Congregational Viability and the Future of the Church

I've been a pastor for a whopping 18 months, but have worked in church settings – seminary, congregations, church publishing house – for much of the last ten years.  As I settle into my career and my life as a parent of growing children, I find myself looking ahead.  And as I look ahead, I wonder how different the church will be in 30 or 35 years, when I approach retirement.

I am 35 years old.  Since 1974, when I was born, the percentage of people claiming a strong religious affiliation has declined by several percentage points, from around 39% to about 33%.  Also over that time, those claiming a "not very strong" religious affiliation has declined 10% … the same percentage by which the number of people claiming "no religion" has grown.  The "somewhat strong" crowd has fluctuated, but remains at the high single-digits.  Overall, folks are reporting a lower degree of religious affiliation (data here).

Also, since 1988 when the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was formed, membership and number of congregations have declined, while the number of pastors has actually increased (data here).  Anecdotally, we can all think of congregations that are smaller than they were 35 years ago, with fewer staff, fewer members, fewer ministries.  An ELCA trend report (available here as a PDF) reveals many downward trends, including declines in giving (in dollars adjusted for inflation), membership, average weekly worship attendance, baptisms, and so forth.  The church, as we know it, is in decline.  Even those much-ballyhooed megachurches are showing signs of decline and/or stagnation.

So what's next?  What will the church look like in 30 or 35 years?  If these trends continue – or accelerate, as is altogether possible – the church will be even less of an institution than it is now.  And I use that word "institution" quite intentionally, for I believe that the Word of God and the faith will survive and even thrive, but that the current way many of us Christians gather to nurture that faith – the ways we institutionalize our practice and community as Christians – will necessarily change.  Are our congregations ready for this kind of a change?  Since congregations are experiencing a declining capacity to pay for full-time ministers, are pastors who depend on full-time church employment ready for this kind of change?

I think it would behoove me to read up on my church history, to wrap my head around the varying ways that the Christian community has gathered around Word and Sacrament over the centuries.  I imagine that the way we Lutherans currently organize – with large (and decaying) church buildings, full-time staff, a vast committee structure – is a relatively modern, largely 20th century phenomenon.  Lutherans haven't always "done church" in this way.  Is it time to find a new way to "do church"?  It's a question worth exploring …

Also, I'm continually struck by the things that God does in the world apart from the church.  Just this week I attended a meeting of faith leaders with staff from the county's Department of Human Services to talk about healthy dating relationships and dating violence.  The county has an amazing capacity to impact our kids and is doing good and holy work to promote abundant life and justice for victims of domestic violence.

And then just yesterday my daughter comes home from her first grade classroom with flashcards teaching her basic economics – consumer, producer, opportunity costs, scarcity, needs, wants, income, and so forth.  What she's learning are the essential tools needed to recognize, understand, and work against the forces of poverty and economic injustice in the world, to work on behalf of the "least of these."  And she's learning this stuff at school, in first grade!  Indeed, God is doing good and holy things through our schools …

Recognizing the decline of the church as institution, and seeing God at work in non-church settings, has simultaneously humbled and excited me.  I'm not quite sure why or what it all means, but in these past few weeks my eyes have been opened anew to what God is doing in the church and in the world, and I am seeking faithful ways that I as a leader in Christ's church might together with others faithfully discern the path to which our Lord is calling our church.

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

4 thoughts on “Congregational Viability and the Future of the Church

  1. Thanks for posting, Chris.
    No one gets too upset when we consider the fact that the church of the 19th century, or 1st century for that matter, has changed beyond recognition. Seems to me that a healthy, robust view of the Holy Spirit helps us look beyond the current (and dare I say, sinking) vessel toward that which continually emerges anew.

  2. I’ve thought about the change in the church in the years I’ve been alive (60.) Back then, there was just the pastor and, perhaps, a volunteer secretary. Then the secretary left, so the pastor did his own typing. He even lived in the same building as the church, and he cut the grass. Did I mention that he didn’t know how to ask for help? And he was a kind of boring monotone preacher.
    But the church attendance was great enough for two Sunday services. You know it wouldn’t be now days, and I’ve actually looked that church up on the ‘web to verify that.
    We expect more these days. We want programs, choirs that sound decent. We want youth directors to engage our kids. We want church camps that meet some certifications, because the ones that we went to certainly wouldn’t. We want counseling and grief support groups, and parish nurses. We want kitchens that meet code. On and on. And that stuff costs money and there are fewer people in the pews to pay the bills.
    It is kind of like government services: we want more and then we complain about the taxes needed to pay for the services. We want more in the church but we don’t want sermons about giving to the church. At least not in the Lutheran church. [My daughter told me about visiting a church elsewhere where the first thing in the service was the pastor saying that too many people hadn’t met their financial obligation yet. She said the check books came out.]
    I do think that the church is God’s church and God will lead those churches and pastors who listen to have the Church become what God wants it to be. Yes, there will be changes. Maybe the Church will be the persecuted church, and stronger in that way, trial by fire.
    I do wonder just what were the expectations in the 1950’s.

  3. great questions! listening to the Holy Spirit is hard and humbling work.
    maybe that’s why many people don’t do it — at least not regularly.
    hope you keep up this conversation.

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