10 Shifts for the Future in Churches of Christ

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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.

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