10 Shifts for the Future in Churches of Christ

I don’t know if you have noticed this or not but most churches are in decline. Not only that, most churches are getting older. The demographics are shifting with less and less young people in our churches. We also see this reflected in many of our lectureships.

What is our gut reaction to this?

For some it is blame.

“They just don’t care about God. ” “They only want to be entertained.” “They aren’t concerned about truth.” “They only want an experience.”

I have heard all of these and I am sure you have too. But blame won’t get us anywhere. Blame doesn’t have vision. Blame isn’t purposeful in improving anything. Blame is saying we can and should keep doing things how we always have because we get it and they don’t. Blame is saying the burden is on them to figure out how right we are and if they can’t see it what else can we do? Blame deflects the issue to someone else. When we do that we will never get better…like the person who refuses to acknowledge their addiction.

Here is where things get even harder. Many of our churches are shrinking in areas of the country that are growing rapidly. Even holding steady in a growing town is akin to decline.

What if we stopped blaming and started dreaming?

What if we stopped criticizing and started listening?

What if instead of demonizing people we started valuing people?

If we don’t make some changes we are going to be in an even bigger mess in 10-15 years.

What kinds of changes should we be making?

Honestly, I almost wrote, “What kinds of changes should we be looking to make” which is usually what happens – we look at making it but don’t. We are going to have to be convinced that the pain of not making these changes is greater than the pain of making them.

1 – From ignoring to listening to our young people.
The world has changed. We are operating out of a 1950’s paradigm of who has a voice, who gets listened to. It is the same demographic that makes up the vast majority of church leadership.

Young people don’t operate out of that paradigm. They have learned to have a voice through social media but then get to church and it is the one place no one is listening to them. So they don’t invest. They don’t buy in because they are too easily marginalized. Do I even need to explain why they leave at 18? They were never “in” to begin with. The same thing is happening with women. That could be, probably should be, #11 in this list. More on that later.

2 – Past focus to future focus (Dream/cast vision)
Because we are all about restoring the first century church we don’t know how to look ahead very well. We are always looking back. So we lack vision. That leads to the next problem.

3 – Re-assess our authority structures
The preacher is tasked with casting vision. The preacher has no authority to carry it out. The preacher is supposed to inspire and show the way forward. The preacher does not have the authority to take the congregation forward. The preacher has all the responsibility with none of the authority. The elders have all of the authority with none of the responsibility. Let me clarify what I mean by that because I am sure, if you are an elder, you would push back hard on what I just said but if you were a preacher you would shout amen! Here is what I mean. If the preacher gets fired he has to pick up everything and go somewhere else. Kids change schools. New friends. New town. It is total upheaval. If the contribution shrinks it affects the preacher and family. The elders go on eldering. I am not saying that have no responsibility. They do. But in a practical sense the burden and strain falls on the ministers. I will give more details on this later.

4 – Revamp areas we said were biblical that were really tradition
We have assigned many things to scripture that were really tradition. Along with that we have done the very thing we condemned among other – elevate tradition to the authority level of scripture. Just try changing a tradition and see what kind of pushback you get and who leaves over it.

5 – Move from fear to faith and from inward to outward
When you experience loss and trauma your focus shifts inward. I have broken four bones in my life and every time the reaction is to draw in what you broke and look after it. That is where many of our churches are and our leadership tends to get stuck. They are drawn in and expect the future to be like the past, painful. They can never move ahead. We get stuck in fear and cannot see the way forward. The way forward is faith.

6 – Move from reactionary to proactive and intentional
Much of the decision making in our churches is reactionary. A decision is made because someone complained. A decision is made in anticipation of avoiding a future complaint. There is no vision in that.

7 – Reclaim good theology
We moved from teaching deep theology to teaching pet issues and areas of our distinctiveness from “the denominations.” In effect we denominationalized ourselves in doing this. Again, the very thing we despised (see back to tradition #4). People are dying on the vine for lack of a deeper theology.

8 – Mobilize our people
We have to get back to the priesthood of all believers (men, women, children, etc). I have already said a lot about that. This is another area where we have become what we despised. We criticized others for having priests while we had priests with a different title, minister. Instead of using 1 Peter 2:9 as a gotcha against other groups, what if we actually lived it out where each member did as is instructed in 1 Cor 12 or Eph 4 and did their part for the body? Mobilize the preacher and you will get a few things done. Mobilize the congregation and change the world.

9 – Relinquish control (from micromanaging to empowering)
The only way to mobilize people is to release them to use their gifts without micromanagement. The irony of micromanagement is this – in an attempt to retain control you actually lose control because people learn to just go do it and not tell you.

