Not long ago I was at a meeting called to determine the fitness for ministry of a candidate. In the United Church of Christ, we call these Ecclesiastical Councils. The idea is to meet the candidate and get to know them personally but also theologically and spiritually and then vote on them to become ministers. During the questions, a questioner rose and asked what they were going to do to stop the decline of the Church. I am not sure how they answered the question as I was focused on my response.
The first thought I had was to reject the premise of the question, the church is not in decline, the church as we know it may be in decline and I am not sure that is such a bad thing. The Church as we know it, massive building, services on Sunday, open the doors and people come, is long since passed. Communities struggle to maintain their physical plant much to the peril of ministry. There was a time when large sanctuaries were important but the days of 800 to 900 people at a worship service are long since gone. A recent survey shows that 80% of churches in America have less than 200 members and if we use the 35% will show up number that means that most churches will have 70 people in attendance on Sunday morning.
So the focus of ministry needs to change to allow for changes in our society. It is not that people are less religious than they used to be it is that they are looking for different expressions of their faith and the Church needs to provide for them. Yes, I am saying the church needs to change to suit the needs of the current society, if not then we will die for sure.
There are many examples of ways to reach those who are not "into" the regular Sunday morning worship service. There are Churches that offer mid-week services that consist of a meal, a short sermon, a discussion, and fellowship time. There are others that have a gathering in restaurants and pubs, and still others that meet while hiking. The opportunities are endless if we can get past this notion that Church has to take place inside the four walls of a building. I have also gathered a community online and use Facebook and Twitter to minister to them. Yes, it is a real community.
In the coming days, many people will come and visit a Church. Maybe it is the Church they grew up in, and they have come home for the holidays. Maybe it is a church in their neighborhood, and they wish to attend Church for Christmas, whatever their reason they need to be welcomed with open arms. I have heard far too many preachers yell at people for not being in church all year long; this is not the way to get them to come back.
Sometimes I feel that the reason we want our churches to grow is to feed our egos. We are so concerned about filling the pews rather than being concerned with the quality of the message or making disciples of those in front of us. Jesus commanded that we make disciples not build large churches and fill the pews. We need to get our ego out of the way and make room for God.
Do I think the brick and mortar Church will disappear? No, well not in my lifetime anyway. There will always be a need for the Church as it exists now but just in a much smaller way. We need to realize that the Church is the people of God and not the building. We need to listen to people and discover their wants and needs and not try to force them into a box that we have created. The Church of the present, and the future needs to be flexible in how it approaches everything it does. And all of that starts by loving people and letting them know that God loves them whether they come every Sunday or just at Christmas and Easter.