The Church is Declining: Now What?

Missional guru Ed Stetzer recently reported on his blog that the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has been in decline over the last number of years. It’s a trend that seems to be afflicting most of the North American church, Lutherans included.

As such, consultants, researches, and church leaders are pressing for answers. “Why is the church in decline? What are we doing wrong? What do we need to change? How can we reach new people?”  They are good questions to ask. It’s always good for the church to take stock and self assess. But what it’s assessing is always the key.

Stetzer notes that the SBC has had its lowest growth in 60 years. “Baptisms in the SBC are also on a slow decline, and have been for over ten years – a 20% decrease since 1999. Baptisms ticked up a little this year – but this is the second-worst year we’ve had in more than 60 years –” However, what’s curious, or perhaps ironic, is that the SBC has been in the midst of intense “missional” and evangelism emphases for at least the last decade. Stetzer himself is a champion of it, even co-authoring a book that claims to have broken the missional code.

In fact, his 2006 book Breaking the Missional Code, is described this way: “One size does not fit all, but there are cultural codes that must be broken for all churches to grow and remain effective in their specific mission context. Breaking the Missional Code provides expert insight on church culture and church vision casting, plus case studies of successful missional churches impacting their communities.”(Front Flap).

To be sure, having read through his book a couple of times I found that Stetzer (and Putnam) have some very thoughtful things to say: “We have to recognize there are cultural barriers (in addition to spiritual ones) that blind people from understanding the gospel. Our task is to find the right way to break through those cultural barriers without removing the spiritual and theological ones.”

However, if numbers are the measurement of success (which they have so often been in the past, and for some, still are today) it would seem that the breaking of this missional code has not been so revolutionary or effective. In fact, the numbers would seem to indicate that perhaps it is even counter-productive.

But then, I’m not that much of a numbers guy. And as long as I’m making admissions, I’m not all that keen on letting the culture position the church’s theology either. I appreciate Stetzer’s desire for the church not to lose theology in the midst of removing cultural barriers, but I worry he (along with those in my own church body who feel he’s got it right) flirts too close to letting the culture position the church’s theology, and therefore change the message of the Gospel.

Remember how Robert Schuller got his start? Before there was the Crystal Cathedral, there was the Orange County Drive-in church. A recent article from The Atlantic captured its beginnings as well as how it was recently sold, and has now come to and end:

For cinematic purposes, the drive-in was useful only in the darkness, which meant that it could play an effortlessly dual role, theater by night and church by day. The architecture and technological system built for entertainment could be repurposed, hacked even, to deliver a religious ceremony for the golden age of the car. An early advertisement announced the new ministry’s appeal: “The Orange Church meets in the Orange Drive-In Theater where even the handicapped, hard of hearing, aged and infirm can see and hear the entire service without leaving their family car…  The Schullers, and their contemporary  entrepreneurs of religiosity, had happened into an idea that made particular cultural sense at its particular cultural moment: In the mid-1950s, Americans found themselves in the honeymoon stages of their romances with both the automobile and the television. And they found themselves seeking forms of fellowship that mirrored the community and individuality that those technologies encouraged. As one former congregant put it: “Smoke and be in church at the same time, at a drive-in during the daytime. What a trip!”… [However, now] The Cathedral’s current congregation is doing with pain what its predecessors did with ease half a century ago: driving away.

So my question is this, is the decline of the church really with the church’s inability to break the cultural barrier? Or could it be the church is in the midst of a generation of determined unbelievers who simply are refusing to hear the gospel? If so, would all the claims of the church’s need for cultural relevancy and to change with the times need to be reconsidered? Could what the church has done for ages be what is actually needed for today? Could the aim to be culturally relevant even be contributing to the decline?

Don’t get me wrong. I fully desire, with the Lord, that all people come to the knowledge of the truth and be saved (1 Timothy 2:4). And I fully recognize Paul’s testimony about becoming “all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22).  However, when one of the most well known culturally “relevant church” bodies continues to decline, might that be reason for Lutherans to pause and think about such cultural claims?

Even so, I refuse to play the numbers game. The church must be measured on its faithfulness to the Word of God and how it is apostolic, not on the nature of the results that it gets.

It’s happened before. Remember Elijah. “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.”(1 Kings 19:10).

Elijah was surrounded by a land of unbelievers (“pre-believers,” “unchurched,” and “dechurched,” all seem to be lobbed together here). He thought he was all alone. So he sought out the Lord. And where did he find him?  11And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake.  12And after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. (1 Kings 19:11-2).

The living voice of the Lord spoke to Elijah. Despite the cultural conditions and unbelief that Elijah faced, he was to remain faithful to that living voice. In so doing, he would encounter 7,000 faithful others who the Lord had reserved for himself.

The church of North America has found herself in a similar situation today. But I would contend that the answer is not drive-in churches or culturally relevant churches. The answer is the “low whisper” of God’s powerful voice of the Gospel speaking in the midst of culture, speaking through culture.

Yes, of course we need to know the language and the beat of our culture. And of course we need to take people where they are at. But if culture dictates how the church is to act, and what the church is to say, will God’s voice actually be able to be heard, or will people simply be prone to drive away at the end of the show?

As always, I invite your collegial and constructive comments as we seek to dialogue about what it means to be a 21st century Lutheran who “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). 


Rev. Woodford


4 responses to “The Church is Declining: Now What?

