What my dad taught me about growing a church
I was born the year my dad, Travis Irwin, began…
LOS ANGELES — At age 13 in 1983, I moved to the West Coast. Relocating from a rural community in the South to this sprawling Southern California metropolis marked a major transition for a young Christian: More people. More congregations. More activity.
To say that I was like a kid in a candy shop is an understatement. Attending youth conferences, gospel meetings and weekend programs for young people was the norm for area Churches of Christ at that time. The youth had annual events and, in general, a lot to do. I made friends who remain my friends to this day. Los Angeles was a great place to grow up.
After ministering elsewhere, I returned to L.A. this year. I found a very different place. I am still seeking to understand all of the dynamics at work in the city’s churches, but so far I am not seeing much life. Though some of the change can be attributed to the pandemic, I suspect meaningful congregational activity has been waning for some time, and I find myself deeply concerned.
I miss those days of old. I am troubled about what we are offering ourselves and what we are presenting to the public.
No one person or group of people is to blame. Numbers in Churches of Christ are dropping everywhere. We are aging. With the advent of technology, ministry is done differently. It has just been tougher to be effective.
So how do we reverse our reality? Where do we start? Who should be at the table? What does the future hold?
First, don’t be discouraged. All living things follow a life cycle, and the cycle of our fellowship is trending downward. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, we were on an upswing, but we plateaued in the 1970s and 1980s. Now we are declining.
But death is not a given. Churches can rebound and rediscover themselves. New cycles can be initiated. Making that happen requires a lot of energy and wisdom. Let me suggest three areas where we can start working:
Meaningful change begins with the leaders. Our leaders must recognize the decline and be courageous enough to address its causes and create solutions. For example, if updating the church’s technology face is the greatest immediate need, then the solution is to find a church whose web presence we like and ask for help.
The church of tomorrow will have multiple ways to represent herself to the public. Technology, video integration, contemporary messaging and programming for multicultural and varied socioeconomic groups are new dominant needs.
Though Churches of Christ have a model of local autonomy, this should not preclude us from thinking in ways that will maximize our resources. The way forward should be considered with all options on the table.
Recently, The Christian Chronicle featured an article on the merging of the Kennedy Heights Church of Christ with the Indian Mound Church of Christ. Both congregations are in Cincinnati. No doubt, not everyone was happy about everything, but both groups felt their future would be more secure if they combined resources.
Their numbers are better. Their balance sheet is stronger. They are now poised to improve on handling the present and future. Congregations that need help should look for a congregation with which they can team up.
Our fellowship’s baptism numbers have weakened considerably. Many congregations have moved from being birthing centers where we, spiritually speaking, facilitate new births and care for new babies. They have become, instead, retirement centers where we spend the bulk of our attention taking care of people who are “old” in the faith.
I can’t think of a more warped way of existing than to stop evangelizing. We can’t be afraid to ask for help from others who are more effective and enlist the membership in rededicating itself to an aggressive evangelism strategy. This is not the time for egos or excuses.
We need a major revitalization. We can’t skate the facts. If our congregation’s numbers are bleak, we must set a table with all of the stakeholders and aggressively tackle the obstacles.
Leaders need prayer and courage. The church needs to reexamine the way it functions and serves. We were never designed to have all of our activity directed inward. The bulk of our money should always be outwardly focused on strategies to reach the world.
Let’s pray for an evangelism fire to be rekindled. Let’s recreate and better create a more stable and vibrant faith community.
JOHN EDMERSON is a member of The Christian Chronicle’s Editorial Board. He serves as associate minister for the Figueroa Church of Christ in Los Angeles. He is also a well-known song writer among Churches of Christ.
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