The #1 Reason Churches Lose Hope In the Present


Well, that was a short post. Seriously, though, it’s worth digging into the nuance because it’s in the how, not the why, that we discover how to combat it.

It’s no secret that the vast majority of western mainline churches have seen declining numbers since the 1960s. There are many reasons for the decline itself, which are not what I’m talking about today. Let’s instead look at what decline looks like from the next pew over.

Decline from the next pew over

So Don, a fictional name not at all inspired by pop culture though markedly different than his inspiration as evidenced by actual church attendance, is sitting in his usual pew in the ‘60s. Things look good for a church at the peak of its influence, a social center as much as a religious one.

Don barely notices Pete’s absence at first. After all, he often missed a Sunday or even two. Weeks go by, months, and the pews are still packed. Honestly, it never even occurs to him nor bothers him much. That’s Pete.

Peggy’s leaving didn’t bother him much, either. Once again, he didn’t even notice at first as every week became every other week and then once a month. But eventually, he said, “Hey, we haven’t seen Peggy for a while. Probably caught up in the changing world.”

Fast forward two or three decades... By this point, it’s starting to hurt because Don loves his church and thinks it’s important. By this point, the crowd in the pews looks noticeably thinner and is a bit concerning, but there’s still enough people to have a vibrant church.

But then Roger is gone for two weeks in a row. Yeah, Roger isn’t the best attender and misses church now and then, but never two weeks in a row. Don frowns and says, “Well, he’s probably left just like the others.”

Bad Habits of Expectation

That last line reveals a lot, and we’ve all thought it. I’m tempted to say “especially pastors,” but I’ll bet it’s similar for every tuned-in churchgoer. It’s not a thought we give much attention to, and perhaps some part of us knows it's unhealthy, but we’ve all had that moment of fear that so-and-so isn’t coming back, just like everyone else. Sometimes others in the church bring this fear to us, daring to say the phrase out loud.

This same pattern plays out in other ways, too. On a finance committee, it’s the expectation that every year’s budget looks a little bleaker than the one before. For building committees, it means more and more deferred maintenance since buildings don’t shrink with congregations. For ministry committees, it means volunteers get harder and harder to find, even as some individuals step up to do more and more of the work. We’ve come to expect these things, too, rather than God’s abundance.

What this thought tells us is that we’ve formed a bad habit in our thinking and feeling. In a previous post, I talked about how adults learn, in particular how our lack of carefully thinking about things like this causes us to expect the pattern to continue. On the one hand, yeah, the pattern probably will continue, at least for a while. But on the other, more important hand, if all of our expectations are focused on decline, we have nothing left to give to our expectation that God is working in our midst.

And I believe that God is ALWAYS working in our midst. We may expect it, and THAT expectation is far more deserving of our attention.

The Effect on Hope

When we just let this habit of expectation form without thinking about it, the result is that we end up concentrating more on what God is not doing rather than what God is doing. It makes us a better witness to the scarcity of where God is not rather than the abundance of where God is.

And another word for lack of expectation of God’s abundance: “hopeless.”

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, then you know my story of encountering so many people who maintain a hope in God’s ultimate victory but who have given up on this world and have even lost hope in the church’s future. I think there are several contributing forces at play in this attitude, and I’ll talk about more of them in the future, but this has to be the biggest: the long, slow slog of decades of numeric decline forms a habit of expectation that causes us to lose hope in what God is doing in our midst.

But… isn’t it good to be worried about people who leave the church?

Of course it is! I may be saying we need to think differently (and stop obsessing) about decline, but please don’t hear in it a lack of care for those who’ve left. Evangelism and hope-sharing are where I’m headed with all of this hope stuff, and I pray all of us would have a heart for the disconnected. I’m not saying for one second that caring for those who’ve left the church over the past 50-60 years is a bad thing.

What is bad is how we let fear of decline distract us from God’s abundance that’s with us in other ways.

You see, though I harbor guilt about decline, as do we all, and while it is always true that we improve our work for God’s reign, I think the bigger truth is that decline is caused not by our failure but by larger shifts in society. Most notable among them are probably the bursting of the post-WWII attendance bubble and the world’s shift in the Great Emergence— postmodernity and postcolonialism.

It brings to mind Reinhold Niebuhr’s great Serenity Prayer, made famous by Alcoholics Anonymous:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, 

courage to change the things I can, 

and wisdom to know the difference.

In looking up the Serenity Prayer to copy and paste just now, I learned something: Neibuhr’s original version was different in several ways, but one of them was especially substantial: ”give us courage to change what must be altered.” Do you see the word I emphasized? The things we can change must be changed.

May we begin with our own expectations.

So what do you think? Have you had the “they’ve probably left like all the others” thought? Where do you see God’s abundance in the midst of decline?

(Image credit: “Pews” by evclpics is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.)