I have shared most of this information for several years now in workshops and lectures all over the country. The state of the mainline (Old-line) churches is not good. I frequently share the disheartening statistics on the dwindling church memberships and data on the number of churches that are closing in hopes that people realize that we have to do something different in our faith communities if the church as we know it is going to survive. And let me be clear. When I say “as we know it” I mean as something different than the ultra-conservative, fundamentalist, cultic churches, fear based or abundance promises that appear to be surviving if not thriving in our country.
Most of the time, I think people do not believe me. I am frequently asked the source of my information and other times someone my just outright challenges my numbers based on their own experience in their respective church. For the record, most of data that I use comes from an annual publication that is produced by the National Council of Churches. The NCC is dependent on numbers for the respective denominations and frankly they are probably softened. I have had several conversations with denominational executives that admit, off the record, that the numbers that they give to NCC are optimistic.
When I present these statistics to folks who have gathered to have a conversation about the benefits of moving in a more progressive direction in our churches, I must admit, I have become a bit desensitized to them. They are just numbers, after all, and frankly they help me make a case for change.
But I recently did a workshop that was different. It was painful, very painful, actually. It was a relatively small turnout, maybe a little less than fifty people both days. Turned out there were people from about ten churches represented over the day. The average age of those in attendance was probably something over 70 years. The first presentation was about the state of the church, when I take a close look at the status of our beloved denominational churches. No one challenged my numbers or even seemed surprised. They were clearly more interested in solutions, solutions that were probably too little too late for most of them.
During the break for lunch I had planned to take a quiet walk to get centered and maybe a little refreshed. One gentleman asked if he could talk to me for just a minute. Turns out he was really distraught. Did I have any idea, he wanted to know, what his dying church could do? He told me that he had been part of his church for over 50 years. Apparently they were going to have to close their doors after the first of the year. What do we do, he asked again?
I encouraged him to find another church or start a house church with the ten or twelve people who were still there. He nodded his head like he agreed but his obvious pain hit me. We chatted for another minute or two but I felt helpless.
As I headed off on my planned walk, a woman who had been standing a few feet away came up to me before I could take three steps and asked if she could speak to me just for a minute. She explained that she also was from another church that was closing. She apparently had overheard the conversation I had just had. The circumstances were a little different. They had a building to sell and hoped to start a faith community in a storefront. She wanted to know if I thought it would work. I asked what her little group planned to do that was different from what they had been doing when they had their own building. She looked at me for a long time and then with tears in our eyes she said she didn’t know. “We are all pretty old you know,” she said wearily. I was at a total loss for words. Without thinking I put my arms around this loyal, dedicated, faithful old woman and just hugged her. It
did not seem right. Here was this woman who had served her church for most of her eight decades. And now, in the years when the church should have been serving her, her beloved church was dissolving before her eyes.
That is when it hit me. My statistics were no longer just numbers. They were real hurting people who have lost their beloved churches, during a time in their respective lives when they most needed them. It turns out that there was one other church that was represented at this weekend event that will be closing soon as well. The story the folks people shared from that church was a little different. But their pain was the same. I was not certain if all of these folks were there in hopes of finding some miraculous idea that might save their respective churches or if they were there to simply share their stories. Either way I have been able to get them out of my mind and my heart.
I hope someone got something out of our time together. I know I did, but it was a painful learning experience.