Noah loves balloons. Every so often, we will purchase some for him, especially around his birthday, that he can enjoy and play with.
Sometimes it is my responsibility to blow up the balloons. With my asthma, I don’t always have the lung strength to blow them up myself. I am thankful for the ability to purchase small tanks that allow me to blow up the balloons that, in turn, give Noah some joy and pleasure.
One of the things about balloons is that over time they lose air. You don’t always notice it happening, but air can seep through the balloon and, thus, shrink its size. Sometimes, it takes a while to notice that the balloon doesn’t have the same amount of air that it did before.
I believe sometimes the church is just like a balloon. Sometimes we don’t always recognize issues or periods of decline until it is entirely noticeable. When we begin to notice issues or decline when it is reached the point that ignoring it any longer would harm the long-term operational structure of the local church.
The truth is that the church has often struggled with issues. As well, in many ways, we have been in decline, as a Methodist movement, for a more than just a handful of years. By percentage of the population, by some accounts, we have been in a state of decline since the 1880s. It was easy to miss for a long time, because the church was able to maintain its funding and support levels.
That isn’t the case, currently.
Yet, the issues that we face as far as what it means to be a church, how do we engage our community, and what does it mean to share God’s love are not new. They are questions we have wrestled with since the days of the Apostles. Is there anything that helps us to understand the issues and decline in the church and where they come from?
According to John Wesley scholar Ken Collins in his book The Theology of John Wesley, there are three specific areas that Wesley, himself, focused upon in regards to church decline.
Church decline happens when the church is more concerned with its own members than its community. What is meant, here, is that when a church is only concerned with internal matters it stunts its potential to be a missional change agent within the community. The church is called to give witness to the holy love of God and, as such, called to share that love with our neighbors. When the church lives in fear or distance from the community, it leads the church to becoming a closed off social club for like-minded Christians where only those who are preferred by the membership is accepted.
That is not the church Jesus calls us to be about. The church is to be a place of worship, discipleship, and mission. That requires a commitment to not only be in relationship with those who are a part of the church, but to also be in mission and relationship with our neighbors and community. We cannot miss this part of what it means to love God and love all people if we wish to be a church that grows.
As well, church decline happens when we are more concerned with power and wealth. Wesley struggled with Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313 AD, which provided the way for Christianity to become the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. It ended a period of persecution in the church’s history, and gave the church a place of power and influence. As a result, the church slowly moved from being a movement to an institution. The church moved from being a powerful change agent to being a cultural identity.
We should be concerned about a focus solely being on maintaining the institution, of seeking power and influence, in spite of the mission of the church. We are not called to be a power broker or influence maker in the community. We are called to be the living embodiment of Jesus Christ in a broken and hurting world.
Finally, church decline happens when we want the church to be a reflection of our community than Christ. What often happens, here, is that we want the church to give its stamp of approval on our politics, cultural identity, or community interests. In this way, the church runs into the problem of aligning its theology and views to be in accordance with the desires of political leaders, community desires, and others.
The church is called to be a transforming agent in our community. By this, we are called to advocate for the poor and the oppressed. Even more, we are called to be counter cultural by focusing our entire energy on living as Christ lives and not trying to please the world.
Church decline doesn’t happen overnight. At the same time, turning the tide on church decline and seeking renewal in our mission doesn’t happen overnight, either. For that to happen, though, we have to recognize that what we are facing together is not uncommon nor new. At the same time, addressing church decline through institutional and not missional measures will only further the decline.
That will come when we remember who we are as a church, the living embodiment of the mission of God in the world, and live that out through the power of the Holy Spirit.