A report came out this week that stirred a lot of conversation. It’s a Gallup study related to church membership in the United States. For decades, church membership has declined. Last year, according to the report, 47% of U.S. adults belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque. This is the first time that figure has been below fifty percent.
If you haven’t read these reports before, this might come as a shock. It sounds like the sky is falling. So, let me offer you a word of assurance: God’s church will never die. There is always a movement of the Spirit.
One of the joys I have is to read testimonies from church leaders in other nations. Churches in other parts of the world are reawakening to the Spirit’s power. More and more people are coming to know Christ as Lord.
There are a lot of things we can say about our decline. That’s part of what our daily devotional addresses. I’m convinced our decline is the fruit of consumerism and poor discipleship. Those two things have manifested themselves in ways that have wounded the biblical sense of Christian community and what it means to walk as Jesus walked.
I’ve read about church decline almost ever since I first joined a church. Early on I learned that my church, The United Methodist Church, has declined in membership every year since its creation in 1968. This is nothing new.
When I reflect on our situation, I like to think of the word crucible. A crucible is “a situation of severe trial…leading to the creation of something new.” And maybe I’m a cup half-full kind of person, but when I hear that church membership is less than 50%, I hear ministry opportunity. There is a ripe mission field.
So what do we do?
Over the years, I’ve listened to ministry experts who have enlightened us to the “one thing” to do to grow our churches. Every expert has their own one thing. There are a lot of experts, which means there are a lot of one things. Who knows, you may think there’s one thing your church needs to do to change the tide of decline.
There is no one thing, but we have to start somewhere.
People have told me to consider being a church planter, someone who starts churches. So far I have decided that isn’t my calling. While I am intrigued by the idea and haven’t written it off completely, my sense is I belong in churches that need to learn to develop a divine imagination. I would love to be a part of a new thing God is doing in a new congregation. But there’s a blessing in watching a new thing happen in an already-established church.
Again, there is no one thing to do to reverse decline. Just because you sing a different type of song in worship doesn’t mean everyone will flock to your church. Update your church’s website and get on social media and people will still ignore you.
But I know that I know that I know, the best place to start is in prayer together. When the disciples faced threats in Acts 4, they responded in corporate prayer. As they prayed, they were filled with the Holy Spirit and a boldness to speak the word of God overcame them.
As we pray, God will show us what to do next. So, let’s not decide what one thing we need to do now if we haven’t prayed together. Let’s pray for a divine imagination to see what God wants us to do and in what ways we can speak the word of God with boldness to more than 50% of the U.S. population.