The 4,034 people who attended the recent General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Orlando, Florida composed a group that was more than 60% smaller than the 10,492 that attended the first General Assembly in 1968. It was less than half the size of the first assembly after I was ordained, the 1991 Assembly in Oklahoma City which had 8,774 registrants. The attendance at the General Assembly reflects the decline that has happened within the life of the Disciples of Christ and the majority of our congregations over the past several decades.
In the Indian region, where I have been in ministry for the past 22 years, our regional staff has been reduced during this time from a Regional Minister and four full- time associates along with several full-time support staff to one full-time Regional Minister, several part time ministry partners and three part time support staff with the regional office being closed on Fridays. And honestly, with 13 congregations leaving the denomination since Indiana’s most recent regional assembly where the decisions to remove the language that prohibited folks who are gay and lesbian from being ordained, more cuts to staff are very possible. Another place where the reality of the decline has been experienced in Indiana is in the camping program which over the past 20 years has seen a decline of about 50% in the number participating in this program. That decline, of course, involves the loss of financial resources which are used for the maintenance of the camping facilities. And some of our facilities are in need of great repair.
The reality of this situation has been with us for quite some time. It has been part of the landscape of doing ministry the entire time I have been involved in congregational leadership. When I first started as a full-time pastor back in 1989, there was a lot finger pointing and blaming going on about the decline. Some claimed it was because we were too liberal. Others claimed it was the price we paid for being a church that tried to speak and act prophetically. Some pointed to the fact that we tried to create a structure for our denomination just like other denominations, instead of being true to our roots of local congregational autonomy. The Church Growth movement became big in some circles of clergy and a lot of us became immersed in the culture of church marketing. I did my fair share of finger-pointing and blaming – for which I am deeply sorry. I also worried a lot about what I needed to do to help stop this decline and “get the church headed in the right direction.”
Well, I have come to understand that the numerical decline of our denomination and much of the church in America is a much more complex matter than I originally thought. Though the matter of our faithfulness or unfaithfulness may well be a part of the decline, so are societal factors such as the American consumeristic mentality. Thus, our devotion to “church marketing.”
I don’t intend to list all the reasons that I think this decline has happened. For this piece it is simply enough to say, I have come to the realization that the decline has many causes that are complex and multi-layered.
What I want to say here is that I no longer worry about the decline. And I no longer look for someone, or some attitude, to blame. The truth is, I see this time in the history of the church (and since I am writing as a Disciple – the Disciple Church) as an opportunity, even a gift to us, for us to do some deep reflection about what it means to be the church today. Maybe this gift has even come to us from God.
Over the past couple of decades of my congregational leadership, I have seen myself move toward a simpler, but I believe a more authentic expression of Christian faith. It is not rooted in creed or doctrine, or Designs or Preambles either. It is rooted simply in Jesus – his life and the life he calls us to. I no longer find myself looking for programs or strategies about how to turn things around. Studies about target audiences or demographics don’t get a whole lot of my time. My time instead is given to trying to understand the life of Jesus the best that I can – the fullness of it, his teachings, his death, his resurrection, his living presence throughout history, his impact on the structures of the world. And then to live as fully as possible the life he calls me too – a life of unconditional love, grace and forgiveness; a life which cares for all but especially the people on the fringes of society; a life which is willing to speak truth to the powers of the world. This simpler, but for me much more authentic way of understanding our faith, has played a very important role in my congregational leading. At the church I presently serve our vision statement is “To be a church that thoughtfully and faithfully follows Jesus.” It has been a blessing to hear that phrase used in elder’s prayers at the Table, in Moments for Mission during worship, in Sunday School discussions, and in the conversations that we are presently having about how to the church in this day and time.
I believe the life of Jesus and the life he calls should be the central focus of the church in this time. Communities of faith in which we center our life together in love for God and all whom God loves, which includes neighbor, stranger and enemy, is our most important, and to me only authentic, evangelistic tool.
So the decline for me, though it has been painful in many ways and has brought consequences that have to be dealt with, has also been a gift. It has brought me closer to Jesus and for that I can be nothing but grateful. None of us can know what the future holds in regard to the denominational life of the Disciples of Christ – but the present journey of being a Disciple has resulted in me focusing more on being a disciple, a follower of Jesus. Maybe that’s what (who) we should have always been focused on.