This Is the Perfect Time to Panic!

Things are not going well in American Mainline Protestantism.

Despite all the talk about how religious progressives are winning the day over the Religious Right, I tend to see a tradition that is in decline.  I see churches closing- the remaining members too tired to continue.  I see churches that are still going on, uncertain about how to be church in a different age.  I see middle judicatories- synods, presbyteries, classis, regions facing shrinking budgets.  I see the few new churches being planted that will have to find ways to be self-sustaining as they face a culture not used to giving to churches.  I see national structures saddled with structures designed 50 years ago in a blue model society– a society that no longer works.  I see pastors who have been through the ringer, dealing with large debts from seminary coupled with smaller salaries and shouldering more and more of the everyday tasks of running a church.

Back in early June, Presbyterian pastor John Vest wrote a post about how the situation in the Presbyterian Church (USA) is becoming rather dire:

Last week the Office of the General Assembly released the 2012 statistics for the Presbyterian Church (USA). The numbers aren’t good, more signs of our rapid decline (and the similar decline of all mainline Protestant—and even evangelical—denominations).

  • Our membership has dropped to 1,849,496.

  • This represents a decline of 102,791 members. About half of these are due to transfers.

  • 86 churches were dissolved.

  • 110 congregations were dismissed to other denominations.

  • While losing these 196 churches, we only organized 13 new congregations—quite a bit short of the 1001 goal we’ve set for ourselves.

At the recently concluded General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Orlando, I remember hearing that about 18 percent of all Disciple congregations are sustainable. Eighteen percent.

Now, this isn’t the case in all mainline churches.  First Christian of Minneapolis is a congregation that is thriving after a period of dormancy. But there are still tons of other communities that are still trying to figure out how to do ministry in the age of the iPhone and not the 8-track.

There are lots of reasons why mainline churches are struggling, I’ve shared those before.  But how to do we stop doing the things that don’t work and start seeking out what works?  How do we let go of our status in the age of Christendom and become the church of the Postmodern age?

I think part of the answer is not to look to our leadership for the answers?  As a Lutheran pastor once said, “Dumbledore is Dead.”  If we want to see change, it is up to local pastors and lay leaders to have the courage to try new ways of being church.  I think this is especially true of pastors and lay leaders from Generation X and the Millennials.  These two generations (at 43, I’m part of GenX) are the ones that entered adulthood in the postmodern age.  We are more aware of the age we live in, the world where are older Boomer and Silent Generation leaders are struggling to understand.  I think younger pastors should start coming together and talking about what works and what doesn’t work in a local congregation.  Pastors should also call young adults together and have them come together to dream and discern what God is calling their congregation to do and be.  Middle judicatories needs to be willing to get away from putting people on committees and more into joint mission.  Of course, you need some committees to do important functions in your synod or presbytery.  But even there, there needs to be more of a focus of joining God’s mission than the current understanding of serving on committee-which seems to much like sitting on the board of General Motors.

For all of this to happen, we in the mainline have to be willing to understand that the mainline is in decline.  Too often, leaders in mainline churches have tried to spin the situation and hide the fact that we are facing something rather serious. My guess is that mainline leaders don’t want to face the music because it might lead to more uncomfortable questions.  Also, mainliners don’t like being compared to evangelicals who seem to be more ascendant.  But we have to face the fact that we are in decline.  But once we face facts, we then need to be willing to think, dream and then do.

It’s time to panic a bit, but I also think it’s time to hope.  It’s not too late for Mainline Protestantism to right things and be the church of this time.

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