Ed Stetzer on Reversing Our Decline: Denial

downward_trend.jpgAt this point, we pick up with Stetzer’s 2009 post, building on the 2008 post we’ve just covered.

The SBC declined again this year in both membership and baptisms. You can read the news story here. There is some encouraging news about missions giving, but the membership and baptism declines are disturbing.

… Last year, I said we “peaked” in our membership. This year, I believe that our tipping point continues to tip. Unless things change, we are about to enter a time when we grow accustomed to decline and think back to the good ol’ days of growth.

On April 28, 2008, I posted a graph of our membership numbers beginning in 1950 on my blog and said, “our year-to-year growth has been in a constant trended decline, not for one year, but for decades–this is not a one year blip, this is a 50 year trend.”

… With fewer baptisms and a declining membership, the trends point to several years of decline in our future, save for God’s intervention on our behalf.

We are a denomination in decline, at least in our membership and definitely in our evangelism and baptisms. The most rational decision now is to acknowledge its reality so we might deal with its consequences and discover solutions for our churches.

The Churches of Christ, of course, have seen similar figures. We are also in decline. Our time of growth was the 1950s and 1960s. We’ve been largely plataeued since then and are now in real decline.

It’s been obvious that decline was coming for years, but we’ve been in denial. Even now I still see articles, blogs, and comments here and there pointing out how things aren’t that bad. Well, we’re losing our children to Satan. If that isn’t bad enough to motivate you, then you’re dead.

Grab a church roll or directory from 10 years ago. How many of the children are still active Christians somewhere? Is the average age of your church higher or lower? Churches that age die.

One of the great sins of the last decades has been the incessant efforts to slant the numbers to show that things aren’t that bad. It’s been an exercise in self-deception, foolish, shameful, and has cost souls that might have been rescued had we been honest with ourselves.

And the current decline is not a blip. It’s a trend, and it won’t be quickly or easily reversed.

But, as we are Baptists, my fear is the proverbial witch hunt that will try to find who or what is to blame. Will straw men be erected; will new battle lines will be drawn?

Sound familiar? Some among the conservatives blame the progressives for the division and thus the decline. Wrong. The decline is greatest among the most conservative churches. It’s not ACU’s fault. We can’t blame Max Lucado.

And it’s not the lack of prayer in the schools. The early church grew rapidly in a pagan culture with a pagan government that demanded the emperor be worshipped as a god on penalty of death. It’s not the fault of our culture. It’s our fault.

I hope not. There are bigger issues and we need to face some facts: we face a culture turning its back toward us, a declining and aging membership, and young leaders who are choosing other partnerships.

The culture is rapidly leaving the Churches of Christ. The styles, arguments, and such that worked in 1950 haven’t worked in decades in most places. They are becoming even less effective today. But the problem is our obstinance in living in the past, trying to make arguments and use methods that haven’t worked in since before our children were born.

We preach sermons against Post-modernism, as though somehow the world will come to church to hear our arguments and change — so we don’t have to. It’s a deluded strategy.

Last year, some leaders tried to ignore the facts and buried their heads a bit deeper in the sand. Some skeptics of the ACP data from last year said it was simply a figment of someone’s imagination. Well… that figment is looking more and more like our future.

You see, we and the Baptists are more alike than we care to admit. We both deal with bad news through denial — at the cost of the souls of our children.

Do these facts reflect upon our culture, churches, pastors, members, or the denomination? My check mark will have to be on “all of the above.” And it reflects on me and my failures as well.

Absolutely. The only person I can change is me. I can be more active in pressing for change in my own life, in my family, in my congregation, and among those churches where I have even a little influence. I can do that. I can’t change the culture. I can’t wish Post-modernism away.

Therefore, if there is a solution — and there is, of course — the solution comes from whether I change — and work to persuade others to do the same.

It’s not complicated.

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2 Responses

  1. If you want to grow, be friendly to your visitors at the door, in the foyer, after services in your home, in their home. Have a ministry aimed at the community. Be a community of all, not just the youth, young marrieds, prime timers.

    Last of all get your staff and elders to share the work of the church with the rest of the congregation. We have too many assistant ministers with very little experience and way too much authority. We in the Church of Christ make it very difficult to “place membership”. Placing membership so the elders will know who you are is a joke because most will never have a conversation with you for decades.

    Get back to tje original community that Ray Vander Laan describes with the village of Bethsaida.

  2. Better yet, get out of the church and get into the community. Jesus spent one day at Synagogue and the rest with tax collectors and sinners (that distinction has always made me chuckle!).

    The model of “how can we get more people to come?” is long dead. A better question that reflects Peter’s sentiment of having an answer in season and out of season is, “How can I live so that people will ask me about Jesus?”

    The first part is: learn His voice. If the fruit of the Spirit (not us) is love, joy, peace, etc. Then we need to be asking to be filled with the Spirit. It is not our own effort that makes people ask, but God’s effort in us.

    The second part is: respond immediately when you hear him. The window of faith is very small at first. When He says, “turn around and go the other way,” do it! Even if it doesn’t make sense. He might just be teaching you His voice for a future event.

    That lifestyle – and the resulting visible fruit of the Spirit – will make people ask. Then we just take them to Jesus.

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