mainline church which I will address over time. (I’m doing so as loudly as I can to anyone who will listen!) My bishop once wisely said that we don’t arrive at the truth by offering answers but by asking good questions. In other words, the mainline church finds itself retreading the same debates over its decline because it begins the conversation with inadequate questions. Let’s take a look at some of those questions and then reword them to be more authentic, biblical, and Christ-like.

Question #1: How can we get our churches growing again?

There are two major faults with this question. First, the question preoccupies the mainline church with institutional survival. Let’s face it, the mainline church, especially my own United Methodist tribe, loves to crunch numbers. We count numbers like worship attendance, the number of new members, numbers of people in classes and activities, how much money is brought in and spent, and on and on.We love it when the numbers project upward because that means the institution is thriving. We worry when the numbers spiral downward because that means the institution is in jeopardy.  But there’s a major problem with this kind of focus: individual souls are just another number which props up the legitimacy of the institution. At the end of the day, what the institution values most is its own viability, not the viability of each person the blood of God was spilled to save.

The second fault is in the word “again.” That presupposes that the same construction and configuration of church we’ve inherited will be an effective means for today and the future. It is not. Pioneering books like George Barna’s Revolution warn us that congregational styles of church may have a limited shelf life, and that we need to rethink what Church is, how it gathers, how it disciples people into the likeness of Jesus, and how it spreads the good news of Jesus to the world. So can we see growth, absolutely! But… not by pouring new wine into old wineskins.

Question #1 Rephrased: How can we build the kingdom of God with new disciples of Jesus?

Notice that the emphasis is no longer on us or on our survival, but on the survival of a lost world. It heals us from our addiction to numbers and moves the growth from institutional growth to kingdom growth, the latter encompassing every local church, every denomination, and indeed our whole world. It mobilizes us outward, looking towards the reign of God and the healing of our world by the blood of Jesus, one person, one family, one community at a time.

Please note that I’m not trying to dismantle or disregard the mainline church. I love my heritage as a United Methodist, and in fact, the kind of thinking that I’m suggesting is more in keeping with John Wesley’s vision than the dead form of religion he feared we would fall into and have indeed become. If there is any hope for United Methodism, we must once again rekindle our love for Jesus Christ, his gospel, and people who have yet to be born again into a new life with Christ and his Church.

Along these lines, I believe the answers to this question make themselves clearly apparent when we simply shift our focus from ourselves to Jesus and the world he died to save. When we do that, we find ourselves simplifying how we carry on as a Church– our worship, study, and engagements with the world around us. We find ourselves gathering together in the outside world where people normally live, work, and play. We realize that we captivate people not with pizazz but with authenticity. We move from being clever, cute, and flashy to being transparent, honest and profound. We see that the world has already heard about God so many times before. They’re not standing around waiting for us to say it again, this time with PowerPoint and a band. If they gives us a chance at all, it will happen when they see us doing what we say we believe and then speaking a message that points straight to Jesus.

To be continued…


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11 Comments

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11 responses to “Beginning with New Questions for a Church in Decline, Part 1

  1. stan

    Hirsh, Keller and others suggest we have to get our Christology right. Only when we get Jesus right can we get his mission right. Once we get mission right, we can begin to understand how the Church (body of Christ) can do Christ’s work (mission) and be church. Christology informs Missiology informs Ecclesiology. Our “problem” is we keep trying to fix ecclsesiology without rebooting to Christ. when we get the mission right (like Wesley) the church EMERGES out of its cultural context. Dare I suggest we keep tweaking forms of church because they worked in another time and place quite well. The beauty of the Gospel is that it culturally neutral and universal, but we keep trying to till new soil with ancient tools. Any church brave enough to reclaim Jesus’ mission will bear Kingdom fruit.

    • pastorchrisowens

      Stan, I agree with you 100%. Faulty and deficient Christology is at the core of our decline, and I hinted at that by suggesting that we need to look to Christ and the world he died to save. There’s a method to my madness here in that I’m peeling away at the onion to begin with ecclesiology, moving to missiology, and concluding with Christology.