10 – Get back to discipling
We made our goal having a biblical worship service on Sunday. If that happens then we are the true people of God. When was that ever the definition of the people of God in the Bible? The people of God are disciples and those disciples make disciples.

Discipleship brings the above items together. It can create a unified vision for a congregation. It can allow us to dream…to operate out of faith and intentionality.

Let me be direct – all of these things are symptoms of the real issue – we have an identity problem. We don’t know who we are anymore and so many of us think there isn’t much to convince people of in evangelism because we are unsure about things ourselves (go back to deep theology). We need to reclaim a biblical identity that has to do with more than Sunday worship and attendance.

All of this points me to one last point – the road ahead is to be more biblical, not less. We didn’t do the things God told us to do and found ourselves in decline. God told us to do more than how we worship on Sunday. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can dream and grow again but it is going to come at a cost. The older people are going to need to support this. They are going to need to help us push this effort and lead this effort. We don’t do change well but maybe, hopefully, prayerfully, this time will be different.

We need to pray about this and ask God to lead us as we humble ourselves and admit where we have missed the boat in the past and present order to embrace a better future.

Last, I hope you don’t take this post as a criticism. I am trying to be descriptive of what I have seen and heard rather than a critic but we do have to assess things to figure out how we can do better.

10 Responses to 10 Shifts for the Future in Churches of Christ

  1. So let’s change the structure. Let’s let elders be elders. – responsible for the spiritual well-being of the congregation. For the ‘purity’ of the doctrine. For recognizing the wolves out to get the sheep.

    And let’s hold MEMBERS accountable for being the visionaries of the congregation, rather than making this the task of the hired hand – the preacher.

    Let all members (Which includes the elders) do the work, rather than a professional minister.

    You wrote:

    “Re-assess our authority structures
    The preacher is tasked with casting vision. The preacher has no authority to carry it out.
    The preacher is supposed to inspire and show the way forward. The preacher does not have the authority to take the congregation forward.
    The preacher has all the responsibility with none of the authority. The elders have all of the authority with none of the responsibility.

    And there is no reason whatsoever to place that responsibility in the hands of one man (or a ‘ministry staff,’ or whatever other term you wish to use for that.

    Let me clarify what I mean by that because I am sure, if you are an elder, you would push back hard on what I just said but if you were a preacher you would shout amen! Here is what I mean. If the preacher gets fired he has to pick up everything and go somewhere else. Kids change schools. New friends. New town. It is total upheaval. If the contribution shrinks it affects the preacher and family. The elders go on eldering. I am not saying that have no responsibility. They do. But in a practical sense the burden and strain falls on the ministers. I will give more details on this later.

    I am extremely well aware of this, from personal experience, so I am not speaking from a theoretical point of view. I HAVE been there, and HAVE done that, and HAVE the scars to prove it.

    If you are serious about “making disciples” as a Biblical model to be followed, please include the “priesthood of all believers” and the “When you assemble, each of you…” concepts, as well.

    • Matt Dabbs says:

      See #8.

      Our issue with elders is that we went with a business model but the business person just had to meet the checklist of qualifications in the pastorals without being mindful of what an elder should really be doing. We thought success in one arena should mean success in another. It doesn’t. It just doesn’t. When will we learn? Then elders select elders so you cannot change this system unless the elders get it.

      • Dwight Haas says:

        Matt, very astute thinking. I think we kind of misunderstand how elders were chosen. We are told that the apostles appointed elders in every church in every city, but we are not told how, meaning that they could have given the qualifications and then let the people choose. If Acts is any indications of the deacons, then this is probably how the elders were chosen as well. By the people who they were among.
        These days, the elders decide if and when they need more elders and largely they get final decision as well. I consider myself qualified, but due to the fact I don’t agree with the present elders on everything, I will not be an elder in the future. This is not sour grapes, just a fact.
        As you say we are using a business/institution model for our church.

      • eddodds says:

        1) CoCs claim Paul and then despise prophecy. I am certain that the fact that unpaid prophets tend to call out the sins and perks of paid clergy and arrogant elders has absolutely nothing to do with this theological practice / stance.
        2) CoCs claim to be “biblical”. In Acts, Elders prayed and fasted until the Holy Spirit commissioned Paul and Barnabas. When’s the last CoCs Elders congregational commissioning of the inidividual members of the entire membership fast you’ve heard of?
        3) CoCs claim to be “biblical”. When was the last worship service you participated in where the “leaders” asked 2 or 3 to stand and deliver “a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.”? I’m not saying that CoCs have to do this — I am just saying that if you study the churches where this kind of practice occurs, you’ll note growth. Perhaps God has a preference…
        See Fuller Theological, Hartford Seminary, the Vineyard Movement and similar (Third/Fourth Wave charismaticism).

