As The Church Churns

Churn reducedMost people are unaware that the Trucking industry is in crisis. There are just not enough people willing to become new drivers, and the older truckers are retiring, leaving the companies desperate for new people willing to drive their trucks. At a truck stop a while ago I picked up a copy of The Trucker. It is a fairly well done little newspaper directed at, as you might guess, those in the trucking industry. The lead article was, “Wages, retention inter-related, TMW Systems study shows”. My response was, “duh.” I brought it home to Joy and after she laughed she said that the stagnant pay issue is not the only problem that the industry has in retaining drivers. The other, perhaps equally important issue, from the driver’s perspective, is home time. Most over the road truck drivers are expected to be on the road for 4-6 weeks at a time. They get a few days at home and then are expected to get right back out on the road again. Not many people are willing to do that anymore. Because of this shortage, Trucking companies are always trying to “steal” other companies’ drivers. Drivers often move from company to company looking for a better deal or more home time. Driver retention is often referred to as “driver churn.” The December 2013 article, “ATA Reports 97 Percent Truck Driver Turnover Rate”, points out that 97% is a drop from about 106%. When Joy and I started driving nearly 7 years ago, the first company we drove for started their orientation by citing the 106% statistic as applying to them as well as the rest of the industry. This company has tried, with limited success, to reverse that trend, but either cannot or are unwilling to change the things which cause the problem. “But what does this have to do with the church?” you might ask. Good question. I am not planning on giving a comprehensive answer here but will lay out some basic similarities.

I received news last week that an area church, one of the newer contemporary churches, was cutting staff and consolidating services. The pastor and associate pastor are biblically solid. The church had grown numerically fairly quickly to the point that they needed two Sunday morning services. But now people are leaving. I have watched this scenario play itself out in countless churches over the past few decades. It is claimed that about 4,000 churches in America close their doors every year. According to the Pew Research Center’s recent survey, there has been an overall decline in church attendance, but the decline in church attendance is actually rather small and the survey does not give a reason for the decline. “New Study Deepens Understanding of Pew Research Concerning Church Decline” claims:

Among four recurring reasons Dones [those who have left church altogether] give for finally exiting the church is the desire to find a community that demonstrates “a shared understanding that we’re all broken and in need of grace.” Rather than experiencing that sort of participatory, grace-filled community within the church, Dones describe church leaders and members “making lifestyle declarations and judgments without owning up to their own shortcomings.”

This is perhaps part of the issue. The decline is not drastic, at least not yet, and while a fairly large number of churches are closing, mega churches are growing and new churches are starting, but overall the church is shrinking as a percentage of the population. I would suggest that what we are seeing might be called “church churn.” People are moving from church to church and sometimes back again.

I thought Rex Miller’s “Challenges for the Church” was insightful. Rex is “a businessman with a degree in theology and communications.” As he looked at the question of older businesses and why some close while others seem to adapt and grow, he applied his observations to the church. On the business end one of the elements was:

2. Cohesive Identity: These companies “were cohesive, with a strong sense of identity.” In other words, they were relationally connected as a cohesive community. “Case histories repeatedly showed that strong employee links were essential for survival amid change.”

The sense of belonging, knowing and being known. The assurance that you matter to others enough that if you were not there, they would notice and be concerned. By applying the elements he discovered in the questions on business, points 2 & 3 in his analysis of the church have a similar theme:

2. Fragmentation: Most churches I am familiar with lack cohesion. They are so fragmented and activity driven they have little opportunity to develop strong relational bonds. Many will even critique themselves as running a mile wide and an inch deep. One strong indicator of this problem is the “churn rate” churches experience. Churn rate is a business term that calculates the number of people who enter, leave or change roles within an organization. A company with a yearly churn rate of more than 15 percent has a serious and quantifiable problem. Many high tech companies exceeded this rate, especially during the latter part of the 1990s. I would not be surprised to see many churches with an annual churn rate of well over 20 percent. What does it mean to have a completely new church every five years?

Lack of Identity: Part of this lack of cohesion stems from a lack of clear identity. Community and corporate identity are not the same as being purpose-driven or having a mission statement. Leaders and members have to spend time together in meaningful fellowship and service in order to develop both identity and cohesion. Once a week on Sunday or hit-and-run activities do not provide the context for building community.

