Fresh Perspective on Church Decline

The steep decline that so many mainline churches are experiencing today, is especially widespread among mainline Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and Reformed churches. We are church bodies that value our Reformation heritage and share the background of being state-sponsored churches back in Europe. This heritage places us at a great disadvantage in the current American culture. These blogs about the work of the Holy Spirit went out in weekly e-mailings over the first half of 2019.

We need to embrace new ministry practices. I advocate that the most basic change is to give more attention to the work of the Holy Spirit in our personal and church lives. What that looks like and how to do so is the emphasis in this second set of blogs.

The basic issue is the current low level of Spiritual energy in many congregations, especially in mainline churches. In recent decades, many congregations modeled themselves after the various social organizations in our country. That approach worked for a while. But now lodges, veteran groups, country clubs, bowling leagues and other social organizations also find themselves in steep decline.

Churches need to reclaim their unique identity as a body of Christ and a fellowship of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is God’s empowering presence. Only by recognizing and opening ourselves to the Spirit of Christ will we regain the vital Spiritual energy and impact necessary to do well in the current American culture.

Leaders of many mainline church bodies bought into assumptions that question the authority of Scriptures and even doubt whether God is an active supernatural force in the world today. The handy descriptive term is that they “went liberal.” However, finding a source of authority for how to live their lives in community remains a high need even of the youngest generation. “Liberal” churches have little to offer and will continue to decline. Poor leadership has consequences.

In my writing, you will see a conservative perspective that respects the biblical authority of the inspired Word of God. I believe that paying more attention to the teachings of Jesus and Paul and the earliest churches will show the way forward toward regaining Spiritual energy.

I have been shaped by the conservative community of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. We also are declining at about the same rate as the other mainline churches. Our problem, however, is that we are captive to our traditions that have turned into a barrier of traditionalism in church life and practice. We need to learn how to keep our Lutheran substance but be willing to change our ministry styles to be more effective.

New on the American scene in recent decades are non-denominational community churches. They appear to be growing, some swiftly. Since they don’t report their statistics in any collective form, we don’t know their impact. With few exceptions, they all present a conservative biblical message. National research reports a growing percentage of American “nones,” those who claim no religious identity. But I believe the percentage of serious Christians remains high, even among Millennials. Most of those young adults missing in mainline churches are not lost – they have found their way to other churches that better serve their needs. Most of those are community churches.

Leaders of traditional churches should consider exploring the innovative ministries of those community churches.

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