Over the last decade, many traditional churches in America have experienced a decline in attendance and the membership that corresponds. Of course, much of that decline is in the wake of the mega-church movement that is built around big entertainment and celebrity pastors while also watering down their theology to make it palatable to all. There are also many small, Biblically faithful, churches and denominations that are growing, and my observation such is one of the healthiest things to see in the Christian church in America. These small groups tend to be theologically very narrow and the people attracted to them know what they believe and why…something a little harder to find in an older, established church.
My grandfather was a small church pastor back in the 1950’s and 60’s and something that he used to say is that sometimes in the life of the church you do addition by subtraction. Of course, my grandfather also used to say that sometimes church problems can only be solved by a few funerals…ouch…of course, no matter whether we are willing to admit to it or not, there is some truth to both of these statements.
While most pastors are disheartened by declines, whether seasonal or otherwise, times of decline can be healthy in the life of the church if you know how to approach them. More importantly, they can be learning times if you are patient enough and disciplined enough to learn from them.
The most prominent thing that comes along with decline is that it exposes indwelling sin that has not been dealt with by the Elders of a congregation. Many of these sins simply run under the surface in times when the pews are filled and activities in the church abound. People turn a blind eye because everything is going well and why would anyone want to stir up trouble? Yet, that is one of the jobs of the overseers of the church — to hold people accountable to their Christian vows and to living a Christian life. Wasn’t Elijah referred to as the “Troubler of Israel” by wicked king Ahab (1 Kings 18:17)? Surely you don’t think that Elijah earned this title by flattering the folks around him.
In times of decline, though, these indwelling sins tend to come to the surface. And here is the key thing to understand, if this indwelling sin is not addressed when a church has declined, it will undermine any future growth and break down the foundation of the church. This kind of indwelling sin may be a tendency to gossip, to slander, to manipulate events to get your own way, to pursue personal sins inside or outside of the church context, or just the desire to tear someone else down rather than to build them up. None of this belongs in the Christian church or in the Christian life. How fragile churches become when the Elders do not actively practice church discipline.
Another opportunity that comes with decline is focus. One of the trends that has harmed the church greatly over the last generation has been that of ecumenicism. Now, do understand that the principle that Christians should not break fellowship over every nook and cranny of their theology is an important one, so I am not advocating a kind of hyper-fundamentalist retreatism either. But ecumenicism has become more of an agreement by “least common denominator.” So if people say that they love Jesus, they get welcomed to the table with open arms even if who they mean by Jesus is radically different than who the Bible means by Jesus.
Instead, churches ought to know what they believe and why…and dig deeply into those theological roots. That is the only way not to be swayed by the winds of every human invention and doctrine (Ephesians 4:14). We might not break fellowship with every theological group, church, or denomination, but if we look carefully at what some of these groups say or teach, we will find ourselves breaking fellowship with a number of them. And in doing so, distinctive principles to which a church holds become prominent. Emphasizing distinctive teachings will tend to drive some away, so while the church is in decline anyway, one might as well clarify what the Bible teaches and why.
Two of the marks of the true Church of Jesus Christ are church discipline and the faithful preaching of the whole council of God. If a church has not been doing one or the other well, decline can be the optimal time to repent of that error and begin practicing them. Not only will you honor your Savior, but then when the church draws new people, many of them will come into a healthy context and will come for the right reasons. The decline becomes a matter of refinement rather than something to lament.