Churches are dying at an alarming rate. Research by The Barna Group suggests that 3500 to 4000 churches close every year. More than 2,765,000 people leave the church each year. And yet we, the Church, insist on doing the same thing over and over again and somehow expecting different results. When confronted with change we insist that “it has always been done that way,” as if history is an acceptable excuse for continuing down our path to demise.
In thinking about this, it is helpful to turn to Dr. Paul Batalden. In looking at the dis-function of our health-care system Dr. Batalden, a Dartmoth Medical School Professor, is fond of saying, “Every system is perfectly designed to get the the results it gets.” If your church is dying, it is perfectly designed to die. You can keep repeating the past over and over again and consistently get the results of dying. That’s exactly what most churches are doing.
For years and years churches have joined in with movement after movement, each designed to help the church change. Most of them don’t work – at least not in terms of change. They do tend to be very good at distracting from real, substantive change. They are very successful at taking away our guilt for having a church that can’t attract new members, because we think “at least we are doing something.”
The problem with why these programs fail more times than they work is also part of the problem with many churches themselves: our ability to accept cognitive dissonance. Talking the talk, but not walking the walk… and not really being bothered by it, more or less acknowledging it. The world outside the church, in large part, see us as hypocritical. And we’ve given them every reason to do so. Churches profess love of neighbor yet either explicitly condemn people of certain lifestyles or implicitly condemn them by our silence when others claiming to be Christians do. We profess that we are all made equal and that we are equal in the eyes of God yet we are astoundingly silent on issues of social justice. The list could go on and on, and I’m not saying that some churches aren’t authentically living into these things (because some are). What I am saying is that the world outside the church just doesn’t see it much. What they do see leads them to deem us all hypocritical.
That kind of existence allows us to work our way through programs on emerging\ transforming\re-imagining church without ever really doing much more than the head work. We have learned the skill of cognitive dissonance well. It keep us from having to do things that make us uncomfortable like spending time in low income housing areas, talking to the homeless, ministering with those in jail…you know all the things Jesus said we were doing to him when we do them. Cognitive dissonance means we get to be ‘Christian’ without actually being very Christ-like.
Naturally our churches get to do the same. We can read all about the “hopey, changey” stuff, talk about it it in positive tones, and ultimately back away from it when it leads us to do something as drastic as playing a guitar instead of an organ during worship… or worse yet, playing a guitar instead of an organ during worship and feeling like we have really stretched ourselves.
While we “study” the programs on changing, we get to feel like we are doing something. The problem is the companies who market them have to be able to… well, market them, so the programs always have some kind of a release valve built in that allows those who don’t really want to commit to change to be able to do a little something different, feel better about having done something, without actually really addressing any of the systemic problems. It leaves the core system in tack and it continues to perfectly get the results it gets…but we feel better because, “Well, at least we tried.”
In the next three parts of this four part series, we will look at how we got here, the Church’s response to dying, and what we might do about it. In book after book, authors have tried to take on this topic so the work I’ll do here is admittedly cursory, but maybe it will be a place for you and/or your church to begin engaging in the conversation. If so keep one thing in mind, don’t do it if you aren’t willing to enter into it with a willingness to be committed to the vision and the change. This is more than a good idea; it is more than a possible way to keep your church from dying; it is an act of faith.