Martin Luther's Bible
Mainline churches are loosing members at a fairly rapid rate. Polling organizations point out that the membership of these denominations--Presbyterians, Disciples of Christ, Episcopalians, etc.--are comprised of a new minority in the United States: educated white people with middle and upper incomes who are middle-of-the-roaders politically. Because the group as a whole is getting smaller the membership in their churches declines as well.
Critics of mainline churches argue that their declining membership is because they haven't changed with the times, or have failed to respond to the needs and wants of a growing demographic group--people who are less educated, less affluent, and more politically conservative. They argue that mainline churches need to become hipper, less formal, and more relevant.
Polling organizations, however, like the Pew Research Center, point out that church membership in general is declining, even among less traditional and more evangelical denominations. In the few cases where membership has increased, like for the Assemblies of God, the increases are much slower than in the past, and don't begin to approximate the increases in overall population growth. Briefly, church affiliation is less important to more Americans than it used to be.
What these trends hold for the future is anyone's guess. It may signal a period where believers drift in and out of largely non-denominational churches--although even these, including the mega-churches--show a slowing of affiliation. Or, it may mean that church growth is simply in a time of fallow and, if they wait long enough, membership, like the tender mercy of rain after drought, will return.
In the mean time mainline churches, pastors, and members struggle with the consequences of declining membership: lower operating revenues, fewer resources for community service, and strategic disagreements among church leadership about the way forward.
"Strategic disagreements," of course, is a nuanced way of describing a church fight, the often tragi-comedic and mostly Protestant process where Christians behave like atheistic wolverines and found whole new denominations based on not much more than a preference for or against organ music.
How churches weather their strategic disagreements depends largely on the maturity and grace of the churches' leadership, and that of their pastor. Too often, pastors of churches in transition are burned out, leadership is over-extended and tired, and activist members mistake administrative incompetence and market realities for the churches' failure to meet their preferred style and form of worship. They are posed on the edge of a fight.
Within this environment, activists always seem to be saying that "someone" and somethings" have to change with the times. Usually, they're saying this about people they believe to be resistant to change. But what do these Change Artists mean by change? And what does resistance look like?
Take for example--a common one--the doddering old church membership that is urged to "change" so that they and their church might become more "relevant" to a changing population demographic. What this often means is a revival of the at least 200 year old argument about the form and substance of the churches' music: the Change Artists usually want it emotional and louder, and they presume that Pawpaw and Meemaw don't.
What the Change Artists don't get is that Meemaw and Pawpaw have been there and done that. Often, the Geezers may only object to the utter banality and derivative, dreary nature of what the Change Artist believes to be new, and therefore inherently relevant. Emotional and loud is fine, but for God's sake, they say--literally--it also needs to be good, and worth listening to.
Change Artists also seem not to know, or refuse to recognize, that their doddering old church family includes the generation that invented rock and roll, was on the front lines of the sexual revolution, and that some of them probably smoked more dope and used more psychedelic drugs than today's younger generation knows how to spell. Advocates for change frequently seem to think that their troubles and experiences and sins and burdens are somehow greater, or more serious, than those of "the other."
One reason may be their naivety and lack of worldly experience. Another may be arrogance, and the tendency among activists to morally judge those who they believe stand in the way of their goals. They cannot imagine that anyone can relate to their circumstances or experiences. They don't know, for example, that Pawpaw may live with the sin of dropping napalm on a grove of trees filled with 16 year old boys. He does in fact know something about sin.
To the problem of changing member demographics--from rich to poor, from educated to less educated--there is much that can be said, but the conclusion is always the same. A church serves its members to the extent that it secures their faith in God and helps them love one another. Arguments over how faith and love are demonstrated aren't particularly interesting or productive and, ultimately are measured in an entirely singular way.