When I point out that many churches are in decline, I am not referring to the denominations – although that is certainly the case. In fact, mainstream American denominations are seeing a decline like never before. The Gallup organization reports a continuing decline in church membership for over two decades, and a current, all-time low as more and more Americans report no religious preference at all. But I am primarily interested in this article in what is happening in churches of Christ. Although not nearly as much as the denominations, churches of Christ have reportedly declined approximately 12% in the period from 1980 to 2007.
I would like to offer a few personal observations from other congregations which have gone into decline. These are mistakes often made, and which I hope will vigilantly be avoided here, and in any congregation interested in pleasing God.
- There is the tendency to notice, focus on, then obsess about the decline. It becomes the topic of frequent conversation. It is mentioned in prayers, in lessons, and in sermons often. The brethren are reminded that they are declining. And this is often done in a berating, accusatory tone, often to those who are most concerned and dedicated among the congregation.. What is wrong with this? Over time, it tends to discourage even the most faithful members, and the decline is actually exacerbated.
- Having focused on the decline, often is made the mistake of taking our eyes off of what really matters. When Peter found himself walking on the water toward Jesus, the text says that he “saw the wind, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried out, saying, Lord, save me,” (Mt. 14:29-30). What had happened? How did he see the wind? Obviously, he had taken his eyes off of Jesus. And when congregations become so concerned about their decline in attendance, they often lose their spiritual focus. They begin to look elsewhere, other than at their Lord, and all manner of distractions occur.
- These distractions often lead us to make yet another mistake. We substitute our thinking for God’s. We start coming up with all kinds of unscriptural ideas to deal with the attendance problem. We forget that our thinking is not the same as God’s thinking, our ways are not his ways, (Is. 55:8-9). We come up with a lot of bright ideas, like David who was moved to number the people, (2 Sam. 24:1-3). The parallel text tells us that this idea actually originated from Satan, (1 Chron. 21:1). And so it is that many declining congregations have started thinking for themselves, rather than relying on God. Their ideas are unscriptural, in conflict with God’s word.
- And this pattern leads to constant attempts to please people rather than God. We start asking, “What do people want? What would the community like to see? What can we offer which will attract people of the world?” Too many times, these questions are merely veiled proof that we are more concerned about pleasing people than we are with pleasing God. We see this mistake all the way back in Jesus’ day, when many of the rulers who believed on him were afraid to confess it, “less they should be put out of the synagogue: for they loved the glory that is of men more than the glory that is of God,” (Jn. 12:42b-43). It is a grave mistake when we reach the point that we are more concerned with what people of the community may think of us than what our Lord thinks.
- The foregoing mistakes are often followed by the final abandonment of the only reliable standard that we have, namely the word of God. The desire to carefully follow the Bible becomes mere lip service, and eventually congregations stop even trying to justify their actions with book, chapter and verse. The one thing that makes us distinct, and keeps us sanctified in God’s sight,
is laid aside, (Jn. 17:17). We finally give up on the lofty idea of actually being the church about which people can read in their own Bible.
These are some of the mistakes made by declining churches. One leads to the next, but ultimately the outcome is departure from God’s way, and a falling away from the truth. May we always strive to please God – to remain true and loyal to his word whether our attendance numbers are growing or declining!
– by Robert C. Veil, Jr.