Small town churches in general and mainline churches in particular are losing members and shutting down at a fairly fast clip. There are three or four examples locally that we can point to, and much church related periodical literature points out similar alarming trends.
Observers of these trends identify the rise of mega churches, the growth of television ministries, and an increase in the number of non-affiliated, non-denominational churches as the probable causes. But now, these churches are experiencing similar declines as well and a few, like Robert Schuller's Crystal Cathedral and even Rick Warren's Saddleback Church have had serious financial setbacks.
Last year, the nation's largest denomination, Roman Catholics, reported a slight up-tick in membership (about half a percent) and Mormons grew at 1.42%. The fastest growing church in the United States is the Jehovah Witnesses (4.32%), and Pentecostal churches such as the Assemblies of God and Church of God and Church of God in Christ grew at annual rates just over one percent. Otherwise, churches are losing membership at rates between 1.5% and 2.5% (Presbyterians and Episcopalians, etc.).
Overall church membership in the United States is 145,838,339 members, down 1.05 percent from 2010. Giving decreased $26 million in 2009 from the roughly $36 billion total given in 2008 (among 64 denominations reporting) and 2010 figures are trending toward even lower giving. This has had a significant impact on the social and other services that churches provide.
Where are small town, mainline, and mega church members going when they leave? Do they simply stay home on Sundays?
One answer appearing more and more frequently in church media--periodicals, websites, and journals--is that former members are attending "Missional" and "home" churches in growing numbers.
A home church is simply what it says: a small number of like-minded individuals gather in a home to pray and otherwise worship; they look very much like the first century churches that appear in the letters of the Apostles. A Missional church is somewhat more complicated and difficult to define. In both cases, however, each seems to be a reaction against the organized churches' tendency to fall into one or another political ideology, and or a rejection of theological dogma.
In their book, Breaking the Missional Code (Broadman & Holman, 2006) authors Edward Stetzer and David Putnam define the Missional church as one which shifts:
- From (the traditional churches') programs to processes
- From demographics to discernment
- From models to missions
- From attraction to incarnation
- From uniformity to diversity
- From professional to passionate
- From seating to sending
- From decisions to disciples
- From additional to exponential
- From monuments to movements
- From services to service
- From ordained to the ordinary
- From organizations to organisms
Each of these so-called shifts can be so broadly interpreted that they might mean anything. Broadly speaking, however, they (might) mean that a church is not God, God is not a place, God is not a denomination, and that maintaining a church can be a distraction from living at one with God.
Missional churches would also, I imagine, evaluate their institutional and spiritual integrity based not on the buildings it builds or the services it provides but rather on how effectively it changes the purely secular orientation of individuals--and the community they live in--toward one that reveals, affirms and produces deeper and more authentic relationships among people from all strata of society.
So far, so good. The over-arching question in my mind though is, why can't this be accomplished in the small town, mainline, or mega-church? Are these institutions so inherently corrupt or organically flawed that they do not permit the authenticity that the Missional or home church promises? Or, is the Missional church simply a coping strategy adopted by leaders who are burned out by the social contracting demands of the traditional church model?
It is easy to appreciate and to recognize the burden that many church leaders face as they try to navigate the political and social differences among the members they lead. These differences among members are often rigidly held and are reinforced by a society that increasingly devalues reason, celebrates materialism, and worships comfort. Few church leaders last long in a congregation when they frankly challenge members to face facts, examine values, and toughen up. Instead, they often ignore differences among members, pretend that everything is fine, and eventually sink into infinite wells of lassitude or repressed anger.
A starting point for people who are thinking about going to, or starting, a Missional or home church is to positively examine how to make the church they belong to a better and more authentic expression of their faith. God is certainly not a church, but is it possible for God to be in a church? God is not a place, but is it possible for God to be in that place? God is not a denomination, but can "your" denomination be made pleasing to God? Finally, are the distractions that pull us away from God simply a failure to establish priorities or, something else that is personal to us as individuals?
I do not reject the idea of Missional churches. Frankly, they are not a new idea. Missional churches have successfully coexisted within the Catholic Church for centuries. Little Portion Monastery, as a local example, is a wonderful resource for everyone in Carroll County, and beyond. One reason it succeeds is because the larger Catholic Church provides philosophical, operational, and theological frameworks upon which to guide and ground the individuals who are responsible for the Monastery's integrity.
But if I grow disenchanted with my current church home and become disinclined to love the bozo sitting behind me and tired of pancake fundraisers--or if Nancy Pelosi or Michelle Bachman or Woo Fat (the God of Love and King of Animal Lore) become similarly afflicted--should we start Missional Churches?
It is certainly, sometimes, a temptation. But who, or what, provides the philosophical, operational, and theological integrity that must govern me, and these other potential Missional church leaders?