Decline of What?

The church is in decline.

Sure, I guess. But, what do you mean by that?

city-methodist-cathedral-2

Membership is down in many congregations. Average weekly attendance is down, too. They are down as compared to 1965. They are down as compared to 1985. They are down, in many places, as compared even to 2005. There has been a general decline in the church.

And it’s not just people. There’s not enough money. Ministries – campus ministries, urban ministries, youth ministries – are being closed down or cut back due to lack of funding. And the buildings. They are crumbling. Literally, crumbling

The church is in decline.

Sure, I guess. But, what do you mean by that?

[Confused that I asked the question again]

No, not what do you mean by decline. You already covered that. This time I’m asking about what you mean by church. What is this “church” that is in decline?

The church on the corner. It has beautiful stained glass windows, dark wood pews, and a fellowship hall. Two worship services. Sunday school classes and Vacation Bible School. A seniors group and, sometimes, a youth group. It’s a place where people come to learn and grow and be together and worship and serve. That’s the church that’s in decline. 

OK. Glad we got that cleared up. The institution that we’ve come to know and love, the institution that we have called “church” all these years, is in decline. Yes. But, I’m unwilling to say that “the church” is in decline. You see, it all depends on what you mean by “church.”

church n  a big building on a corner lot with one (or more) full-time pastor(s) and other staff members, where people of a common faith gather for weekly worship and Bible study, a variety of fellowship, program, and service ministries, youth programs, education, etc.

church n the assembly of saints in which the gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly.

Increasingly we are unable to sustain the first definition of church. That first definition represents a model of being church that was born in an era that has come and gone, an era in which church was seen as a prestigious community institution to stand alongside government and civic institutions. It is a way to do church that thrived on historically high rates of church participation, a culture that embraced (certain forms of) religion, and a post-war economic boom. It is a way to do church that was funded by an unusually high volume of offerings given faithfully by the unusually high numbers of people who attended church. Lots of good and faithful ministry happened in this model of being the church, but it is a model that does not thrive in today’s cultural and economic climate as much as it did in the past.

Today, church participation rates are leveling out in relation to historical trends. Today, the church does not have as vaunted a privileged place in society as it once did. Today, household discretionary income is at historic lows, debt levels are skyrocketing, and good paying jobs for young and middle aged people are harder to find. Today’s culture and economy simply do not support the model of church that thrived in the mid 20th century.

Too often when we speak of “church decline” we speak of the inability to maintain the buildings and staffing and programming of the 20th century church. We speak of an inability to pay the bills. Fair enough. But buildings and staffing and programming (and money to fund these) are not the church. A lack of funds represents a decline in how we do church, but not in church itself.

People, gathering at the foot of the cross and the opening to the empty grave to give God their praise and receive God’s many blessings – that is church. Or, to prayer groupuse traditionally Lutheran lingo, the church is “the assembly of saints in which the gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly” (the second definition, above, from the Augsburg Confession VII). Or, to quote Professors Wengert and Lathrop, “Church is not a noun; it is a verb, an event, or, to use the language of the sixties, a happening” (Christian Assembly: Marks of the Church in a Pluralistic Age, pg 27). Church is that encounter with God’s Word that puts sin to death and gives rise to a new creation. Such an understanding of church doesn’t require dedicated buildings, staff, or programs.

In some places the received model of church – building, program ministries, staff – is working well. Thanks be to God! Let us pray for the church to thrive in such a way! Yet in a growing number of communities this model of being the church is struggling.

Many of our attempts to renew the church today are aimed at renewing the 20th century model of church, at renewing the received model 0f church supported by a building, pastor, and programs. I hope and pray that such renewal efforts bear fruit, and indeed it seems that some such efforts are bearing fruit. Praise be to God!

Nonetheless, I think we need the creative and faithful imagination to conceive of, and the courage to be, church in drastically new ways, as well. Alongside familiar and renewed models of church, let us also live into new ways of being the church. Such new ways might look like extremely old ways (see Acts and the early church), ways that may have fewer of the trappings of the (beloved) institutional church. Such new/old ways of being church might have a different kind of intimacy, meeting in living rooms and coffee shops rather than in grand sanctuaries. Such new/old ways of being church may have less reliance on professional clergy and more reliance on the shared wisdom and faith of the community. Such new/old ways of being church might find an essential connectivity in social media, just as Saint Paul used social media (letters that were passed around among early Christians) to connect with and encourage the earliest Gentile churches.

Particularly in those areas where the received model of being the church is not thriving, but also alongside established congregations, such new/old ways of being church can renew our experience of a Christian community that gathers at the foot of the cross and the opening to the empty grave. Such new/old ways of being church can faithfully gather God’s people around Word and Sacrament and be that community of sinners redeemed and saints sent into the world to love and serve.

The church church is not in decline as much as the way we do church is in decline. Let us nurture established congregations into ever more faithfulness and vitality, and let us also give birth to new/old communities that live into the promises of God in new ways for this new day.

Sharing Profile Photos on your Church’s Facebook Page

If you’re like me, your involvement in your church or organization is a big part of your life. And, if you’re active on Facebook, you’re likely to share much of that part of your life online. However, it can be a bit of a challenge to share pictures from your personal profile on your organization’s Facebook page, especially if you’ve made your personal Facebook settings restricted to friends or only certain groups of friends. Additionally, most people who like your church or organization’s page will not see the photos if you simply share them on your page’s wall. To increase chances that your photo will be seen by people who like your church or organization, you need to post the photo to your page as your page, not as yourself.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Make sure that the photo you wish to share has “public” sharing permissions. Find the photo you wish to share in the photos section of your profile, click on it, and then click the globe at the top right corner of the message box next to the photo. Make sure the permissions are set to “public.”
  2. Next, go to your church/organization’s page. If you are the page’s administrator, near the top of the page a notice should tell you how you are “posting, commenting, and liking” – as your personal profile or as your page. For example, on my page it says, “You are posting, commenting, and liking as Chris Duckworth – Change to Grace Lutheran Church, St Paul.” You should click the highlighted text so that you can post to Facebook as your page. The page will re-load, and the notice will now let you know that you are interacting with Facebook as your page.
  3. Now, return to your personal profile and find the picture you want to share. Click on the picture, and then click on “share” from the options that appear at the bottom of the photo. A dialog box will appear, with a drop-down menu at the top. The default setting for sharing photos is “On your own timeline.” Click that, and from the drop-down menu select “On your page.”
  4. Above the message area the name of your page should be displayed. If you administer multiple pages, click to select the page to which you wish to post this picture. At the top right side of the dialog box, a notification reminds you that you are posting as the page. If that says “Posting as yourself,” you did not properly change to interacting with Facebook as your page. Go back and do Step #2 again.
    Write a brief message about the photo in the message area, and then press the Share Photo button.
  5. Now, return to your page to re-set how you interact with Facebook. You are still posting, commenting, and liking as your page. Click the highlighted text to “Change to (Your Name).” The page will reload, and your settings will be back to normal.

Sharing photos on your Facebook page is a great way to share what is happening with your church or organization. And, sharing appropriate photos from your personal Facebook profile does not require that you have the photo on your church’s hard drive or saved on any church device. Use these steps to share your photos on your page, as your page, and you’ll have a more dynamic and lively Facebook page for people to interact with and share with their friends.