Someone asked me the other day how I think we can bring more people into the church. The numbers in our church are slowly dropping: families move away, people die. I was caught off-guard by this question, but it is one I need to think about if I’m heading in the right direction vocationally. Chances are that sometime in the next couple of years I’ll be asked what my vision for the church is.
The problem is this: I’m not the visionary type. I’m not into mandates or visions for an organization. It seems to me that if there is a mandate for the church as a body, it is to encourage each other to faithful discipleship to Christ–to love God, to love each other, to love our neighbours. What other mandate could a church have? Maybe that’s my idealism coming through. Part of me thinks that if we are simply passionate and faithful followers of Jesus, then everything will be ok–even if that means the death of a church.
But I’ve been thinking about the question since I was asked, and I’m starting to wonder if the question of how to get more people into the church is the wrong one. Sometimes the question is asked out of genuine concern for outreach and evangelization, the thinking being that the number of people in a given church is in indication of the spiritual state of the community. That might be true. I don’t know. But for most of us the question is asked out of concern for our survival. We need people so that our community will last. It occurred to me this afternoon that if it wasn’t for buildings and legacies, we probably wouldn’t be asking this question.
One’s answer to this question will depend, I think, on what one thinks church is. This is a question I’m trying to answer for myself. I suspect many evangelicals would see church primarily as a place for outreach and evangelization, so that one should bring one’s “unreached” friends and neighbours to hear the basic gospel message. In this view, church numbers are indeed an indication of the spiritual state of the community.
Others would see it church as a place where the people of God come together to worship and experience God as a community, where we are strengthened and encouraged to go out and live our everyday lives in the way of Jesus. In this view, evangelization happens outside of the church. (I’m just thinking out loud here; I’m sure there are other definitions of and approaches to church.) These days I tend more towards this second view of church. The reasons are many, I’m sure, including a disinclination towards cold-turkey evangelism. But in studying the early church one of things I’ve found interesting is that they appear to have been decidedly closed and non-attractional. Believers would gather for communal worship and then just before they partook of communion everyone but those who were “members” (those who had been catechized) were ushered out of the church. It would seem then that evangelism was done outside of the church body and the converts were not made in church but outside of church.
Now the early church wasn’t necessarily right, but neither are evangelicals (or any other branch of the church) necessarily right. But these days we are so fixated on numbers and growth to the point that some books about church could be interchanged between the church and the corporate world that there is something backwards and at the same time inspiring about the way the early church functioned. The corporate element of the church (board meetings and motions and minutes, etc.) doesn’t sit well with me, but it’s something that needs to be done to maintain status as charitable organizations. Maybe losing those tax priviledges would be a good thing for the church. Many of us might die out, but it might force us to lose some of the physical assets that can weigh us down.
When we start worrying about our numbers, we start doing things to get those numbers up. And when we do that, we lose our focus, and honouring God and following Christ becomes less important than filling the pews. And when we get to that point, we are no longer the church and we become a business.
Maybe I’m too negative about the concern about numbers. Maybe there is a valid way to think about numbers. But something about it doesn’t sit well with me.
How would we choose what to do to attract people? Which people would we want to attract? That’s an important question, because, as they say, you can please some of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all the people all of the time. And so we become market-driven: who is our demographic and how do we target this group? And church turns into a business-consumer venture. We try to find out what people want and we try to supply that demand.
Where is God in that?
I’m not opposed to meeting people’s needs. I’d say that is one thing Christians should do and have been doing since the beginning. But it’s another thing to meet people’s wants.
We live in a time when people are busy and church isn’t a priority. We can change the time or day of a service, we can change our format, but people will still have jobs and meetings and their children’s endless extra-curricular activities. Changing what we do doesn’t guarantee the the pews will be filled.
Now: changing who we are. That might mean something.
Rather than asking how we can boost our numbers (and I’m speaking about churches in general, because churches are in decline all over our city), maybe we should be asking if we are being faithful to the Gospel and if we are not, are we willing to change, no matter what the cost, so that we can become faithful to the Gospel.
But then we’ll have to establish what the Gospel is.
I’m rambling and I have no conclusion to these thoughts. But I’ll stop there. (I long for the day when I can once again take the time and effort to write a cohesive post.)