Monday, July 5, 2010

Ponderings from the General Assembly 4

Ponderings from the General Assembly 4

At the “Conversations” session which I attended, hosted by Linda Valentine and Gradye Parsons, I asked a question that has nagged me for many years, and which I also have heard from many people around the church: “How should we interpret and understand the fact that the total membership of our denomination has significantly declined for many consecutive years?”

Gradye shared his own reflections on this question and admitted that this was also an issue which has bothered him deeply. He said that in studying the statistics from all across the church and from demographic studies there seems to be a 20/ 20/ 60 rule which is generally true. In terms of our active membership loss, it seems that about 20% of our loss is people transferring to other churches; 20% of our loss is due to death. But most of our membership loss, about 60%, is due to losses “out the back door.” These are the people that simply drift away from the church; typically they are not angry; there is not an issue or particular cause that created their leaving; often their leaving the church takes awhile as they drift from regular participation, to less and less, and finally to no participation or connection with the church. Simply put, most of our membership loss is due to the fact that for many people the church no longer satisfies their spiritual needs. This is confirmed by other demographic data today which reports that the fastest growing category of religion in America is the “unaffiliated”, the people that simply have no church home and no active religious life.

Generally speaking, our membership decline is not about social issues or theological positions or style or culture. Our membership decline is about the fact that for many people the church is not spiritually enriching and inspiring in their lives. This is wake up call for our congregations. More than anything, we need to create congregations that are spiritually alive, and we need church leaders who live and communicate a vigorous and energetic spiritual life in Christ.

Ponder your congregation, how many people have begun the slow drift out the back door? Create a dynamic spiritual life in the name of Jesus Christ and bring them back in!

See the Presbyterian News article on membership statistics:

Ponderings from the General Assembly 3

Monday July 5, 2010
Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence

The book for the week at this year’s General Assembly is Phyllis Tickle’s The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why (Baker Books, 2008). She is the guest speaker at several events during this year’s General Assembly including the Presbyterian Foundation breakfast, the Office of the General Assembly breakfast and the Association of Executive Presbyter’s reception.

This book, which I have studied carefully, offers a sweeping historical perspective and a convincing argument about the changes we are living through in our culture and church.
At the Office of the General Assembly breakfast today Phyllis Tickle told this wonderful story as illustration of her thesis. She was speaking at a church conference in Atlanta during which a youth group from a local church was helping serve the dinner. While she was speaking she noticed that one of these young people stopped their dish clean up tasks and started paying very careful attention to her talk. She was, at that time, discussing the doctrine of the Virgin Birth and the ways in which the importance and understanding of theological doctrine is changing in the church today. She was making the point that many new, emergent Christians are not much interested in systematic theology and the classic doctrines of the faith.

After her presentation, and after most of the people had left the room, this young person approached her and wanted to ask a question. The question was about the Virgin Birth. The young person asked what she had meant in her statement that doctrine did not matter much anymore. This young person said that he read the story of the Virgin Birth in the Bible. He thought it was a beautiful, poetic story, and it was very important to his faith.

Phyllis Tickle’s important point is that this perceptive young person exactly articulated the great emergence that is happening in the church. Systematic, precise, intellectual doctrines of theology, like the Virgin Birth, are being replaced with the importance of story, image and mystery, like the Virgin Birth. This is a profoundly new and different way to look at the same Bible story.

What is the difference between systematic theological doctrine and stories, images and metaphors as foundations for our faith? In this difference we see the some of the Great Emergence which is happening all around us.