  2. Ellis says:

    Dear Brother, I’ve just signed up for Kingdom Living and it is wonderful! I was a member of the One Cup, no class, no Instrumental, no,no,no segment of our faith heritage for over 30 years. I left the One Cup Church of Christ 8 years ago. I’ve been attending the Independent Christian Church (not disciples of Christ) and serve as an Elder. Fantastic article and I do hope the Churches of Christ begin to grow again. I still love all the brethren and gladly extend the right hand of fellowship to them. The ICC has its own set of issues and we continue to work on them.

    I’ll be praying for you. God Bless

  3. Les Taylor says:

    This resonates with me deeply. I’ve known some wonderful churches who don’t have these issues, but I’ve known far more congregations that struggle in varying ways with them. The real question is: how do we change? I understand how important it is that we be prayerful and ask God to help in faith, but there are some practical issues that concern me. For example, point #4 is important in this, but in my experience, most of those who have views that are based on tradition instead of scripture will fight you tooth and nail to defend their traditions over scripture (asserting they are one and the same). Division is almost assured in this. We don’t want to be divisive, but we can’t do kingdom work if we don’t change. It seems like an impossible scenario. I know our God likes to deal in impossible scenarios. But I also know our God doesn’t want us to be foolish in our plans. A good friend and mentor of mine told me a lot of the positive changes they had at their congregation’s culture (one of those wonderful churches I was talking about) occurred through a lot of lessons about grace. He also said they lost people in the process. How do you balance this? How do you show the utmost concern and value for every soul, and even for the opinions of others (i.e. Romans 14) while acknowledging the changes that need to happen?

    I appreciate your writing, Matt. It’s been an encouragement and challenge to me at an important time. Thanks for the opportunity to engage.

  4. Mark says:

    I appreciate Matt mentioning this topic. There are some things that I want to add:
    1) There needs to be a focus on the Gospel, which the cofC does not really like. Stop making your congregants envious of those in liturgical churches who get the holidays. I did not learn what Christianity was really about until I went through Holy Week in the Anglican church. The readings don’t get ahead of themselves. The people are put into the role of bystanders in Jerusalem during that week. A Good Friday service is rough, if you have ever been through one.

    2) Stop using litmus tests. Marital and parental status were and still are used to create classes of cofC member. This, along with age, wreaked havoc. This controlled who had a voice, got pastoral care, got condemned to hell, got a free pass on sins, etc. I remember a verse that reads “God is no respecter of persons” but the cofC sure is.

    3) Open elders’ meetings to the congregation and have semi-annual Q & A session. Elders should not ignore any question nor concern themselves with who asked it, but just answer it. In the government and private sectors, when management does not take questions or answer them, people start leaving. Also, elders need to stop using the preacher to do their dirty work.

    As to the gerontocracy, I said more than one time that people should directly ask the older people why they want to run off their grandchildren. What is gained by throwing them out of the faith? The Shema commands teaching the (grand)children not running them off.

  5. Rob Eby says:

    You wrote “but most churches are in decline”. NO!, Most churches are in numerical decline. In terms of spiritual impact, that is a very different measure. And maybe that is where we need to think. I say this as one who grew up in the Churches of Christ, and love my heritage, but really cringed when the only thing that was reported was “x number baptized!” Did we stay to help them, work with them, disciple them? No, we ran over for a few days and dunked them under the water, because that was what mattered.

    Okay, rant and sarcasm mostly over, but I think this is where we need to focus, are we making a spiritual impact? If numbers are your game, you get into power and politics (of all kinds, not just local/state/national) real quick.

    But please don’t stop writing and asking the questions you do sir. Yours is a needed voice in our fellowship right now.
    Thanks.

  6. ” – Mobilize our people
    We have to get back to the priesthood of all believers (men, women, children, etc). I have already said a lot about that. This is another area where we have become what we despised. We criticized others for having priests while we had priests with a different title, minister. Instead of using 1 Peter 2:9 as a gotcha against other groups, what if we actually lived it out where each member did as is instructed in 1 Cor 12 or Eph 4 and did their part for the body? Mobilize the preacher and you will get a few things done. Mobilize the congregation and change the world.”

    Are ready to quit your job as a paid minister, Matt? I know this is an intens, personal question. But it IS the natural consequence of what you are writing. I we have to be biblical about the elders, (Which I support 100 %), we have to biblical about our priesthood, as well. And that will cost – personal, family…

Leave a Reply to Ellis Cancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Follow

Follow this blog

Email address