Is Hope for Declining Churches Really Possible?
A Pleasant Story of Hope That Doesn’t Depend on People
I have to be careful when I talk about hope for declining churches.
I have research showing why decades of decline amidst a changing culture in changing communities kills a church’s hope (breaking news, right?) Sometimes when I share the nuts and bolts of how hope works and offer strategies to get hope back, people leap to assume I mean getting more people back in church, of reclaiming the way things used to be.
I don’t. The glory days aren’t coming back; they wouldn’t be suitable for today’s world anyway.
The people aren’t coming back either. Or they might! Honestly, I don’t care.
(Ok, that’s not true. I care very deeply about reaching people. In fact, I’m beginning to outline some work on hope evangelism: “hope sharing.”)
What I mean to say is that from the perspective of a congregation amidst decades of decline, their hope shouldn’t depend on how many people attend— that’s too small a goal, too limiting of what ”church” really means. Maybe a congregation will have thousands, perhaps only a handful. Changing size categories may require some organizational shifts, but I’ve seen God do more through a handful than some megachurches.
Several years ago, I got to know a tiny little open country church deep in rural Kansas. It had always been small, simply a place for the farmers nearby to gather for worship. When it was founded, travel was by horseback, and the preachers were circuit riders.
But now, in the days of flatbed trucks and massive combines, most of the land is farmed from afar. When I knew them, they were down to an average worship attendance of about 5, depending on who was feeling well that morning. 100% of the church was in a small group— the Sunday School taught before worship by a particularly faithful man in their midst. The members were too frail to travel on mission trips, but they sent resources to others for mission. Their sermons were from a rotating list of Lay Speakers, a way to use even their pulpit in mission to nurture those God had called to preach. And it was wonderful.
Here’s a picture I took of their building:
This is the most hopeful church I’ve ever seen.
Was their hope dependent on numbers in the pews? Was their hope contingent on some vision of how things were in the horseback farming days when pews were full, and singing filled the rafters? Their hope dependent on nothing other than what God had placed in their midst here and now— and it was more than enough!
Even though they’ve since closed their doors, I still carry their hope with me. It’s part of who I am, because that’s what true hope is.
Do you see what I mean when I say that a hope that depends on filling the pews is too small, too limiting? Every person, in attendance or not, is very important, and I believe God wants each of them to live life to the fullest in Christ. But our hope isn’t in them.
Our hope is in God!
Our hope is in God, who walks with us on the road to Emmaus.
Our hope is in God, who invites us to touch his wounds when we gather.
Our hope is in God, who eats fish with us, enjoying our company.
God hadn’t “given up” on that little church in the country just because their numbers changed. They had hope.
God hasn’t given up on your church, either. Whether you have a hundred or a handful, either way, Jesus is there if only you open your heart to receive him.
For all my talk of the nuts and bolts of hope, of how it works, and of research-backed strategies to help people experience it, let us never lose sight of the fact that hope is always among us.
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If you’re interested, I did a video for my church this week that brings in some theology of hope. I’ll share more on that as we go along on this road to practical hope!