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How to Turn Around the Incredible Shrinking Church

Diana Butler Bass was the keynote speaker at an annual preaching consultation at St. Simons Island, Georgia, at the end of September.
She is one of, it not the most, respected observers of religious life today. Her books have captured the attention of this generation.

She spent part of her three lectures introducing us to an inverted bell curve. One side represented the institutional decline of the church, and the other side represented the reawakening of the church.

The bottom of the curve was a period of anxiety and debate that comes with emerging change.

I was struck by how much this sounded like what I was reading and teaching in the ’80s and ’90s around the general theme of “Shaping the Future of the Church.”

Denominational leaders were trying to help congregations understand what was happening to their communities and congregations.

An elderly lady came up to me after one of these conferences and told me bluntly that I was wrong in my evaluation about the future of her congregation.

“All we need is for those who have left to return. If they will do that, our church will be fine,” she said.

These members had moved from her transitional neighborhood in droves, and they were not about to return.

On another occasion an older gentleman came up to me after my remarks and said, “Brother Frank, you don’t understand. I was baptized right there,” as he pointed to the baptistery. “My wife and I were married right there,” he said, pointing to the platform. “My children were baptized right there. My wife’s casket was right there. I want my casket to be there as well. We are not going anywhere.”

He is now gone, but so is the church. This church had baptized 400 people in 1964. It sold the property when it got down to 40 people in attendance.

The difference between what we were saying in the ’80s and what Dianna Butler Bass is saying now has to do with emphasis.

We were talking about demographic change. She is taking about a cultural shift in attitudes and values.

The growing distrust of institutions or the emergence of online communities, coupled with a growing secular culture, has had a major impact on church attendance.

The new buzz phrase of “I am spiritual but not religious” is but one example of this change.

I wish she had said more about the decline in birth rate among mainline Protestant groups.

From where I stand, about 60 percent of the decline in church membership can be traced to a decline in mainline birth rate.

In the year I was born, there were 30 live births per 1,000 white Protestant women. This past year that figure was 11 live births per 1,000 women.

At the end of the last session, I asked her, “If our families were the same size as those of our grandparents, would we be having this discussion?”

“No, we would not,” she replied.

If I am correct, 40 percent of mainline church decline is due to other cultural forces like the ones she so clearly identifies. That is no small percent, and we should take it seriously.

What we can do is open ourselves to change. We either need to start new congregations that worship and minister in new ways, or we need to change our existing ways of worship and ministry.

While other groups are talking about who is “left behind,” we need to not only talk about inclusion, but practice it as well. Perhaps a combination of new congregations and revitalized old ones is the answer.

I found some encouragement recently from an unlikely source: the last scene in the third “Mad Max” movie.

Mel Gibson’s character, Mad Max, has led the small group of young orphans to the border of the Promised Land and then departed. The new leader of the group is a young alpha female named Savannah Nix.

Each night she gathers her brood around the campfire and begins what she calls the “tell.” Her words describe us, offering the direction and hope we desperately need.

“Time counts and keeps countin’, and we knows now finding the trick of what’s been and lost ain’t no easy ride. But that’s our trek, we gotta travel it. And there ain’t nobody knows where it’s gonna lead,” she said.

“Still in all, every night we does the tell, so that we ‘member who we was and where we came from … but most of all we ‘members the man that finded us, him that came the salvage,” Nix continued. “And we lights the city, not just for him, but for all of them that are still out there. ‘Cause we knows they’ll come a night, and they sees the distant light, and they’ll be comin’ home.”

Frank Broome is the executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia. A longer version of this article first appeared in the December/January 2014-15 edition of Visions – a publication of CBF/GA. It is used with permission.