The Reason for a ReStart

August 7th, 2012

According to one report, 188,000 orthodox churches in America today are in need of a reStart. The U.S. has 200,000 orthodox Christian churches, and 300,000 churches overall. What recent history has made very clear is that the mainline church in America is dying. Thom Rainer, in a U.S. study of 1,159 churches (2002), said that 94% of American churches are in decline. Recent church attendance records show that in America, real attendance numbers are not near 40% as previously reported, but a shocking 17.7% (2004). These numbers also report a trend for growth in small (less than 49) and large (over 2000) churches, while a sharp decline in medium-sized churches.

Note the statistics, for example, of two mainline denominations from the Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA):

The United Methodist Church

1968       41,901 churches            10,990,720 members            33,236 clergy
2005       34,397 churches            7,995,456 members              45,158 clergy

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

1987       11,133 churches            5,288,230 members              17,052 clergy
2006       10,470 churches            4,774,203 members              17,655 clergy

The data from ARDA shows that not only have 7504 churches died between 1968 and 2005, but membership declined by just under 3 million in the same period. During this time, the number of clergy caring for fewer churches increased by 11,922! The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is similar (these statistics cover a shorter period of time, between 1987 – 2006). 663 churches have died. Membership has dropped by 514,027. And the number of clergy has increased by 603. We are spending more money on clergy for fewer churches and fewer members. Something is wrong with this picture. These statistics bear out the “writing on the wall” of the state of crisis in the mainline Church.

Some churches are still alive but declining rapidly. Some are near death, clinging to what once was as the hope for the future. As a result of the obvious near-death experience of congregations, denominational structures are looking for ways to “revitalize” churches. Revitalization means taking what is and making it alive again. It tends to utilize current leadership, current understandings of what it means to be a church, current locations, and current worship styles. Revitalization makes an assumption that what is was once vital, and therefore, can be vital again, if we do the same better. So churches increase programs, dollars spent, and formulas adopted in order to bring the re into revitalization. The prefix “re” means back to the original place again. It infers stepping back in time to recapture a period when the church’s role in society was vital. A church seeking revitalization typically does more of the same, but in a hyped-up fashion.

But decades of honest labor and reams of pages written about this process have shown us that revitalization is, on the whole, not working. It is, at best, bringing about slow, incremental change over a long period of time. In the medium, it is wearing out pastors and church leaders so that pastors end up leaving pulpits and laity end up leaving churches. At worst, revitalization is turning churches into places of hospice care or prolonging the agonizing death of a community of faith.

There must be a new way. Or, there must be many new ways. I am making a new proposition…or perhaps it is an old one. Since the central story of our faith is the story of death and resurrection, churches need to find ways to live out this story. We all want to live the resurrection part of our faith, but we are unwilling to witness death in our midst so that resurrection can also be seen. We fight our own story, claiming, despite decades of stories to the contrary, that revitalization of the church is possible.

We must make a drastic move away from revitalization and into the death and resurrection of the church. We must remember the words of the Scriptures, which say,

Look, fool! When you put a seed into the ground, it doesn’t come back to life unless it dies. What you put in the ground doesn’t have the shape that it will have, but it’s a bare grain of wheat or some other seed. God gives it the sort of shape that he chooses, and he gives each of the seeds its own shape. (I Corinthians 15:36-39, CEB)

We persist in trying to shape our life and resist the reshaping that comes in the form of our death and resurrection moments. We so desperately want to control life that we forget God is the One who brings new life. And when God brings new life, God brings a new shape. Our future is in God’s hands, not ours. We try to control others when we ourselves feel out of control. Our churches are crashing and we don’t know what to do about it. We feel helpless, maybe hopeless. And our reaction is to control more. But God’s way is to release our need to be in charge and give it over to God. We might as well go God’s way, since our way hasn’t been working for quite some time.


Excerpt from the author's book ReStart Your Church (Abingdon Press, 2012).  Used by permission.

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