      But then again, should not our Christology, missiology, and ecclesiology be rooted in the same principles since we are the body of Christ on Christ’s mission to make disciples of people in the world which was created through Christ?

  2. How did Jesus get such a large following?

  3. Dave Meixner

    We need to remember that people joining us for worship don’t care a lot about Christology, escatology, exegesis, hermeneutics, ecclesiology, Kingdom building, and all the other church-speak bantered about among church leaders. People show up lonely, broken, or lost and want to know how to become less lonely, broken, or lost. And they are not always concerned about the eternal. We need to recognize that people (and people’s souls) are saved one at a time. It’s a retail operation, not wholesale. People–including people who have been around the church seemingly forever–need to feel God’s grace through us, need to feel loved, need to feel respected, and need to feel important to God. God’s kingdom is built one soul at a time–a supernatural solution to a human problem, administered by human hands acting as God’s hands. If we would focus on what we can do for God’s people, we would need not be so concerned so much about counting heads.

    • pastorchrisowens

      Dave, you have an excellent point in that everyday people could care less about all the “-ologies” and really are looking for a space to connect with God and with other people in meaningful, authentic ways. Unfortunately, as a mainline church, we often miss the opportunities to be that kind of place. And so, I’m looking to have some admittedly insider conversation by raising and tackling questions that will move us into a more authentic understanding of Church, mission, and the Christ we are on mission with.

  4. Willidine Mellas

    We are so missing you all right now and Sunday services. I am looking forward to when we come to visit so I can plan on Sunday school and Church. God bless you and Blairlee as well as all the Church for restoring my faith. I am going to go now before I cry. Miss and love you all.

    • pastorchrisowens

      We miss you, too, Willie! You’re a reminder that at least we’re doing a few things right… :-)

      • stan

        people may not care about our ologies, but the church can’t survive without abiding in Christ (Christology) and knowing its purpose in this world (missiology) and out of purpose flows who we are (ecclesiology). There is a huge identity crisis in the Church today, especially among the mainliners, but also in many evangelical churches. we are trying to gain the whole world and losing our souls in the process

  5. As usual Chris, I agree with you completely on some points, but on others, I strongly disagree. The conclusion you land on I totally agree with, in that the focus must be shifted. We’ve had that conversation dozens of times. However, I think the means you implied were necessary, or not necessary, to reach that goal I disagree with.

    There is a difference between mudslinging and making negative opinions clear. Bashing for no other reason than to put down the church is mudslinging. However, what I hear most of the time are legitimate, frustrated, angry, disenchanted complaints. From church members and leaders alike. For the sake of perceived unity, some people will condemn these complaints. They’ll say things like, “even in all of its problems, it still does good things” But that’s incidental because good things come out of bad things all the time. That doesn’t mean we should sit by and tolerate it.

    Traditionalists leaders, many of whom aren’t even really Christians (although it would be presumptuous and proud to ever make any specific claims), have a kind of death grip on the institutional church “method”. Just like almost anything that needs to change, it’s almost guaranteed to come only through some kind of conflict. But, Christians are torn between protecting the peace and embracing a badly needed blowout. So, things die slowly and painfully and embarrassingly. Then again, maybe that’s the way it should be.

    Love for the institution defends peace over this issue, love for the people embraces, possibly even bolsters, this conflict until no more excuses can be made and what needs to die, dies and what needs to live, lives.

    • pastorchrisowens

      Bill, I don’t think we’re as far apart as you suppose. I resonate with the all the thoughts and concerns behind the negativity. I was just stating that negativity without the help of good questions leading to a better way forward is not helpful. It just adds to the malaise, which is already thick and getting thicker. I’m also concerned that my denomination’s leaders are asking the wrong types of questions. They have been asking them for years now, and it really hasn’t gotten us anywhere of real significance.

      And I’m not sure if and for how long the institution I belong to will survive. I’m not even convinced that the UMC will be viable through my normally prescribed retirement years. For now, I’m clinging to a biblical hope that God will bring out and reserve a faithful remnant to carry on his kingdom work. It exists, and I see it. I just pray for the faithfulness to be included in this remnant.

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