Over my 40 years of ministry, a common theme has been voices within the church proclaiming the imminent demise of congregations. When I was in seminary at McCormick in the early 1970s, most of my classmates were looking at what in those days were called “tent-making” ministries or they were going to work as chaplains, in campus ministry, and other very important non-parish ministries. They were convinced that congregations as we had known them for hundreds of years in this country were a part of the church’s history, not its future. They were wrong.
Today, the voices challenging the future of traditional congregations are louder than ever. I am always grateful for critics of traditional congregations because they are voices of reformation, warning those of us who are committed to traditional congregations that the world is changing and we dare not ignore it. However, the vitality of so many congregations in the D.C. metropolitan area and all across the nation is extremely compelling evidence that the imminent demise of traditional congregational life is nowhere on or even beyond the horizon.
The church that is “emerging” is the same church that existed in Paul’s time, my grandparent’s time and our time. Congregations today are strikingly similar to those Paul created as he moved around the Mediterranean. They are filled with people who come together regularly to worship God, argue with each other about who God is and what God calls us to do, help the less fortunate in their communities, take stands against empires and make significant financial and time sacrifices to keep their congregations alive.
There is certainly nothing new about small congregations. Paul’s congregations were small just as most congregations today are small. However, let us not equate smallness with death. I see no trend line over our 2000 year history suggesting that congregations are going away.
Obviously, a lot of congregations are getting so small that they can no longer call ordained clergy. However, it has always been a mistake to equate the health of a congregation with its ability to call an ordained pastor. We all know congregations with multiple ordained clergy on the staff that are anything but healthy.
Furthermore, we need to look at what is happening around some of the congregations that have become tiny. As I traveled around Indiana giving seminars, what struck me were not the dying congregations but the dying towns. Indeed, in a few places, the only buildings that weren’t boarded up were congregations.
We always need people in each generation to invent new forms of the church. However, I hope that most Christians will continue to pour their energy into traditional ways of making their congregations faithful servants of God. In our congregations, we need worship that inspires, engages and teaches; spiritual growth programs that deepen our faith; community ministries that transform the lives of those they touch; and a strong sense of belonging among our members. As an Alban consultant, the congregations I work with that are doing these things are growing. The congregations that are struggling at some or all of these things are declining in membership.
I don’t think congregational ministry is rocket science. Congregational ministry is long hours and hard work, staying focused on the core things the church has always done, and being disciplined in doing the work of God. We don’t need to reinvent the church. We need to be the church.