What the church needs

I’ve been reading some articles that have been posted on a variety of topics related to church. Some of them are articles about why people leave the church. Some make the claim that people leave because the church isn’t being congruent. Some argue that people aren’t connecting with the church because it isn’t relevant any longer. Some call into question the faithfulness of people – were they really Christians to begin with? Some claim that the decline of the church is related to secularization. Some argue that the role of the clergy has changed, but the people in the pews haven’t kept up with those changes and so there is a clash between expectations and reality. Some argue that change in generational leadership is the problem. 

I’m sure there are plenty more articles out there arguing for something else. 

I think all of these articles and arguments share something in common. They are all correct and all wrong. They have a piece of the puzzle. I don’t think there is a nice easy answer or a grand overarching theme. The church is in the midst of a change – that’s the only thing we can really point to. But thankfully, change is something we church people have a theology around, even if there are claims that the church doesn’t like change. (Which I think is bogus – the church doesn’t like to be not in control). 

I’d like to argue a variation on these other arguments. I think there is a range of things going on. And it’s a danger to claim one overarching theme because there is no such thing as an overarching “normal” church. There are variations. You could make arguments about some of these types of churches. So, what are the types of churches? The list could go on, but I think there are some groupings that we can identify. There’s overlap of course too. No church fits nice and neatly into a category, just as no person does either. 

Here’s my list of types of churches:

  • Suburban, middle-class, often primarily white
  • Rural, small, agriculturally based.
  • Urban, diverse
  • Suburban by a large city, middle-class and wealthy
  • Urban, attracting working professionals.
  • Urban, poor
  • Suburban, mega church

The list could go on and on. 

Here’s what I know though about these churches – there are similar people in all of them. Again though, the lists will vary and its dangerous to claim that all churches have x, y, and z people, because all churches are unique and different. But there are some themes that seem to pop up. 

Four types of people in many churches that I’ve encountered are:

  1. Those that need to mourn/heal – they have suffered loss in their life. Maybe it’s of a person, relationship, loss of the past, loss of purpose and meaning. Maybe they suffered abuse or trauma. 
  2. Those that are faith-illiterate – They don’t know the Bible or the stories of it, they don’t know the church history or doctrines or what the church stands for. They don’t know what faith is really about. 
  3. Those that have energy and are seeking ways to use it for meaning, vision, purpose, and impact. 
  4. Those that are frustrated because things are either moving too fast or too slow. 

I’m guessing you have other groups of folks that you can add to the list. It’s not a complete list by any means. It’s just a list that I compiled to make sense of what is happening in the churches I have been in, visited, lead worship, etc. 

The biggest challenge I have with so many of the articles about the church and its decline is twofold. 1. They often sound like there is nothing to be done – decline is inevitable and it is hopeless. Or 2. The goal is to get back to a larger church, with lots of members, and here’s how you do that. 

I think both of these are misplaced. 

You see, I don’t think it’s our job to maintain the church. As if there will never be a change in it. As if there will never be a different way of being church. As if decline isn’t exactly what needs to happen. As if the goal is to get back to some kind of status quo. And as if all hope for something different, better, is pointless. 

Is the institutional church in decline? Yup. In the West it sure is. Who decided that maintaining something that doesn’t match what is needed is a good idea? Is it because it’s familiar? Because it’s all we know? History shows that the church and its structure and how it operates has changed many times over. Why would we expect that what has been the current form would remain with us forever? 

I know this isn’t popular to say within the church, but I don’t think the church needs to keep trying to save the church. We don’t need to try to get people back in the pews (if that’s the only goal). We don’t need to try to shore up budgets (if the money is going to just be used the way it always has). We don’t need to revitalize churches (if what we mean is to make them strong enough to delay the inevitable). We don’t need to do any of that. 

Instead the church needs to fully embrace what it proclaims to believe as the core foundation – that this is Christ’s church. And that Jesus is its savior and gives it a mission and purpose. We need to embrace fully a core theological belief that we have – life, death, resurrection. This is what Jesus calls on all followers to embrace and live into. Jesus doesn’t call on us to shore things up or try to re-create some kind of glory days (as if that’s even possible or the glory days were really the best ever) or avoid death. He called on us to deny ourselves, pick up our cross and follow him. That literally means he calls on us to die. But death doesn’t get the final say. Death is the path to resurrection and new life. 

So, this leads me to the essential questions that we need to ask as a church. Because I don’t think there are nice easy answers, or answers that work for every church or even man churches. I think all the articles about what the church should do are just guesses ultimately. Are there some good ideas in these articles – sure. But until you deal with a deeper foundation, all those solutions are wasted energy. The foundation is made up of two parts – why and what. 

The first set of questions are based on why. Why does this church exist? Why did Jesus call this current group of people together to carry out the mission Jesus has for this community? Why should anyone care? Why are we following Jesus? Why does grace, mercy, forgiveness, peace, wholeness, community matter here and now? Why are people hurting in this community? Why do we have the resources that we are stewarding?

The second set of questions are based on what. What needs to die in this congregation? What power structures need to die? What decision making systems need to die? What events need to die? What organizational structure needs to die? What part of the property needs to die? What roles need to die? What services need to die? What part of worship needs to die? What committees or groups in the congregation needs to die? The point here is to ask who is really in control – us or Jesus?

Why does this church exist? And what needs to die so that new life can begin? What needs to die so that we can follow Jesus faithfully? What needs to die so that we know we are not in control, but rather Jesus is? 

Those are your questions. They will lead to what you need to do and why you need to do it. And I’m willing to bet that your answers are unique to your context. Because every church is unique, and Jesus has a mission for each congregation in its time and place. 

Really all of this comes down to a metaphor that I heard someone else use and I think it makes sense. It’s the metaphor of pruning. The argument is that the decline of the church isn’t what our focus should be on. The point of asking what needs to die is really asking what needs to be pruned, cut away. When you prune a plant, often you cut away a lot of stuff that is dead and even some stuff that is alive. Sometimes when we prune the plant doesn’t look like it can survive because so much has been cut away. But the amazing thing is that the plant comes back, more vibrant and alive than it was before. It bears more and better fruit. The church shouldn’t fear the decline it is going through. It should help the pruning along so that new life can take root and sprout. So that the plant can grow strong and bear healthy fruit. It isn’t about raw numbers – like people in the pews or money in the coffers. It’s about living what it means to be a follower of Jesus in community. It’s about proclamation of the Gospel. It’s about bearing fruit. It’s always been about this. 


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