Reverse the Decline of the Local Church

by Matthew Raley As we've seen over several weeks (starting here), three trends contribute to churches' loss of mission:

1. Politicization: the alliance between evangelicals and the religious right has confused the purpose of church life. Many now view churches as centers of political activism to "redeem the culture."

2. Media dependence: Many churches are vendors for conferences, videos, and books from parachurch organizations. Such churches do not have a mission developed locally, but purchase a mission from Focus on the Family or Rick Warren. This trend has degraded relationships, as media-focused living always does.

3. Weakened gospel: Many evangelicals are hocking the messages of political change and personal fulfillment, which, while salable, are not the message of the New Testament. The Gospel of the apostles is about the resurrection of human beings from the dead in the righteousness of Jesus Christ. This message can only be communicated effectively by a church with profound and stubborn focus. No focus, no Gospel.

A business plan for local churches has emerged from these trends. Attract a lot of new people. Give them activities that are fun and broadly Christian. Try to motivate them toward believing in Jesus.

Like any business plan, this one says that investment will yield a return. The investments required for attracting masses of people -- in snap-crackle-and-pop media, high-energy staff, well-designed activities that people want to join -- will yield maturity in Christ over time. That return on investment will then power the church into more growth.

Three problems.

This business plan is expensive in both time and money. Furthermore, this expensive plan has been designed to serve a confused mission. Finally, it does not deliver the promised Christian maturity. The failure to deliver a return is now a documented fact, published by, among other sources, the eminence grise of church growth, Willow Creek.

In business terms, investment plus unprofitability equals closure. Churches are closing because they operate on poor business plans designed to support a confused mission.

The issues are both spiritual and practical. The goal of the New Testament has to be restored in its brilliant clarity: move people toward completeness in Christ (e.g. Colossians 1.24-29). The spiritual requirement for this restoration is depth of experience in relationship with Jesus Christ and his teaching. Leaders must have this depth, and they must bring congregations along.

But the practical requirement is just as important. If there is no business plan to advance the New Testament mandate, then church life deteriorates to mere words. How is your church going to move people toward completeness in Christ? What resources of money, personnel, and time are you going to devote to the task corporately? And how are you going to measure the return on that investment?

I believe that no business plan to direct the investment of church resources will yield a return today unless it produces the following outcomes:

1. Submission of heart-and-mind to the Bible.

Churches need to devote money and time to the exposition of Scripture from original languages at weekly worship. This teaching must be effective enough to spur one-on-one discussion of the Scriptures among the congregation. The scholarship must be fresh, the applications specific, and the presentation excellent. The financial cost is the salary of a preaching pastor. The time involved is also costly: few educators have to produce brand-new material every single week.

Return on investment: the deepening and stimulation of the congregation's intellectual and spiritual life. (Don't underestimate how important this is: a community needs a clear agenda.)

2. An individual, daily practice of worship.

Individuals need to be apprenticed in the spiritual disciplines. This requires a financial investment in staff and in lay leadership training so that the intensive mentoring is being done by lots of people. Here, too, the time invested is costly: apprenticeship is about face-time with individuals and small groups.

Return on investment: intensifying the vitality of people's relationship with God and experience of the Gospel. This refreshes a person's motivation to serve God, which in church life is the first thing to dry up.

3. Obedience to the fifth commandment.

This requires the programmatic decision to mix generations intentionally rather than segregate them. If there is no reverence cultivated in younger people for elders, church life is mere words. This should not cost a lot of money that a church wouldn't otherwise spend. It need not cost any. But it does cost time in focused planning.

Return on investment: Reverence for your elders refreshes motivations again with love and regard for prized relationships, and it establishes a natural form of ethical accountability.

There are several more crucial outcomes I'll outline next week, along with specific methods we have found useful in Orland toward these ends.

But I'll sign off with this: criticizing the religious right, media-driven culture, or the church growth movement is not enough to reverse the local church's decline. Dippy stewardship is not overcome by preaching or prayer alone, but by stark realism. And that means taking a hard look at business plans.

