Church decline as a sign of faithfulness

In the world of church, in the theological world, significant resources, writings and strategies have been put into growing the church. In some instances, leaders have invested into intuitive promotional strategies to encourage people to check out their church. Others have invested into their communities to connect with those who are not regular church attendees.

I’m not criticising those who use their God-given gifts to connect the Gospel to modern communication methods, and certainly am not criticising those who seek to be the presence of Christ in their communities. Indeed, there are all sorts of really great works of faith occurring all over the church which are to be learned from, not criticised.

However, in many instances, the acts of service and outreach are seen as means to an end – a means of growing the church. I’ll give you an example from some Bible Study notes my small group used:

A recent survey revealed that the number one characteristic of a growing church is the atmosphere of love among the membership. How would you describe the atmosphere of love in your church? What can your small group do to help build a more loving community in your church?

The question shocked me as I read it, as I hope it would shock you: If you follow it to the logical conclusion, growing a church is the primary reason for faithfulness. Personally, I don’t see how that works.

Take the example from Jesus’ ministry. In John 6:60-71 Jesus tells the crowd that is following him that nobody can come to Christ (and receive eternal life, see John 6:52-59) unless the Father grants it. Following this, many of his disciples walked out on him.

The Twelve are left. Would anyone call Jesus’ ministry a failure because of that?

Would you accuse him of failing to create a loving community?

Fast forward to today. The Church in the West is declining and many are inclined to believe it is due to our lack of love. Maybe that’s true. Could it not equally be true that the Church is declining precisely because of it’s faithfulness?

I remember one of my lecturers at College telling me that “unless your church is growing, it’s dying.” Of course I am assuming for the purposes of this post that he meant numerically growing, but if that’s the litmus test of a successful church, there are far more successful places of worship than our churches. Try the Mall, try the football stadium or the audience of a talk show. Way more successful at drawing a crowd.

So, for some, they look to these organisations for ideas of how to grow their churches (church growth movement, anyone?) and my concern is that the very person of Christ is masked or distorted.

But for me, the greatest concern is that church leaders think that the Gospel is somehow inherently attractive and that all it needs is to be promoted. I’m inclined to the contrary (Isaiah 53:2, Luke 9:23, etc). The mystery of the Gospel is that it is not desirable. At least, I don’t think so. Who would want to become a toilet cleaner for the Kim Jong-Il family household? Yet that is what the Christian is called to: To faithfully serve a despairingly wicked, broken world.

What, then, ought to be our standard of measurement? If not the size of our churches, denominations and conferences?

I propose our interdependent reflection of how much we are looking like Jesus. In the fellowship between local congregations, perhaps we can help one another to praise God for areas of obedience and encourage one another in areas of weakness.

And maybe then, when we see our churches empty, we will not be so inclined to say what we did wrong, but perhaps bitterly accept that we did something right.

What do you think?

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One Comment

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  1. Sometimes I wonder about the ideas of growth versus faithfulness. Is the true sign of faithfulness a growing church? Sometimes I think so. But sometimes a sign of faithfulness and holding steadfast to the teachings of the Gospel is when the church is declining in numbers. The people that remain are those that understand the teachings and take them to heart. I’m not saying that people have to be in a church (physical building, etc.) to be faithful to God and his teachings. However, I wonder if we really held people (and ourselves) accountable to what is taught, what would happen? Would our churches be larger or smaller? Things to think about…

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