This issue is a big one. One of the biggest complaints I hear from people attending church is that it doesn’t seem like anyone really cares if they are there or not. They attend regularly but, as Rex Miller points out, “Once a week on Sunday or hit-and-run activities do not provide the context for building community.” They go to church picnics and such but find themselves outside the various cliques within the church. The “church” as a group tends to take on the personality of the leadership which guides the organization. Real community and deep personal relationships take time, are inconvenient and often messy but are essential in growing a strong church. One of my favorite pastors is Ray Kolbocker at Parkview Community Church in Glen Ellyn, IL. We have similar backgrounds. Neither of us understood the church prior to becoming believers and our understanding hasn’t improved much since becoming believers. It seems like a weird club that you have to admit you are a sinner to join, but then for the rest of your life pretend you are not. Church folk are often loathe to admit having problems with their kids, finances or other issues because they believe that the other Church folk are perfect people with perfect families. It can get lonely behind the mask, yet, in all fairness, there can be a price to pay to come out from behind it, because of the human tendency to judge. People who have well behaved children may jump to the conclusion that the parent of the “problem child” is perhaps part of the problem. As a church, we must find a way to safely remove the masks. I am not a proponent of AA but when someone gets up to give a talk they start with, “Hello my name is ______ and I am an alcoholic.” They are not afraid to be honest, because there is a recognition that they are all in the same place. There is a level playing field and each of them belong. Church should be a place where people belong and know they are cared for, despite the fact that they are imperfect people with imperfect families. This is not an indictment of the church as a whole. Some churches do this very well – some have a ways to go.

The second big issue I often hear about is that the church is a mile wide and an inch deep in their teaching. Churches may be biblically solid but assume their people understand essential doctrine or have been equipped to do systematic Bible study in context. Because the individual church member will affirm a church doctrinal statement, little attention is paid to explaining in an understandable way what it means. Consequently, they are easy prey for cults and false religious movements such as Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons. Even members who stay in the church may be heavily influenced in their thinking by liberals like Bart Ehrman and Karen Armstrong, or the popular New Age spiritualism of Oprah or another more current guru. Stemming the churn of the church will depend on creating an environment and leading the way in building relationships as well as teaching deeply from God’s word, not only on Sunday morning but thorough other venues where individuals can wrestle with the deeper truths of Christianity or prepare for the opposition that every Christian will encounter in today’s increasingly antichristian culture. The church must decide whether to educate its people to defend their faith, or simply entertain them – or lull them to sleep – as the culture continues to crumble around them.


As The Church Churns — 5 Comments

  1. Greetings Rob! As a general rule we don’t keep links in the responses but I thought your site has some thoughtful challenges on this issue.

  2. Don and Joy,

    I thought the article was very good. You hit on some very good pain points that the church has to work on. However I would like to add some other things that I think are also factors. Aside from teaching solid doctrine, apologetics etc. the church also needs to teach Church History. Sadly, modern American Evangelicalism is ignorant of its history, the good and the bad. There seems to be this idea that church history goes back 50 years. I have met Christians who only know of modern contemporary worship music, and anything that remotely sounds liturgical is automatically Roman Catholic or “rote”. So it’s important that this is also taught.

    Another thing I think that para-church ministries such as MCOI and others need to have is a high ecclesiology. What I mean is that Christians need to be part of a local church under the authority of elders and partaking in the preaching of the word and sacraments. The problem is that a lot of apologetics ministries don’t do this enough. I see a lot of times some disparaging comments made towards the local church made my ministries instead of encouraging people to be members of local churches. One other thing I notice that seems to give the impression that many ministries don’t see the value of the local church is that they don’t share where they are members of a church on their websites. The para-church ministry is not he church, they are extensions of it. So one way that para-church ministries in general, and especially apologetic/discernment ministries in particular ought to have a robust ecclesiology and be encouraging Christians to be in a local church and if they don’t know where to go, to help them find one.

  3. Pablo, you are correct on needing a better grasp of Church history. Church history is sort of like a family genealogy which roots us in the past, grounds us in the present and directs our growth in the future. What were the important issues which brought about the various church councils, how did Christian thinkers defend against Islam in the 10th and 11th Century? What was the Reformation all about and why the battles between the Reformers and Anabaptists? Important stuff.

    The issue of being part of a local church is also important. It is too easy to become myopic and forget why we are doing what we are doing. One of the requirements of being a member of Evangelical Ministries to New Religions is being part of a local church to whom we are accountable. Added to that we are accountable to EMNR and to the Board of Directors of MCOI. The most difficult things for MCOI is finding good local churches to recommend. We know they are out there because I have met some very good, solid pastors and church leaders but they are sometimes difficult to find.

    • That is awesome that is what EMNR requires, however when I go to the site and look under the bios of the board members I see some good info on who they are, what they do, but don’t see the church they are members of listed. This shows a few things. 1. That they value church membership and the local church. 2. Accountability. We all need it, even apologists. If some apologists goes off the rails, who calls him/her to account? Other apologists? Maybe so, but that is the job of the local church to do. There should be a visible way to show to whom they are accountable.

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