What T. S. Eliot Would Say to the Religious Right

by Matthew Raley Dr. Gil Stieglitz, western district superintendent of the Evangelical Free Churches of America, says, “The older pastor tends to think about electing a Christian president and being only one or two Supreme Court justices away from ‘winning.’ The most common point of view among younger pastors is that the culture war is over and we lost."

Culture wars have been lost before. I have been comparing the American evangelical situation to T. S. Eliot's description of pre-war Britain in The Idea of a Christian Society. How did illusions of "winning" politically fare then?

Eliot wrote (pp 6-7), “I am not at this moment concerned with the means for bringing a Christian Society into existence; I am not even primarily concerned with making it appear desirable; but I am very much concerned with making clear its difference from the kind of society in which we are now living.” To call Britain a “Christian society” was “an abuse of terms.” Eliot said, “We mean only that we have a society in which no one is penalised for the formal profession of Christianity; but we conceal from ourselves the unpleasant knowledge of the real values by which we live.”

Among his many probing observations, Eliot said that the institutional structure of Britain had turned (pp 17-18). Believers now had the problem “of leading a Christian life in a non-Christian society.”

It is not merely the problem of a minority in a society of individuals [emphasis original] holding an alien belief. It is the problem constituted by our implication in a network of institutions from which we cannot dissociate ourselves: institutions the operation of which appears no longer neutral, but non-Christian. And as for the Christian who is not conscious of his dilemma—and he is in the majority—he is becoming more and more de-Christianised by all sorts of unconscious pressure: paganism holds all the most valuable advertising space. Anything like Christian traditions transmitted from generation to generation within the family must disappear, and the small body of Christians will consist entirely of adult recruits.

We have seen evidence that the implication of American evangelicals in networks of non-Christian institutions is profound.

While formally professing a biblical view of the family, a large proportion of evangelical households are not only living contrary to that profession but are captive to the social engineers of the state. Many churches themselves are exiled to a media Babylon, with vision and mission that live parasitically on the marketing strategies of larger organizations, lulling the people into an infotainment stupor, giving them a diet of consumer cake under a biblical glaze. And the financial condition of churches tells the story: overhead is up, giving is down.

The more disturbing reality is that evangelicals seem unaware of the problem. As Eliot said, they are being “more and more de-Christianised” by “unconscious pressure.” That pressure, I believe, is coming from their own churches. The little platoons of evangelicalism are weakening because they have de-Christianised themselves.

Because of this change of values, it should come as no surprise that a new political atmosphere among evangelicals has been developing for some time. With the death or retirement of conservative organizers like Jerry Falwell and James Dobson, and the rise of liberal evangelical leaders like Brian McLaren and Donald Miller, the grass roots structure that supported conservative causes is troubled.

David D. Kirkpatrick reported on the new atmosphere as early as October 28, 2007 for The New York Times Magazine. As polls then showed, "White evangelicals under 30—the future of the church—were once Bush's biggest fans; now they are less supportive than their elders." Kirkpatrick wrote that the “sharpest falloff” in evangelical identification with the Republican party was among the young.

There was further evidence of the slide in Republican support in exit polls from the presidential election in 2008. John McCain won the evangelical vote 57% to 41%. But in 2004, George W. Bush won evangelicals 65% to 34%. McCain’s showing was nearly identical with Ronald Reagan’s in 1980, a strong one. But the most telling number may be that Barack Obama’s 41% was ten points higher than Bill Clinton’s in 1992, and seven points higher than John Kerry’s in 2004.

Those evangelical votes may shift back. But there cannot be any question that they are in play. The only way the religious right can retrieve them is with populist appeals to "Christian values" that many Christians themselves no longer have. Those appeals will probably work, at least in the near-term. But the spiritual fact of the matter is -- and pastors need to face this -- populism is not Christianity.

What would Eliot say to the religious right? You need urgently to face "the unpleasant knowledge of the real values by which we live.”

