You have heard me – and many others – write about how the times for the church are changing dramatically. This is true, but I believe this change has been going on for at least 40 years. One paper I read years ago claimed that this has been happening since the 1930’s! The research showed that the growth of church membership has not kept up with the growth of population, at least in America.
Whatever the case, we can see change taking place, and many congregations are closing around us. As I sat in the closing service for one of our churches recently, I was amazed as I listened to all they had done over the years, and someone else said to me afterwards, “It seems like they did everything right, and still, they closed! Is there any hope for any of us?”
The short answer is – Yes. Here is what I have taken away from these sad occurrences:
1) So many of our churches did “all the right things” for a very long time, but at some point – maybe they saw their neighborhoods changing and got afraid, or maybe they got comfortable in their ministry – the stopped doing new things.
2) Most congregations are stuck in the 1950’s – the 1850’s. That is, they are either still basking in the glory days after WWII when our buildings were hubs and our pews were mostly full, or they are stuck in traditions that began a century and a half ago and refuse to update.
3) They have stayed away from risky and challenging conversations. They didn’t want to talk about racism, or homophobia, or the environmental crisis. They played it safe, and in the end, it had the opposite effect they were hoping for.
4) While we are all supposed to spend time together in Christian Fellowship, many of the activities our churches created were secular in nature. Instead of focusing on what churches should do – excellent worship, prayer, bible study, etc – they created closed clubs and country clubs. Those things are fine, but they aren’t church.
5) The members are the ones who have, in reality, killed the church. Most of our congregations have at least 2/3 of their members listed as inactive. Many of our active members do not give generously – too many give like it is still, well, 1950 or 1850. Don’t get me wrong – there are many very generous people giving to our congregations, but when 20% of the members pay for 100% of the ministry, something somewhere has to give.
We aren’t meant to just survive – we are meant to thrive! We are here to care for widows and orphans, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, and share the Gospel (there’s a lot more, but I am running out of space). You should be active in the ministry of a congregation that is working out its faith every day. Share that with your friends and neighbors – and help your church to thrive in the 21st century.
Steve Ohnsman has been the pastor of Calvary UCC in Reading, PA, since 1999. He has a BA in Religion & Philosophy from Wilmington College (OH), and MDiv from Drew Theological Seminary (NJ), a DMin in Christian Ethics from United Theological Seminary (OH), and a PhD in Leadership from Alvernia University (PA).