Vibrant Church/Vibrant Life

I just did an Internet search on the phrase “church membership” and these are a few of the headlines I found:

“Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Membership Drops for 16th Straight Year.”
“Methodist Ranks Drop for 38th Straight Year”
“Southern Baptism Convention Reports Baptism Rate Lowest in Decade.”
“Episcopal Membership Loss ‘Precipitous.’”

It wouldn’t have taken long to find similar articles about almost all Protestant denominations, including the United Church of Christ. One article claimed that only three Christian churches gained any members in 2006: Roman Catholics, Assemblies of God and Mormons. Church membership numbers are always a little suspicious. Because each denomination counts their members differently and they all rely on church officials to do the reporting it is almost impossible to compare results. Even when people are polled about worship attendance the number is often inflated because the respondents want to appear to go more than they actually do.

We don’t really need these statistics to let us know that church attendance and interest are waning. On a national scale, though there are regional variances, the overall trend is a turn to a more secular society. People are not just leaving mainline church for evangelical ones—everyone is losing. We can all see this in the world around us.

Given these national trends I have been very proud of the work we have done to maintain the membership numbers at CCH. This year we have almost 10% increase in new pledges to our stewardship campaign. Worship attendance is up and our membership base has stayed level even with a high turn-over in the demographics of our community and church. We have lost a lot of dedicated members over the past few years due to retirements and job relocations. In spite of this we remain a spirited and strong congregation.

The membership numbers are not as important as the societal values they reveal. The church is no longer a given in people’s lives. In fact, the church has to prove itself to people. We have to show that we add value to people’s lives before they will give of their precious time to join. And before that, our message has to be strong and clear enough to breakthrough the cacophony of each individual’s crowded life to even hear that our church exists. This is a difficult job. Paul Nixon, a consultant on church growth has said, “Every church in the 21st century needs to think of itself as a ‘new church start.’” Nixon helps any pastor ask: “Why would someone wake up on a Sunday morning and say ‘I think I’ll go to church today.’”

Nixon has served as a pastor at a mega-church in Florida, as the pastor of a new church start, and is currently organizing a non-traditional church in Washington DC that does programming in different sites throughout the metro area, but doesn’t have its own building (www.epicenterdc.org). He is a creative and innovative Christian leader. He is also the author the book “I Refuse to Lead A Dying Church” that our Diaconate has been studying.

The Deacons would like to invite the entire congregation to join them in examining our church through the lens of Nixon’s book. During Lent I will be preaching on this book and there will be discussion groups to explore his topics in more depth. Through these we plan to continue to grow as a vital and compassionate congregation.

As I have studied “I Refuse to Lead…” I have also identified how Nixon’s major themes also speak to our individual spiritual lives. So my sermon series will not be focused on the church as an institution, but on the movement of the spirit to stir life for each of us. This is a message that we all could use in these depressing economic times. So come to church not just to talk about the church, but to see how God’s spirit is still speaking to us all.

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