When Churches Wither, Turn to Christ’s Spirit for New Energy

The “good old days” ended about fifty years ago for traditional mainline church bodies. This was the boom time after World War II. My denomination had 4,625 congregations in 1945. It grew to about 6,000 twenty years later. That is a growth rate of new congregations of about 7% per year. Now we are withering at about 2% a year.

After the war came the great suburban out-migration, as most central-city residents acquired automobiles and moved out to bigger houses and lots. Those were the years of extensive church planting. The congregation I serve was started in 1958. The district made such planting a high priority. I can remember my pastor father and his pastor buddies complaining about how much more money the district executive wanted them to raise to support these new churches. They were like salesmen complaining that their quota had been raised. But the result in kingdom building was worth the effort.

Those were very good years, except for the central city churches that did the sending. I watched the sanctuary of my home congregation get emptier at Sunday services every year. It closed in 1976. In any major social movement, there are winners and losers. Only a few of the city congregations are still in existence, and those that are left are learning to become dual parishes served by one pastor.

The great church-related social change of our present time is a shift away from traditional mainline churches to non-denominational community ones. What will become of the suburban mainline congregations? Will they go the way of the old central city churches?

We are past the time of salvation by gimmicks, or advertising, or better denominational services. It is time to rethink basic assumptions. Where will withering congregations get fresh energy to turn around their decline?

There is only one reliable source of energy for Christian congregations. This is the Holy Spirit, Christ’s Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity, who calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth.

The boom years went well in part because of the need suburbanites had for the social relationships in their new community. All social organizations, like lodges and veterans clubs, were growing. Church members from central city churches shared a culture that led them to seek out and build what they had before.

In 1970 I did my Ph.D. dissertation on a study of 56 suburban pastors from five mainline denominations—Episcopalian, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian and United Church of Christ. These were churches whose pastors were “professionals” with a seminary education. Interviewing them in their church offices left the clear impression that, despite their different heritages, they were all doing basically the same programs for suburbanites.

In that research, I found what I was looking for. Pastors with good organizational and administrative skills were rated more effective than those who came with the professional emphases of those days. The data did distinguish four types of pastors, based on their scores from a measure of Organization Perspective and another on Professional Perspective. Congregational leaders and a denominational executive rated their effectiveness. The Professional orientation worked out with seminary professors, had very little impact on effectiveness. Such differences were explained almost completely by their interest in organizational matters.

Recognize the Spirit as God’s empowering presence with believers today. Such presence is a good summary of what Paul recognized in his letters to churches. Christ’s Spirit produces in individuals and in congregations special Spiritual energy, energy beyond what community social organizations can generate in clubs and lodges.

How do you tap that energy for your church? Basically, know what you are looking for, learn to recognize when this energy is happening in your midst, and share with others this evidence. Most of all, pray for the Spirit’s movement in your life and congregation.

Name, Share and Seek More of the Spirit’s Presence and Power!

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