In our Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Abingdon,
1990), Stanley Hauerwas and I said that there was much a-theism in the
contemporary church. Atheism? We go about evoking vague spiritual
sensibilities in our listeners (preaching), soothing the anxieties of
the affluent (pastoral care), keeping the machinery oiled (church
administration) as if God didn’t matter.
Most of us began worrying about our membership loses with the publication of Dean Kelly’s Why Conservative Churches Are Growing (Harper
& Row, 1977). Kelly’s thesis, as best I remember, was not simply
that conservative churches were growing because they were strict and
conservative (although their relatively high demands upon their members
was a positive growth factor) but rather because these churches kept
themselves energetically focused on the main business of religion —
making meaning for their members. When churches become distracted,
seeing themselves as just another volunteer service organization, or
one more friendly social club, they decline. The business of churches,
said Kelly, is meaning in God.
In the succeeding years, we
pastors were deluged by studies and books on church growth and decline.
Some said Kelly had neglected certain sociological factors; that he had
made too much of the intellectual/theological basis for church growth.
They pointed out that the mainline protestant birthrates had declined
since the 1950’s. Most mainline growth comes through births to members,
therefore the decline.
Then a book by C. Kirk Hadaway and David A. Roozen, Rerouting the Protestant Mainstream: Sources of Growth and Opportunities for Change
(Abingdon, 1995) showed the fruit of decades of studies of church
growth and decline. As their title shows, Hadaway and Roozen, two
distinguished observers of the mainline church, tried to get beyond
analysis and more toward positive prescription.
We live in a
buyer’s market, as far as religion is concerned, say Hadaway and
Roozen. And that’s not completely bad. Having had a virtual monopoly on
American religious life, today’s mainline protestants must now adapt to
a consumeristic culture where people shop for a church, where people
demand quality, and where people drop their church if it doesn’t meet
Too often those demands are identified as an
upbeat worship service, a clean nursery, a big parking lot — which are
important factors. However, Hadaway and Roozen highlight a demand that
echoes some of Kelly’s earlier claims. They say that, when all the
factors are studied, "the key issue for the churches seems to be a
compelling religious character…not whether the content of that character is liberal or conservative" (p. 69).
some time I’ve believed that Mainline Protestantism is in trouble
because we provided people with the theological rationale not to go to
church. We gave them a theology of secularity. Hadaway and Roozen seem
to agree. Church cannot be a sanctified form of Rotary. We must
clearly, intentionally, relentlessly be determined to be a place where
we meet God and God in Jesus Christ meets us.
Hadaway and Roozen
tell the delightful story of a Roman Catholic congregation that opened
their worship with a time of friendly community and handshaking. The
priest said, "It would be a shame to leave here without knowing those
Then, with a twinkle in his eye he said, "It would be a much greater shame to leave here without knowing God!"
The congregation erupted into applause as if to affirm this is the reason why we are here.
Hadaway and Roozen are explicit:
"To grow and to continue growing, it is necessary for each mainstream church to
become of vital religious institution, vibrant with the presence of God. It must
develop a clear religious identity, a compelling religious purpose, and a
coherent sense of direction that arises from that purpose" (p. 86).
strong sense of identity and a compelling vision are the two essential
characteristics for a vibrant congregation. Hadaway and Roozen are
critical of Kelly and others who believe that high demands,
conservative theology, or strict expectations are the key.
desperately need leaders, say Hadaway and Roozen, leaders who are
dissatisfied with decline, who refuse to bow to sociological
determinism, who emphasize the distinctive, spiritual, God dimensions
Halford Luccock, that great teacher and preacher,
told the story of the Methodist congregation, somewhere in the remote
Dakotas, who suffered a severe blizzard one winter. The snow was high.
Even the mail did not get through for a week. That meant that the
pastor and congregation had no clue what was the denominational
emphasis for that week. They did not if know this Sunday in February
was United Nations Sunday, or the Festival of the Christian Home
Sunday, or what. So, said Luccock, the pastor strode embarrassed before
the congregation that Sunday and said that, "In the absence of any
other reason for gathering today, we’ll just worship God."
(This is Tim speaking now) What two things do you think are the two most essential characteristics for a vibrant congregation?