I’ve been thinking a lot about denominations lately. I’m a switcher, a pastor who has moved from leadership in an Evangelical church to a Mainline church. One of the first things I noticed in making the switch was that while the local theology in the last two congregations I served is very different, the denominational woes are exactly the same. Both denominations are struggling with significant decreases in giving and widespread boredom with and distrust of large institutions. Both denominations are losing members—albeit they are at different points in the process. Both denominations are promising more help for local congregations, but are basically not delivering, as their agencies just can’t get out of the PR and fundraising modes. Both denominations are spending lots of internal time and resources on major institutional restructuring. Both denominations are seeing an exodus of young members.
In the Christian Reformed Church I used to belong to, they are wondering whether or not “denominational culture,” is a key factor behind the malaise. Maybe. In the United Church, the new structural plan, which would save the National Office, but do away with Presbyteries (local groups of churches) and conferences (larger groups of local churches), seems to suggest that the problem is that local members don’t care about neighbouring churches. That might be right, but it is hard to understand, then, why those same members would care about the national church.
In the end, however, I doubt very much that membership malaise and decline have much to do with denominational culture or structure. Don’t get me wrong. I’d love to have top-notch culture and structure. The thing is, as helpful as these realities are in a healthy church, they are not the root causes of membership loss and malaise.
Well, the bottom line, I think, is that the problem is with local churches and leadership. The heart of the worship service (or, at least, one of its key foci), the sermon, is not giving people a reason to stay. And naturally, if that is the case, giving and attendance drops and interest in far away national offices or agencies isn’t going to light any fires either.
I don’t want to be too hard on preachers. But honestly, if there is one complaint I hear over and over again from my friends who are thinking of not going to church, or who have stopped—and I have many of them—it is that they are mad about the preaching. It is too judgmental. It is too pragmatic, as if the sermons were lifted out of the self-help section of the bookstore. It is, especially, boring and irrelevant. It doesn’t get people to strap on their seat belts or put on crash helmets.
Now, we might respond to such a charge defensively. I have responded that way myself, when people have stopped going to my church. Or, we might say that the problem is not with the preacher—but with the gospel. People just don’t buy it anymore, and the siren songs of the weekend away, or the materialistic lifestyle, or Twitter and Facebook are just too compelling to invest in sermons anymore. We can come up with a hundred and one reasons to deflect the blame away from preachers. And the hard truth here is that the problem is complex, and there are some very good preachers who still struggle with the malaise out there, and we can all think of people who left church for different reasons—lack of community, perhaps; or the widespread perception that churches are anti-gay, or anti-women, or anti-science. And many are.
However, I believe that our preaching is a big part of the problem. As pastors, we don’t work at it hard enough. We don’t pay enough attention to how we speak, to the rhetoric of persuasion, or the poetry of words. We don’t pay enough attention to what our parishioners are really wondering about in the dark of the night or when the bills come due. We are too comfortable with the status quo. We offer one meal after another of beans and rice and no one can remember what we said two weeks on. We preach out of dry barrels of sixteenth century doctrinal concerns like infant baptism or how the atonement works rather than to the crises of our era. I do it too. And this is what I lie awake thinking about at night. This is what forces me to spend more and more time preparing messages rather than less and less.
It may be that we are entering into an era where things are so good, for so many, that the gospel seems quaint and old fashioned. We may well enter an era where one of the crises of our day—global warming, poverty, religious fanaticism, racism, terrorism—so overwhelms us that people come back to church in droves, looking for the faith, hope and love to get them through. But for now, people are hanging up their church hats and leaving in droves. And not missing church at all. Especially not the sermons. And if nothing else, that should suggest that our preaching the same old stuff isn’t doing the trick.
We need to talk about this. What’s the problem? Denial? Are our preacher egos too sensitive to get honest about how we’re doing? Does the preaching ministry fail to attract the brightest and the best, like it did 100 years ago? Too much Greek (or too little?) Too much seminary (or too little?) Too much distraction from social media and the internet to concentrate on real writing?
Maybe all the above. But until our local churches are firing on all cylinders, especially from the pulpit, the whole debate about what to do with denominational structures is very much beside the point.