Decline and Growth in the Church

The late Milton Friedman, economist and recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics, was fond of saying that “Some individuals use statistics as a drunk man uses lamp-posts—for support rather than for illumination.” How true! In my experience, we are often tempted want to use statistics to explain the whole story when they are actually just part of the story.

As I shared in my sermon last Sunday, mainline Christian denominations, including The Episcopal Church, have seen a dramatic decline in total membership since the mid-1960s. Most mainline denominations have lost over half of their membership.

What is the explanation for such a decline? Depends who you ask.  Some argue that the decline has to do with the fact that these traditions have become too progressive, liberal, and theologically vague. This argument is usually made by more conservative commentators, who are quick to point out that the more conservative traditions have either grown during this same period or experienced less of a decline.

Others argue that we should assume that total membership is a primary measure for the the vitality of a churches ministry. After all, Jesus didn’t put much emphasis on quantitative growth; he was concerned about obedience to God’s way, which often doesn’t make you very popular. Moreover, if the Gospels are any indication, his own popularity declined dramatically over the three years of his ministry. In the beginning, he seems to have attracted a pretty good size congregation. However, by the end, everybody was leaving his “church” to look for another one. This argument is usually made by the guardians of the mainline and more liberal folks.

Still others argue that we need to take seriously demographic changes and overall cultural changes. That much of decline and growth has little to do with your theological bent. For example, if you simply figured out the change in birthrate between the 1960s and now, you could explain a lot of the decline in the mainline. Protestant couples used to have four kids; now they only have two. Of course, the conversative commentators would argue that their more conservative traditions were impacted by those same demographic trends, but they continued to grow.

After 30 years of ordained ministry, I don’t claim to have a clear understanding of  why churches grow or decline in membership. However, I do think we often give ourselves, rather than God, too much credit or blame for what happens.  In the last 25 years my own congregation experienced a prolonged period of dramatic quantitative growth (atypical for Episcopal Churches), and for the last several years a period of decline that has mirrored the overall decline in The Episcopal Church.  However, in the last year we have suddenly had more people join than in almost any other period in the last 25 years. During both the periods of growth and decline, I know that I have spent way too much time assuming that the congregation and I were primarily responsible for the growth and the decline. During the prolonged period of quantitative growth, we must have been doing something right. During the decline of the last several years, we must have lost our touch. And with the sudden increase in newcomers in the last year, the temptation is to look for a direct cause. But what if that search for the direct cause of growth and decline is just one more example of my unwillingness to acknowledge that this church is not ultimately being led by me, but rather by the Holy Spirit.

Here is something worth pondering: Is it just possible that as surely as the Holy Spirit can give birth to dramatic and fruitful growth, the Holy Spirit can also dismantle and destroy what we have known for reasons that are unclear at the time? In other words, Is it just possible that all churches are truly part of the ongoing Paschal Mystery of death and resurrection? To be sure the growth and decline of churches can be significantly impacted by the ministry—or lack thereof—of the people. Leaders can also make bad decisions that do much harm and impact the course of a church’s ministry.  But maybe we need to begin to acknowledge that God really is at work fashioning something new in our midst, and not just in the joyful feel-good, growth times, but also during the times we have fewer visitors and the pews are a little emptier than we would like?