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.
“The righteous are like a sprouting date-palm tree;
Like the cedars of Lebanon they grow large.”
(Psalm 92:13 [verse 12 in English])
The psalmist gives us a picture of two trees and parallels that with one who seeks to live a righteous life (or a congregation that does so). The palm, or a better translation would be the date-palm, along with the cedar were trees that were prized in the ancient world. Both grow quickly and had a variety of uses. The date-palm was perhaps best known for the abundance of fruit that it would provide to the people. Dates were a staple food and in some regions in the middle east, the sap of date trees was also collected for syrup. Palm branches formed a significant resource for weaving baskets and other practical items, and the wood of the date, though not suitable for large-scale construction, was still useful for smaller buildings as well as for burning.
While the wood of the date may not have been suitable for large-scale construction, the wood of the cedar was. These trees would grow to be well over 100 feet tall with trunks as much as 8 feet in diameter at the base. These huge trees grew especially quickly and plentifully in the region of Lebanon and thus their fame even today. In addition to buildings, their wood was also used to construct naval and merchant ships and was a significant building material used in the construction of the Temple in Solomon’s day.
Thus, the psalmist has the strengths of both of these trees in mind when he thinks on the character of the righteous…the church that follows after God. Their growth and maturity should be measurable and the fruit they bear useful for the community. In fact, every aspect about the church should be found to be useful for the work of God. The church itself should be a useful resource to the community and highly adaptable to changes in the world around them. Such is the church that worships God faithfully in Word and in Spirit. Such is a church that is focused on Christ and not on themselves.
Sadly, many churches do not reflect this characteristic as many individual Christians do not as well. How we should all be learning and growing in our understanding and application of Scripture. If this is not happening, something is askew. How our congregations ought to be growing deeper in the Word of God, which also ought to cause others to become curious and thus over time, the congregation grow broader.