As Told to Jessica Hanewinckel
There’s no doubt that statistically the Western church is in decline. Really, though, the decline narrative is a red herring. The real problem is that belief itself is becoming quite fragile. People are living with other or no belief systems, and they seem to be doing OK. So how do we form a community to be positioned to encounter a living God?
What are our conversations really about? When we think our issue is decline or lack of resources, our discussions are usually not about God and how he moves. They’re about how we can do things technically better or address culture in a different way. I think smaller churches are potentially in a better place, because the illusion that they could win enough market share to make a difference feels more impossible to them, which allows them to embrace and maybe lean toward God. Bigger churches, while having a lot going for them, risk the sense that it all becomes instrumentalized and technical.
Some of the core pastoral practices of helping people become overshadowed by winning market share. We’re hoping we can get to a point where that faithfulness isn’t just embedded in growth and big numbers, but really sharing in life together and testifying to our encounters with the presence of God. This definitely happens in big churches that are growing, but it also happens in little churches where 30 people are praying together. Again, we don’t want to demonize the growing congregation, but we also don’t want to minimize the faithfulness of pastorally walking with people and testifying to the world and our lives together that there is deep meaning in a community that professes Jesus Christ.
To be Protestant is to live in crisis. But that crisis has been misdirected toward this sense of decline instead of the crisis being that we are sinful people who stand before a holy God. Bonhoeffer says Jesus Christ calls you today with the same immediacy he called the first century disciples. But the crisis is, how do we know it’s Jesus Christ? How do we encounter this God? And how are we faithful to this God we can’t control?
Leaning into that crisis is life-giving. But leaning into the other crisis—if you don’t keep growing, if you’re not excellent every second of every day, then everything is going to fall apart—will destroy human relationships and souls. This becomes a challenge when your church becomes so big that there comes this temptation that God becomes a product you’re selling. But there is an echo of the Old Testament here, where God cannot be caged. God is not a product. God is God, and we always have the crisis of how to be faithful to this God who is truly God.
Andrew Root is Carrie Olson Baalson Professor of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. His latest book, co-authored with Blair D. Bertrand, is When Church Stops Working: A Future for Your Congregation Beyond More Money, Programs and Innovation (Brazos Press).