The Magnitude of the Problem
Protestant mainline churches have had a long and proud ecclesiastical history in North America. Mainline denominations have made tremendous contributions to the gospel of Jesus Christ and have served society in a noble and charitable fashion for decades. However, there can be no denying that mainline Christian denominations are on the decline. As noted in the National Post, the United Church of Canada, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, saw a peak membership of almost 1.1 million people in the mid-1960s after a steady rise from 600,000 at its founding in the mid-1920s. Since the mid-60s, membership has steadily declined hitting about 500,000 by 2009. Average weekly attendance has fallen steadily from 400,000 per week in 1977, when the church started recording attendance, to dipping below 200,000 per week in 2009.
Sunday school membership, which is critical in developing children and young people in the faith, has seen even bigger declines from its peak of about 750,000 in the late 1950s to under 100,000 in 2009. Since Sunday School typically consists of young children, there could be other factors involved such as a corresponding decline in birthrates since the peak of the Baby Boom. However, the magnitude of the decline is far greater than the overall decline in membership over that same time period.
The numbers from the UCC represent similar trends in the United States. The Episcopal Church suffered a dramatic attendance decline from 2000 to 2010. According to the Episcopal Church website, average weekly attendance fell from 856,579 in 2000 to 657,831, a 23.2 percent decline. In 2010, Episcopal Church decline in attendance was 3.7 percent. The Presbyterian Church (USA) was down by 3.28 percent, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America down 1.92 percent and the United Church of Christ fell 2.93 percent in 2010.
In Europe, the numbers appear to be worse. In the United Kingdom, it is estimated that between 40 to 60 percent of the adult population attended church services on a weekly basis in the mid 1800s. By 2007, that number had fallen to about 10 percent. The rest of Europe doesn’t fare much better when it comes to weekly religious attendance. Swedish and Finnish attendance hovers around five percent of the population while the Danes come in with a meager three percent. France and Germany have attendance below 10 percent while the Netherlands and Luxembourg are between 10 and 15 percent. In a 2004 survey, Malta and Poland have the highest regular weekly attendance rates of 75 and 63 percent respectively. Ireland follows with 54 percent. Other than these three countries, the rest of Europe has attendance rates from below 50 percent all the way down to three or four percent.
There are no magic formulas to guarantee a reversal in the decline of any church body. However, there are some basic principles that can be applied that would at least place a church in a healthier environment that could promote new life and growth into a congregation.
The first step in reversing a decline is to recognize who is the owner of the church. Is it the denominational leadership? The pastoral staff? The elders? The congregation? It is none of these. Every church has to recognize that they are owned by Jesus Christ. The Holy Scriptures are clear: Jesus is the head of the church with the church herself constituting His body on the earth.
I would say that most members of a mainline church would agree that Jesus Christ is the head of the church and the ultimate head of their denomination. But is such an acknowledgement more of an intellectual formality or is it a firm heart and mind commitment? If a congregation really believes that their church is not theirs but the Lord’s, are they willing to do what He wants their church to be and do, even if they don’t like it? Or are they determined to be or do what they or someone else wants?
This is not an academic proposal but a serious issue of faith and discipleship. Is Jesus really the head of all mainline denominations that confess His name? If so, are they willing to do want He wants them to do, even if it is hard? Even if it means a bit of intellectual and emotional humility? Even if it means being made to look like fools in the eyes of the world? Jesus did many things that were not popular with the people. In fact, many people found His teachings too hard and decided not to follow Him any more (John 6). Are members of mainline churches willing to follow their Head, wherever He leads them?
If the honest answer is a no or a dishonest yes by shaping Jesus into a being that conforms with one’s own desired presuppositions, then any attempt to reverse the declining fortunes of a mainline church is pointless. If a church is not willing to follow its Head, the Head will leave it to decline into oblivion. Without obedience to His will, blessings in the form of new life and growth will prove to be forever elusive.
A typical argument against Step 1 is how do you know what the Head wants of His church? Such a question is typically asked with the wrong motive, namely that such a question is unanswerable. The question is an attempt to raise the epistemological issue that no one can really know what the will of Jesus is regarding His church or about anything else for that matter. This is a convenient means of avoiding the problem.
Let me frame it another way. If it could be proven to you with absolute certainty that Jesus wanted your denomination to go in direction A, a direction you absolutely hated, while you wanted to it to go in direction B, would you still go down direction B? If the answer is truthfully yes, then the original question, how do you know, is merely a clever deception and is really a means of trying to avoid obedience.
Step 2: Get Serious About the Bible
The next step follows from the first and answers the not so clever question of how do you know what Jesus wants of His church. The answer is contained in the New Testament scriptures and forms the core principle of Step 2: if a mainline church is serious about reversing its decline, it must get serious about the Bible.
For many decades, if not centuries, different churches have seriously questioned the reliability and authority of the Holy Bible. Many mainline churches and leaders have removed the Bible from its historical position of authority and truthfulness to one of subservience to the will of enlightened humanity and the seemingly infallible discipline of science and its regrettable handmaiden scientism.