The Slow Liquidation of the Religious Right

by Matthew Raley One Sunday morning in the exurbs of California’s bay area, I watch the faithful of Christ Community Church gather. The church has been active for two decades, and has converted a business complex into an auditorium, offices, and classrooms. On this morning in June, 2005, the church has a wide range of age and ethnicity, attendance of about two hundred, and a full schedule of programs.

Six months later, after the founding pastor resigns to join a seminary faculty, services are cancelled, the congregation disperses, and the property is up for sale. Why, with so many apparent resources and without any scandal, did this church close? And why do many evangelical congregations make the same decision each year?

Political conservatives have been able to rely on the evangelical right for three decades. Election after election, evangelicals have delivered money, grass-roots organization, and votes. Evangelical passion for such issues as abortion and gay marriage has framed stark, simple choices for middle American voters.

The foundation of the religious right’s support structure has been local churches, institutions where Christian ethics and spirituality are taught, encouraged, and above all practiced. In purely social terms, a church is a gathering place for people with a shared worldview. In political terms, a church is a little platoon of citizenship and service, embodying what T. S. Eliot in The Idea of a Christian Society called “the substratum of collective temperament, ways of behaviour and unconscious values” that provide the material for a nation’s political philosophy.

In evaluating the alliance of evangelicalism and conservatism biblically over the past several weeks, I've found that there is a broad agreement in priorities between biblical teaching and the conservative movement. The Bible's view of the state, many of its economic teachings, its command to honor parents, and its examples of national loyalty will consistently incline an American church that teaches these things toward political conservatism. I do not mean that the Bible is politically conservative in every sense, or that political conservatism is without spiritual or ethical problems. I only mean that it will continue to be the natural political home of Bible-believing Christians.

But I have also found that evangelicals do not deeply teach or practice these biblical principles. Indeed, evangelical churches practice them less and less.

While evangelical sophistication in grass-roots organizing has grown over the last thirty years, the local church’s ability to perform its primary mission of nurturing people ethically and spiritually has declined. A range of indicators shows this weakening of evangelical culture, and we will survey the data over the next several weeks.

There are ominous implications for the future of American political conservatism: every time a church like Christ Community folds, conservatives lose a gathering place. American evangelicalism shows disquieting similarity to the Christianity Eliot described in pre-war Britain, a faith that no longer influences the national way of life.

A superficial but telling indicator is the number of American churches.

Warren Cole Smith, editor of the Evangelical Press News Service and author of A Lover’s Quarrel With the Evangelical Church (2008), gives a statistical sketch that can be found in numerous publications (pp 18-19). “In 1900 there were twenty-seven churches per 10,000 Americans. In 1985 there were only twelve churches per 10,000. Baptist Church Planting magazine estimated the number of churches per 10,000 Americans today at less than ten.” Smith adds that 4,000 churches closed in America each year during the 1990s. Church starts were typically less than half that number.

David T. Olson of The American Church Research Project reports that evangelicals started more than 7,000 churches from 2000-2008, but that over the same period more than 24,000 new churches would have been needed to keep up with population growth. Further, Olson reports that throughout the 1990s growth in evangelical church attendance was 1%. By 2006-2007, the growth rate had slowed to 0.3%.

Whatever else these data mean, the bottom line is clear: American evangelicalism is in a slow liquidation.

The issue is not so much that churches close. Christ Community, for instance, didn't close because it had abandoned the faith or because the congregation didn't care about ministry. They honestly felt the closure was right in light of what they faced. The issue, rather, is that believers are not planting new churches. They simply don't believe deeply in Kingdom priorities.

With churches declining, the conservative movement is also in decline at the grass-roots, even though it looks strong as ever. Over the next decade, its ability to mobilize evangelical voters will precipitously diminish because the organizational structure won't be there.

The more important implication is this: American culture is transforming into the frigid steppes of post-Christianity not because unbelievers are winning political battles but because believers no longer believe.