Summer is in full swing and that means the church has empty pews – and lots of them.
Some six million mainline Protestants have gone on summer vacation since 1965 and haven’t come back. That’s right, six million members are missing. And we’re not even talking about all those millions of others who have stayed on the rolls because the deacons think a once-a-year donation ought to constitute membership.
Conservatives, whose churches seemed to fair much better over the past 40 years, said it was all a matter of doctrine. Ever since the publication of Dean Kelly’s 1972 “Why Conservative Churches Are Growing,” a lot of folks assumed the mainline was in decline because it wasn’t preaching a hot enough gospel. People need black and white, the adage went.
More recently, mainline liberals have countered with a very liberal defense: statistics. They have basically said that the problem is really a matter of degree – or degrees. Here is the syllogism:
We mainliners are smart.
Therefore, we go to college.
Therefore, we have later and fewer babies.
Therefore, the real culprit in all this church attrition is low birth rate.
And now that conservative churches are seeing the same decline the mainline saw in the latter part of the last century, they too are talking birth rates. The president of the Southern Baptist Convention said that if attrition continues, the SBC will be cut in half in 40 years.
One strategy some have offered? Reproduce.
I have to confess the idea of being too smart for my own (denomination’s) good is a pretty flattering excuse. And the idea of sex-based ministry certainly makes for seeker-friendly outreach. Nevertheless, low birth rate is a pretty pathetic excuse for a church in decline. Making more disciples of Jesus should really have nothing to do with procreation if you take evangelism seriously.
The prologue to John is pretty clear about this: “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to be children of God – children born not of the flesh, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.”
Jesus himself had no biological children that we know of. In the early days, the church did just fine even though many of the faithful took vows of celibacy for the sake of the kingdom.
It makes me think that maybe the best way to fill up those pews again is not through breeding, but rather through regaining the compelling moral vision of the early church: radical inclusion, the forgiveness of enemies, the sharing of possessions. It was for these things that the early church was said to be “turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).
That’s what we need to do again. If the church has a future, that is where it will be – in turning the world upside down, not in turning the sheets back.
Ryon Price is pastor of the United Church of Colchester, an American Baptist church, in Colchester, Vt.