Marcus Borg, a former member of the Jesus Seminar, once stated in a lecture that Christians have always picked and selected what they felt is authoritative in the Bible, while discarding other portions as being less authoritative and more metaphorical. Borg also engaged in creating a modified version of truth where biblical accounts are true stories but their truth doesn’t depend on facts. As he quoted someone else, the bible is true and some of it happened.
Borg tempered the audacity of cherry picking biblical authority by stating that it must be done responsibly, prayerfully and as a community. In Borg’s view, the Bible has no complete or real authority over the church. Instead, we interact with the text and the text interacts with us creating, as he calls it, a horizontal form of authority.
Marcus Borg’s view of the reliability and authority of scripture is based on a post modern view of truth which is relative and, as he claims, horizontal with man. To say that picking and choosing parts of the Bible we agree with must be done respectively, prayerfully and as a community sounds noble but in reality it is sophistry. Despite all the respect one can muster, humans will always trump the scriptures if it tells them to do things they don’t want to do. Borg’s philosophy of the bible only serves to make the conscience less guilty as it bends the bible into a humanistic shoe horn.
Unfortunately, Borg’s philosophy has been eagerly embraced by many mainline denominations. The result has been the appearance of holy respect for the scriptures while at the same time hollowing out its authority and in turn its transformative power.
Treating the Bible as a kind of equal partner with human rationality is a sure sign of spiritual decline. As mainline churches continue to move the bible lower down the ladder of importance and authority, the more people continue to leave the mainline ranks. By removing the Bible’s authority and not letting it speak for itself, mainline churches have robbed themselves of the life changing power of the Scriptures. Humanity doesn’t need the Bible as its buddy, friend or equal partner. People need the Bible to discover its spiritual power, its truth and its ability to bring them nearer to God. People need the Bible to warn them of their sins and to tell them things they don’t want to hear but need to hear. The Bible washes the church of her impurities but only if the church submits to its cleansing power.
To many mainline churches, the Bible has become a quaint artifact of its historical past. Kind of like the senile old uncle who sits in the corner whom we are to be kind and respectful to but never take what he says seriously. Mainline churches need to get serious about the Bible by stop treating it as a so-called equal and start listening and obeying what it has to say.
Step 3: Quit Following the World
The decline in membership and attendance of mainline churches corresponds to an increase in their mimicking the values, morals, actions and attitudes of the contemporary world. In the race to become relevant to society, mainline churches have adopted worldly values and priorities into their core life and mission. The result has been churches that look and act like political or social action groups except for the religious garb.
Mainline denominations need to take heed of Jesus’ prayer in John 17, “They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.” His apostle John echoes this in 1 John 4, “Do not love the world or anything in the world.” The New Testament is clear: quit following the world.
The trap for the church is to follow the ways of the world in order to reach out to the world and become relevant with it. Although some of the principles of contemporary culture are noble, many run counter to biblical principles and to the teachings of Jesus. The good news of Christ is not just about liberating oppressed peoples or taking care of creation. It is more about submitting to His authority and His will in all areas of our life, including telling the oppressed that Jesus is their Saviour, something that some mainline churches now consider abhorrent.
Churches following the world wind up appealing to the latest moralities and fads. In today’s world this means being politically correct, post-modernly relativistic and beholden to special interest groups. The contemporary church becomes indistinguishable from any other secular organization that is striving for the same goals. The church’s mission is to be counter-cultural and to stand against worldly principles that run contrary to the will of her Master. Instead of currying favour with the world, the church must recall what Jesus said, “ If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.” (John 15:19). If the church is behaving in such a way that the world is simply in love with her, that is a warning sign that something is wrong with the church.
People in the church who see the church as no different from the world become disappointed and leave. They are looking for the transcendent meaning that the gospel of Christ offers. They seek meaning and a deeper connection with God as the foundation for their lives and all they do. A church that is only concerned with temporal things is a church that becomes more and more irrelevant. They can no longer offer the deep spiritual meat the common person craves.
As National Post columnist George Jonas once wrote in a column about the upcoming papal conclave:
I’m not religious. If I were, however, I think I’d have something more important to worry about than God’s relevance to me. I’d worry about my relevance to God. And in the unlikely event that the cardinals asked me, I’d say that worrying about what’s relevant instead of what’s right is the quickest way to irrelevance.
Hope in Renewal
Mainline churches are not in decline because they are mainline in their heritage or historical background. The causes of their decline could be practiced by any church, knowingly or unknowingly. All churches need to humbly examine themselves to make sure they are really making Jesus their head, that they submit themselves to the authority of the Holy Scriptures and that they quit following the ways of the world. Unfortunately, many mainline church denominations have departed from these fundamentals.
There is hope in that many individual mainline churches have refused to follow the contemporary lead of their denominations. Many have founded renewal movements within their denominations and have vowed to remain to work towards renewal, such as theologian Thomas Oden. The work is not easy but for the sake of Christ’s body, it is a work worth doing. As Oden wrote,
The faithful are called to be prepared to stay and continue the ministry of rectifying what has gone astray. That is what shepherds and sheep do amid danger. They stay with the flock. They do not flee.