It’s not a secret that many churches throughout North America are declining and this is also true among the Churches of Christ. The declining number of people committing their lives to serve as ministers also comes with the decline among congregations. In some ways, this is a crisis in the making, which I discussed in the previous Mission Alive blog post The Future of Church in North America: Crisis, Reckoning, and Hope.
There are various reasons for the decline among churches but it is also one reason for the push behind church planting. We need to raise up more ministers willing to plant new churches and/or campus ministries that are capable of reaching the growing number of unchurched and dechurched people with the gospel. Yet, one objection raised in the form of a question is why not send more ministers to revitalize the declining churches.
This is a fair objection but I wonder if the people who raise such an objection understand what they are really asking. I had several people raise this objection in response to the previous post but their objection seemed to assume that renewal among an existing church is simply a matter of plugging in a minister to serve among that church. However, that’s a bad assumption. The reasons why any congregation is in decline are complex and have developed over many years, so to think the solution is simply hiring a new minister is naive. It is an attempt at a quick-fix solution and when it fails, as most quick-fix solutions do, the problems will only increase.
Most congregations among the Churches of Christ are fifty years plus in age and have an ethos and habitus that is deeply solidified. That is, the self-identity of the congregation, how it perceives the gospel and the world around them, and the way of being/doing church is firmly engrained as the way of life. For most churches, this way of life was established within the first five to ten years of existence. More often than not, there are also some unhealthy theological praxes among declining churches. These may stem from leadership issues and unresolved conflict to even some misunderstandings of scripture that all contribute to the decline. In my book Gospel Portraits: Reading Scripture as Participants in the Mission of God, I explain how misreadings of scripture hinder participation in the mission of God.
I say all this to say that it is unrealistic to believe any minister can simply begin serving with an existing church and lead the church in renewal. I am not saying that church renewal is impossible. Everything is possible where God is working and Mission Alive even offers consultation to existing churches seeking renewal. However, for such renewal to take shape, churches must be willing to reconsider some deeply entrenched assumptions and ways of being/doing church. That means churches must make adaptive changes, which are adjustments and modifications that require new ways of thinking and new practices. Some churches seeking renewal will find it but some won’t and sometimes the path to renewal might be so disruptive that it might not be worth the pursuit.
I don’t want to be misunderstood. I am not saying that we should give up entirely on existing churches because I certainly have not done so. I serve as the minister of the Newark Church of Christ, which was established in the 1960s and is trying to discern a new way forward as participants in the mission of God. But the most effective way in which Churches of Christ are going to reach a new generation of people with the gospel is by planting new churches and campus ministries. These new churches and campus ministries will do some things different from the way existing churches have done things and we have to be okay with that. My hope is that Churches of Christ will support more ministers to plant new churches and campus ministries.
If you want to know how your church can help with church planting, please contact Mission Alive. I know that Tod Vogt, the Executive Director of Mission Alive, would love to chat with you. I also serve on the board of Reflect Campus Missions, currently serving as the President of the board, and would love for you to contact us if you want to know more about planting campus missions. The Lord is giving us a pathway forward and it includes planting new churches and campus ministries.
K. Rex Butts, D.Min, serves as the lead minister/pastor with the Newark Church of Christ in Newark, DE, and is the author of Gospel Portraits: Reading Scripture as Participants in the Mission of God. Rex holds a Doctor of Ministry in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary in Lisle, IL, and a Master of Divinity from Harding School of Theology in Memphis, TN. He is married to Laura and together they have three children.