Slouching Towards Detroit

Fellow Disciples pastor Steve Knight shared a good post yesterday on the need for more missional communities, which is a fancy way of saying we need more new churches.  Why?  Beside that whole Great Commission thing, it’s also because at least in mainline churches, we are growing smaller and smaller.  Here’s a graph that Steve showed about our denomination, the Disciples of Christ, over the last decade:

The picture it shows about the denomination is not pretty.  (It’s even worse for Episcopalians.) It shows at least over the last decade a steady decline.  As Steve notes, it doesn’t show the number of new congregations added (which is now over 700), but you can’t really deny that things in the Disciples of Christ are not well.

Steve starts talking about how the Mainline churches are a lot like Detroit, something that I commented on back in 2009.  As I thought about that more and more, I’ve started to think that if this analogy is true, mainline churches are in big, big trouble.

Comparisons to the largest city in Michigan hit home for me because Detroit is only an hour south of Flint, where I grew up.  I’ve seen the decline of the auto industry close up and I’ve seen how cities like Flint and Detroit have slowly declined and lost their luster, becoming shattered hulks of their former selves.  I’ve seen how these places knew the decline was happening and half-heartedly tried different schemes to bring back the shine, only to have those attempts fail.  I’ve seen the hope that somehow, the glory days would come roaring back, not knowing how, but just believing that it would.

The thing is, you tend to get used to the decline.  Things get a little shabby here and there, but we trick ourselves into thinking everything is okay…until it isn’t.

Something similar is happening among the mainline churches.  We see the decline happening,  and we try again and again to try this scheme or that scheme in the hopes that it will right the ship.  But we really don’t try hard and in someways we just expect that somehow, someway the glory days will come back.

What does this have to do with church planting?  Everything.  I’m not advocating we plant churches for the sake of saving mainline churches, thought that could be a result.  I am advocating planting churches to spread the good news of Jesus Christ.  But the problem here is that in some ways we in the mainline stopped believing in spreading the message of Christ.  We got comfortable and pursued of other agendas.  We plant churches, but sometimes the whole endeavor seems half-hearted, like we are doing something just because it seems right.

I’ve noticed over the years how hard it is to get people in mainline churches animated when it comes to new churches.  Plans to give money to church plants are met with skeptism.  If we have a meeting dealing with homosexuality? We get a full house and people getting all passionate.  Talk about new churches?  Crickets chirping.

This is not me just spouting off.  I’ve seen how people have responded in my various roles when we start talking about new churches and it seems that people just don’t seem when it comes to new churches.

None of this means I’m going to give up.  I’ve seen utter decline and I want to see mainline Protestantism be vital in the coming decades.  But, mainline churches have to stop being comfortable with decline and be willing to give up everything to save themselves- not in the hope of getting back to the glory days, but to something new and better than before.

One more auto story.  In 2006, Ford decided to place everything it owned, down to it’s blue oval logo, in hock in order to get a loan to keep the company going.  

That move was prophetic.  Two years later, the economy tanked and Ford’s crosstown rivals, General Motors and Chrysler were bankrupt and running to Washington to be saved.  Ford was able to weather the storm.  Earlier this week, Ford’s credit was raised from junk status and scion Bill Ford was able to get his family’s logo back.

Ford was willing to let go of everything in order to survive.  It was a risky move for this century-old company to do something so bold, but it paid off in the end.  Ford is a much stronger company, more competative, coming up with some cool cars that people want to drive.

Are mainline churches willing to do something that ballsy?  Are we willing to sacrifice, to lose ourselves for God’s kingdom?

I don’t know.  I hope so.  Let’s not get to comfortable with decline or expect easy solutions.  That roads leads to Detroit and well…you don’t want that.  Trust me.

Photo: Areial view of Michigan Central Station, Detroit’s main train station from 1913 until the end of Amtrak service in 1988.  The intervening 25 years have not been kind of the grand building. The website seedetroit.com notes, “Most of the interior has fallen victim to ‘urban miners’ who break in to steal any stone accents, wire and even copper tubing and bricks to sell as scrap. The removal of these materials causes extensive damage throughout, resulting in the interior being completely destroyed. Urban guerrilla artists have taken advantage of the vacant wall space.” You can see more photos of the building by going here.

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About Dennis

Dennis is the Pastor at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, MN. He is the husband to a wonderful man named Daniel, staff to two cats, lover of cars, the Detroit Tigers and all things Star Trek.

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