Unsettled Christianity

Gloria Dei homo vivens – St Irenaeus
December 14th, 2016 by Joel Watts

Attendance keeps falling…

The Church as a secular institution is dead. There is nothing provided by the modern American Church (i.e., mainline) that is not provided by some other group or organization. This is, partially, why we are seeing the fall off in attendance. Why come to a place that you really receive nothing (different)?

A recent study has shown that worship attendance in the UMC is dropping dramatically (and the more so if years are grouped with one another). Further, membership is shifting.

Why is it falling? I mean, besides the fact that people simply do not need the status offered by the Church?

In fact, all mainline denominations are shrinking. What does seem to be growing are Protestant churches offering a Christian experience to its members. Yes, something along the Charismatic way — but, more than that. Growing churches offer community.

Fifty years ago, they were wealthy and paid for everything. That eroded the culture of volunteerism needed in the local church. We even pay for nursery care! We no longer require anything from members except to pay their dues. If you spend two generations telling people they aren’t needed (rather, they are free to come and go as they please), then you will get to the point of where we are. How can you offer community if there is nothing to be unified about?

We also don’t like to rock the boat. If something once worked, well, at some point it may in the future — and by George, we are going to wait until it works again. Ten years, or twenty, or whatever. Namely, our Sunday School and Youth programs. Mainliners tend to get stuck, and in doing so, become fearful of breaking out of the rut.

Finally, and not as in the absolute final reason, but in a short “hey, change at least these three things” type of way, mainliners have forgotten to spiritually form (uh… discipleship) members. Namely, Sunday School and Youth programs. You would think that a denomination that claims to be heirs of the Wesleys would know what discipleship means and how to do it.

Let me give you an example. Growing ministries abound across the American Church. What are some of the common elements? They are lay driven, volunteer-based, organic, and devoted to some theological principle. They seek to get others involved. They seek to actually do something with the Gospel’s mandate.

I have long proposed a way of doing a youth program popular among growing evangelical churches — and, backed by secular means as well – of involvement. Get the youth involved in their own worship and activity time. Do not spoon-feed them. These suggestions were politely ignored. Would you believe that nothing changed? I mean, except participation numbers.

So I watched as the males in the youth slowly drifted away until only my son was left in his age bracket.

I attend a men’s group on Friday mornings at First Presbyterian (PCUSA). I asked the (new-ish) youth director what he was doing. Because, frankly, my children were discouraged because of the lack of other boys and lack of offerings (seriously, they offered a cooking class). We were discouraged because nothing we have said has mattered — even being told at one point that getting other boys to the group (and plenty of boys go to the local church) was something we had to worry about.

Now, keep in mind, I have seen and spoken with others in Charleston to see what they are doing. A local baptist youth minister spends his days at the local middle and high school very passively inviting kids to youth. Every program is well attended.

Back to 1st Presby. I asked the guy what they did. He told me. It was exactly what I had been proposing for several months. And guess what? They have kids coming not just from 1st Presby, but from other churches — and kids who have no church home. They have a liturgy, a worship service, and activities. I was even able to take Eucharist a few Sundays ago. And they are trying to move the children to become more involved. The leader’s goal is to be there to supervise. And yeah… it is well-attended too.

To recap, the group at 1st Presby is new and different, discipling, and seeks to be organic. What a radical concept that has only worked for the last few thousand years.

Now my son doesn’t want to leave and even my daughter likes it. Honestly, I’ve thought about checking it out, even if it is PCUSA with its badly polity, attachment to Calvin, and the soon dissolution of the denomination.

Here’s the thing. (cliché ahead) If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got. The attendance in the UMC will continue to fall-off because it is offering nothing that it needs to offer in order to hold and then gain members. And no one really wants to change it.

Oh well.

Joel Watts
Watts holds a MA in Theological Studies from United Theological Seminary. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians, as well as seeking an MA in Clinical Mental Health at Adams State University. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

Comments

One Response to “Attendance keeps falling…”
  1. Cristine Warring says

    Hey Joel – sorry to leave a comment rather than send an email, couldn’t find another way to contact you – saw a Twitter post from Resist Daily that you might be looking for female bloggers. I am 1/2 way through my MDiv at Phillips in Tulsa (DoC) and am interested if the tweet was correct. @cwarring

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