A 2019 Gallop study found church membership had declined sharply from 70% in 1999 to only 50% twenty years later, and these headwinds are expected to get worse because each generation has found Christianity to be less relevant than each preceding generation. These declines span across Protestants and Catholics, genders, age groups, races, geographies, education levels, political parties, ideologies, and marital status.
Church membership is declining because every organization declines when what they used to do no longer matches what they need to do. So, what would have to be true for Christian churches to grow again?
One possible solution is for churches to become more relevant by being more Jesus-centric. Imagine if your church could use its organizational capabilities to focus on what Jesus said was most important: love, connection, and service. Imagine if it could transcend what the religious elite in the New Testament thought was most important: dogma, religious hierarchy, and inward-looking rituals.
Is it possible for churches to successfully shift from doctrinal conformance to personal, community, and societal transformation? What if the church’s focus, like Jesus, was on feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and loving the unloved? What if members became more spiritual through silent prayer, meditation, and by helping others?
Churches can help their members achieve together what they can’t achieve as individuals. When the apostle Paul helped to create the Christian church, he saw it as a spiritual body with Jesus as the head. He wrote that from Jesus, the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love as each part does its work. If Jesus is the head, and Jesus said love was most important, doesn’t it follow that love would be the most important purpose of the church?
What would need to happen for Christian churches to be more conscious, loving, connected, and less judgmental, political, and separated? Consider a framework of four biblically supported qualities.
First, a shared vision through a lens of Christ: We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us (Phil. 4:13).
Second, clear priorities through a lens of love: We can love God with all our hearts, souls, strength, and minds; and our neighbors as ourselves (Luke 10:27).
Third, a spiritual practice of meditation and silent prayer: We can meditate upon God’s unfailing love (Psalm 48:9) and his precepts and ways (Psalm 119:15). By being instead of becoming in the world, we will not be imprisoned by it (John 17:16).
Fourth, collective service for those in need: In the Bible, Jesus said,
For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me. (Matt. 25:35–40, NIV)
Many churches serve their communities with outreach programs. Imagine if these efforts went from being a wing on the Christian house and became the foundation of the Christian house.
The trends for Christian churches are not good. But are these trends unavoidable? Imagine if Christian churches could reinvent themselves and be the very best at helping their members and communities achieve what Jesus prayed in the Lord’s prayer (Matt. 6:10) and help to make Earth a little more like heaven.