  1. My brother in Christ, An excellent post. The Augsburg Confession is so very helpful. Article II – Original Sin. Where it is minimized or denied and it is believed that natural man by his native ability or spark of grace gets him going, will profoundly affect one’s evangelistic enterprise. Article V – Ministry, asserts that the Holy Spirit works faith through Word and Sacraments “where and when it pleases God.”

  2. David Johnson

    II don’t know where I found it but I have a quote on my study door that states: “Success cannot be tallied by the attraction of a crowd, but by a persevering faith in the face of suffering or persecution”. Then I included the prayer: Lord, help me form followers who follow you and serve others. Amen.
    So I appreciate your comment on numbers. They have a place, we see remarkable numbers in the Gospels of Jesus feeding the thousands. In the Letter of Acts the numbers indicate that sermons and discussions in the early synagogues and in private homes by the early apostles brought numbers of people to faith. The numbers reflect the evidence of God’s miraculous work among his people through the message of God’s Word. We also see numerous people leaving Jesus preaching and teaching ministry. (John 6:66) Did they have itching ears for something that better suited their sinful nature, their interpretation of reality, their experiences and background? (2 Tim. 4:3) I do believe so. So we have the same problem today. Nothing new under the sun. Some people really do repent and trust the Lord and some don’t. God is at work in the numbers growing and decreasing. Yes he is! God cannot change. He forever desires all people to come to faith and not be lost for all eternity. (1Tim. 2:4) His word is a stumbling block for everyone. We stumble into paradise or we stumble into hell by whether or not we trust the great big Rock Jesus Christ. (1 Cor. 1:22) All people will inspect the Christ and discard Him over their shoulder or they will cradle Him in faith. There are only two options! Both camps will be reflected in numbers.
    The numbers on the SBC membership chart shows me one thing: We live in a time when more are stumbling and cart-wheeling away from the Lord, than staying close to Him in worship and prayer. Is this the white harvest Jesus spoke of which lead Him to send out His sheep among wolves? (Luke 10:1-3) I think so. The individual Christian and corporately the Christian Church must continue to bring the only life vest, the uncapsizable boat Jesus Christ for everyone’s storms, questions, doubts, fears and regrets! His grip doesn’t slip. (John 10:28,29) We live in a challenging – exciting time for Gospel witness. Let’s not let numbers scare us and depress us but let’s look at Christ, in Word and prayer, seeking and receiving strength to capture the World for Christ. Let’s look to fellow believers for encouragement, admonition and affirmation as we reach out and engage the world in God’s Word conversations. (John 4; Romans 10:17)

  3. Another great thought-provoking post! I find it ironic that in 1949 (the same year Rev. Norman Hammer launched his Lutheran drive-in service in North Hollywood) Chad Walsh published his prophetic book, “Early Christians of the 21st Century” foretelling the death throes of modern civilization and the dawn of a new world. “Perhaps we are headed toward barbarism, and the barbarism will be permanent,” he wrote (p. 10) He hoped, however, for a Christianity freed from its cultural straightjacket to engage a pagan world with the vigor exhibited in the apostolic age. As Rev. Hoese points out, we can’t predict the outcome, but we do wield the Spirit’s sword. And that Word will accomplish the goal for which God sent it. This is no time to toss out the baby with the bathwater, but to remain faithful in both proclamation and mission. Jesus put it best: “This gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end shall come.” (Matthew 24:14)

  4. Wow…I feel a bit like Elijah…who just found some of the 7000. Encouraging to read. I especially appreciate David Johnson’s illustration of the numbers interested in our Lord’s Gospel, while later disappearing when things got a bit more “sticky”. I believe that in all of my ministry this is the first time I have heard this fact brought out by someone who is not a professor (I am assuming he is either clergy or laity) talking about Jesus ministry – the entire ministry – not just the exciting, miraculous and numbers oriented part of it.

    I grew up in the Baptist church, and after seminary pastored as a reluctant “Evangelical” (to me that term has so much cultural baggage now, that I tend to avoid it). I came into the Anglican communion at a time when the conservatives had come to the end of their patience with the Episcopal Church. I longed for a deeper more historically oriented tradition that could help ground a congregation in those things most central i.e, the Triune God, the Gospel and the Kingdom of God. I am currently an Anglican Priest pastoring a combined Anglican/Lutheran congregation.

    However, in my 5 years as an Anglican I have been astounded by how little our Ancient, Apostolic and Reformed heritage informs the way we approach our church ministry (i prefer this term to “missional”). We are thoroughly enamored with the church-growth movement, and there is little discussion or excitement in our official communication as a province unrelated to “the great commission”, church planting, and global missions. As I listen to our Bishops teach and train us “win people to Christ” (the real purpose of the church), I am transported back to my teen and college years as a Baptist. For cathartic reasons, I have started to write some things to help me clarify my thoughts. I know I am preaching to the choir here, but it is nice to have a choir.

    Here is one such piece that may connect with some of the above discussion:

    “….a church can survive indefinitely as an “orthodox institution” with a “revolving door” attendance creating the phenomenon of an American Church described by many as being “a mile wide, and an inch deep”. While there has been much discussion among popular Christian leaders, pollsters, and church growth specialists regarding the decline of the American church over the last 50 years, the solutions offered by the aforementioned experts have been largely methodological (as opposed to spiritual, theological, or historical). The focus has seemingly been on short-term fixes instead of addressing the characteristics that have led to long-term problems systemic to the American way of viewing and ‘doing’ church.” (“Discerning the Moving of God”…Fr. Thomas D. Reeves)

    I believe that we often are as short-sighted as the culture around us.

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