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Having “The Conversation” About the Church


I have been a part of numbers of conversations with church leaders and colleagues.  It seems to be “the conversation” right now in Mainline Protestant churches (Lutheran, Episcopal, Methodist, Congregational, Presbyterian, et cetera) as we ll as in the organizations that support and partner with them.  The question is usually posed like this:

“Why is the church in decline and how can we fix it”?

The Sinking Church of Bezidu, Romania.
Image source:

Here are a few of my thoughts on the matter of church decline.

1. Most Mainline Protestant churches were built under the assumption that communities were stable, the dominant culture was Christian and future generations would keep the pews full. We live in communities that are in constant flux, the culture has become secularized, multicultural and multi-faith, and as a whole we Mainline Protestants are not having as many children as we did in former generations – while at the same time many of our young adults move to new communities as they come of age. Finding a church doesn’t always make it on their priority list.

2. With some exceptions of course, our primary delivery system for faith formation is no longer working. A few generations of drop-off Sunday School has left us with few committed adults who indeed have deep faith, but many of them believe they simply don’t know enough to be able to share or talk about their faith. As a result we have as ministry partners well-meaning parents that are intimidated to teach both in our traditional Sunday Schools and also at home. This comes at a time when faith-formation is as important as ever.

3. The majority of adults who grew up in the church but dropped out learned the lesson their parents taught them – church is for kids, and once you are an adult you can have coffee or go out for brunch. Now take that trend out a few generations and there are vast numbers of people with little to no church connections, and we have the rise of the “spiritual but not religious” demographic which a recent Pew Forum study names at 19.6% of the US population. (

4. I was meeting with some church workers and outdoor ministry professionals recently and a great quote stuck out from that version of “the conversation.” This person said, “Sometimes I really feel like I am doing good stuff, but most of the time I feel like what I am doing is rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.” I think many of us feel this way. Our denominations are shrinking, our resources are shrinking, our membership numbers are shrinking, churches around us are shrinking (and in many cases closing), and we are left with the feeling that even if we try harder or commit to the latest gimmick; the iceberg has already punctured the side of the boat and our failure is inevitable.  This comes at a time when leadership is critical, change is necessary, and creativity is essential.

5. We don’t live in a godless world indifferent to faith. People today are just as hungry, maybe even starving for a faith that meets them in their real lives. For too many reasons – the pervading wisdom is that the church is not a place to find that faith. Now we church insiders think it is. The more I listen to folks I have come to understand that an average person probably doesn’t see the church that way – even though many people are looking for meaning, purpose, and peace in their turbulent lives. In my view we live in a time ripe for good news. How we deliver it in the 21st century is a constant struggle, and our greatest opportunity.

So what do we do about it?

Like many other leaders I’m working on this issue and don’t claim to have this all figured out – but my gut tells me we better be A+ at hospitality, we better speak in a way (and back words up with actions) that connect real life to the God we believe in, and we better seek intentional relationships with the “spiritual but not religious.”

We also better stop trying to save the church because that is something we just are not going to be able to do. So rather than spending our energies rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic – we better learn how to swim. We pastors need to see ourselves as nothing other than as missionaries, supporting and equipping all of the baptized who are sent into the world. Congregational leaders better see themselves as missionaries too, supporting and equipping the communities they serve to be more hospitable to whoever it is and wherever we are, connect our faith and our lives, and bring into conversation those who are on the outside looking in. This is a huge undertaking considering many of the congregations we serve aren’t interested in leaders being missionaries or leading missional communities – many people just want us to save their church and get more butts and bucks back in the pews.  As church leaders this idea scares us big time. Yet to lead faithfully we are going to need resolve, commitment to one another, and find a great amount of courage. Thank God we don’t have to find these resources on our own.

It starts in the font – where the Triune God claims us in the vibrant life of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

We’ve been promised that the Father has called us “beloved” and the crucified and risen Christ is with us putting to death our sin and raising us to new life. We are promised that the Spirit has come to dwell among us as we go to where we are sent.  We’ve also been promised that this is Christ’s church, and not even the gates of hell can stand against it.  It feels and sounds like gates of hell are pounding on the door, or have torn the bottom of this hull apart.

Now what?   That is “the conversation” we are having, and I invite you into it.

We are not called to keep the church from sinking.   We are called to learn how to swim.

These are baptismal waters.   Dive in.  Join us. Take a long deep drink. Believe. Share. Splash!!!



The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” (John 4:11-15)

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