“The church is dying!”
In my corner of the the last remnants of Christendom, I hear this or something similar regularly.
There is concern because our denomination, much like most North American mainline denominations, has a numerically declining trend. There is a fear that because the church is losing the privileged position that it has enjoyed since Constantine and thus this grows to fear that the church is dying.
However, when we are afraid that the church is dying, we become obsessed with numbers. We make goals to plant a specific number of congregations and gain a specific number of confessing members. We point to big and/or growing churches as successes and small and/or declining churches as failures. We make the implicit (or explicit) assumption that faithful churches will be large and will grow continually. The shadow side of that assumption, though, is that churches which are small or are not growing at a steady pace are dysfunctional or unfaithful.
The Church is not of our making
When it is proclaimed that the church is dying, the assumption is that we must do something in order to reverse this trend. However, this leads to a focus on what we can do. While I strongly believe that we must be good stewards of our gifts and resources and that we must be faithful in working to build up the church, it is presumptuous to assume that we have the power to either kill the church or save the church.
Our theology tells us something very different.
We believe and confess
one single catholic or universal church—
a holy congregation and gathering
of true Christian believers,
awaiting their entire salvation in Jesus Christ
being washed by his blood,
and sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit.
This church has existed from the beginning of the world
and will last until the end,
as appears from the fact
that Christ is eternal King
who cannot be without subjects.
And this holy church is preserved by God
against the rage of the whole world,
even though for a time
it may appear very small
to human eyes—
as though it were snuffed out.
during the very dangerous time of Ahab
the Lord preserved for himself seven thousand
who did not bend their knees to Baal.
–From Belgic Confession Article 27
The Belgic Confession, here, is clear that preserving the church is God’s responsibility and not ours. The church is not of our making and it is not possible for us to kill the church. What is noticeably absent, though, is the promise that faithfulness will result in great numbers. In fact, the confession is clear that the church may appear to be very small. Clearly, then, numerical size and health and faithfulness are not connected in any definitive way.
Numbers are not reliable
“‘Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it'” (Matthew 7:13-14, NRSV).
From the Epistles in the New Testament, there is no apparent norm that faithful churches ought to be big and that big churches are faithful. The concerns seem to be about deeper issues such as divisions within the church, lawsuits among believers, idolatry (1 Corinthians); holy living and generosity toward others (2 Corinthians); justification by faith and the meaning of true freedom in Christ (Galatians); Unity, strength, and mutual submission in Christ (Ephesians); humility (Philippians); focusing on heavenly rather than earthly things (Colossians); Eschatology (1 and 2 Thessalonians). In no place are numbers discussed whatsoever.
So then, where do we find this understanding that growth in numbers is the goal?
“Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?'” (Matthew 16:24-26, NRSV)
Numerical obsession is idolatrous
Do good things and good things will happen, therefore if bad things happen then you must have done bad things. The problem is that this shifts the focus from God to self. We treat God as some sort of cosmic vending machine where all one has to do is push the correct combination of buttons and we can receive what we desire.
Church growth books abound, many of which stop just short of promising growth if we follow the given formula (which often include superficial things such as having a nice building and popular programs). This is nothing other than a repackaged idolatrous prosperity gospel.
In this, we have made numbers an idol and worship our abilities to effect the growth that we desire to see. While it is true that there is value in tangibles, much of the stuff of faith is intangible (grace, forgiveness, love, redemption, restoration…) and when we prioritize tangibles, we come dangerously close to fashioning a golden calf and crying, “Here is your god!”
Strategic plans are not our salvation
As my denomination turns to another strategic plan to find its salvation (after vainly trusting in the last strategic plan), I cannot help but wonder if this is simply an accommodation to the greater corporate culture with its values, methods, and evaluations and simply redressing it in religious clothes and baptizing it.
I do want to see the church flourish, and I want to see my denomination grow. But this growth must be a side effect and not a goal. God gives the growth, sometimes in spite of our number worship and strategic salvation. We would be better served by focusing more on kneeling to Baal less and less on counting more than seven thousand.