Originally posted in 2015 and updated.

The church in North America has lost profound influence over the past 50 years. That’s no longer a surprise to leaders. Despite watching the slow decline unfold leaders have either ignored the shift, or at best made attempt small incremental changes. Some pastors have given up, while others are clamouring to find ways to reverse the trend. Is it ‘too little too late’?

The advent of “Zoom-church” has given another avenue for churches to do outreach. But has it solved fundamental problems of belonging? Does it mean the church has somehow become more relevant because it translated its primary service offering–the service–to a more tech savvy form? Probably not, although that’s not to diminish the ways online church services have made it easier for those who struggle with access.

But is it reversing decline?

One way to address decline is to copy churches that claim success. Early in the pandemic big churches revelled in their online viewership numbers. They have now, a year later, grown silent. In-person, evangelical congregations, particularly large ones over 500, boast resiliency and appear to be an anomaly to downward trends. How that looks post-pandemic we’ll see. I surmise a loss clear across the board. But many churches immediately prior seemed to be adding to their ranks. Is it worth copying?

Smaller churches often look at outlier success to get answers to their problem. But are we being misinformed? What if copying what appears to be working does more harm than good?

I believe, on average, churches that claim success are boasting in a superficial trend, and copying the trends will only hasten demise. Here’s why.

Large churches who manage to add to their ranks accomplish this feat through very specific means. When we consult the data, over the past twenty years churches that add members do so through three primary and exclusive ways.

    1. 1. Births.
    1. 2. Immigration.
    1. 3. Christians switching churches.

I have a chapter on these trends in my book, “Thrive” (e-book is super cheap).

The best resourced churches continue to “grow” because they can afford robust programming for new immigrants; are the largest and by default have the most births; and have the best music and preaching that attracts the quintessential consumer Christian.

The kind of growth experienced by the most ‘successful’ churches is entirely reliant on padding pews with the already churched.

Ironically, churches copying larger churches can’t match resources and therefore end up offering programming that’s ‘second rate’. When churches play a consumer game the best ‘product’ will win. Placating to consumer Christianity means small to medium churches compete with mega, and that’s a competition they’ll never win.

Not on the list of three? Evangelism.

In their recent book, A Culture of Faith, Sam Reimer and Michael Wilkinson asked congregants in evangelical churches what they thought the highest priorities in their churches were–evangelism was one of the lowest ranked. At the top of the list? Programs that addressed their specific needs, particularly family and youth based ministries. Despite the moniker, evangelical churches struggle to connect with a post-Christendom culture where few hold any religious memory of a bygone church/Christian dominated era.

However, evangelicals do boast resilient congregations in comparison to other faith traditions. Reimer and Wilkinson attribute the reason why to the establishment of strong subcultures that are simultaneously different enough from the ‘world outside’, but not too different from broad cultural norms. For example, evangelicals may hold particular views regarding marriage, biblical authority, and sexuality, yet widely adopt technology in services, and more importantly condone the privatization of faith by developing predominantly personal religious experiences that appeal to the attitudes of rugged consumerism. Leaders support this process by offering the ‘Goldilocks experience’ (not too challenging, not too accommodating) starting at the central point of the church–its service–and moving down into programs. Ironically, balancing the subculture comes at the expense of what many churches pursue and value: evangelism and discipleship.

The thing is, you can’t have both. Push towards discipleship and against rugged consumerism you’ll lose congregants to the more comfortable church down the road. Don’t push hard enough and you wind up with a discipleship problem. Think about your church, chances are you have a profound discipleship problem. Despite the rhetoric to become ‘discipling churches’, there are exceedingly few discipling churches. We need to not only think better, but shift our praxis, and that unfortunately threatens the established subculture.

Where can we go from here? Here are some ideas (and by no means exhaustive).

First off, shifting our theological paradigm of mission is crucial, and likely the most difficult factor to adopt. Rather than mission being an offshoot program supporting missionaries in far off lands, re-orient mission to be a dictating factor to church function. Through a lens of mission we become acutely aware of the unfolding Kingdom in our midst. The implications of shifting towards a paradigm of mission will alter perceptions from a church devoted to Christians for Christians, to one that re-values a participating church in the restoration of neighbourhoods and beyond.

Challenging old paradigms of mission requires more than lip-service. Modelling is a necessary step to make ideas real. It will mean some discomfort as we alter the things we devote the majority of our resources to–namely the Sunday service(s) and programs. It is difficult to claim ‘priesthood of all believers’ or encourage congregational participation if our gatherings are exclusively run by qualified clergymen and staff. On one hand it is expected that staff will do most of the work because they are paid, on the other, this expectation detracts from the development of congregations out of a consumer mentality of participation. Upsetting the rhythm of our most cherished institution (the service) won’t be an easy shift. Ultimately, consumer churches don’t grow by evangelism (but they do grow by the three ways I mentioned above).

Secondly, once a paradigm of mission has been established (or unrolling) leaders will want strategic direction to increase participation. One of the ways to ‘cheat’ in this process is to look at the bright spots already unfolding within your congregation, and outside in your immediate neighbourhood. You may be surprised what people are already doing on their own accord. On average, most people will wait to join some kind of ministry the church starts. The odd couple will already be living out the character of Jesus in their space and place without permission. Look to develop these people, partner with them, and send them resources.

Thirdly, connect people based on geography. The power of the neighbourhood–of proximity–cannot be replicated and is the very foundation of incarnation: the Word made flesh whom moved into the neighbourhood. I’ve had conversations with mega-church pastors who legitimized commuting as an asset because driving 25 minutes to a small group demonstrated deep commitment. That might be true, but it utterly devalues the value of neighbourhood and is in many ways the antithesis of incarnation. Jesus literally meant, love thy literal neighbour literally next door. Literally. Combining people based on postal code may be a powerful exercise to create groups that are centered in the same place. This idea, however, requires the church to process idea #1, and indeed value the very neighborhood it gathers in as a fundamental building block.

Admittedly, the paradigm shift towards a lens of mission is not an easy one to adopt. Encouraging entrenched churches to revalue proximity over the option of commuting may be met with stiff opposition (some churches don’t even exist near residential areas). But disrupting status quo isn’t supposed to be easy. Of the churches I know who have transitioned from a traditional to a more missional persuasion, they have lost at least 25% of their people. The caveat is, over time, you will develop focussed people who will give their lives towards incarnational living. Ultimately, that’s what we hope for: a community of witnesses on jealous pursuit of an unfolding love story in their neighbourhoods.

That’s success.