My Church is Dying
I can still remember the green shag carpeting and the wood paneled walls of the rural Missouri congregation in which I spent my formative years. I recall sitting in the second pew from the back–my family’s regular spot–and looking up at the stained-glass window behind the baptistry with Jesus’ outstretched arms, as if to say, “Follow me.” It was in that space that I learned to sing the hymns of the faith. It was there that I learned how wonderful, yet challenging it is to live in Christian community. It was in that congregation that I learned to ask hard questions and to sit with ambiguous answers. It was there that I heard sermons calling me to work for justice in the world. It was in that seventies clad worship space where I eventually made the commitment to follow Jesus that would shape the rest of my life. I was baptized under that aforementioned stained-glass window of Jesus with outstretched arms.
This rural Missouri mainline Protestant congregation was never very large, and we were fine with that. It was, however, a congregation that was full of life. There were around eighty to a hundred people on any given Sunday and the wider community saw the congregation as one that made a difference. Over the past several years, that once vibrant, if small, community has been facing steady decline and what seems like an inevitable death. Attendance has decreased significantly; the congregation that once had its limited pews filled, now has fewer than twenty people in worship on a Sunday. They are having to engage in difficult conversations about if they can even keep their doors open. I’ve returned a few times over the years and it’s sad to step foot in the still green shag carpeted and wood paneled sanctuary and look at a congregation without forward momentum. While there are a number of factors that have led to its decline, the congregation has no clear sense of identity, nor a passion for sharing the Good News. The people are tired, and the congregation will almost certainly die.
The story of the beloved congregation of my childhood fits into a broader narrative of religious communities around the country, as church attendance decreases and overall religious affiliation continues a sharp decline. According to a 2019 Gallup poll, church membership has declined by nearly 20 percent over the past two decades. In 1999, 69 percent of all Americans were members of a religious community and now only 52 percent are members. Furthermore, the number of people who are not affiliated with any religion in particular, dubbed “nones,” has continued to rise, increasing from 8 percent in 1999 to 19 percent now. These statistics can be paired with the Pew Religious Landscape Study, last conducted in 2014, which asks participants with which religious tradition they identify. Pew’s study shows that around 70 percent of Americans consider themselves Christian, even if they’re not attending services at a church, down from 78 percent in 2007. These statistics have been staggering to those who love the church and don’t want to see it die. It’s worth noting that in San Diego, where I currently serve, there are more nones than mainline Protestants (by 11 percentage points!).
Overall religious affiliation in the US continues declining and churches are closing at alarming rates, yet I wonder if there’s something that churches could do to help stop the decline. For instance, I can’t help but wonder how my home congregation in Missouri could expect anything else but decline and closure with zero web presence. There’s no webpage. There’s no Facebook page. There’s not a single photo on Google images. There’s not one Yelp or Google review. You can forget about an Instagram or Twitter presence. Other than physically driving by the church, there is no way to find out the time of the service and there is nothing on the building itself to tell potential visitors anything about what the congregation values. The only way to find out anything about the church is to show up and walk through the doors on a Sunday morning. They believe that because of external forces in society they will decline and close their doors, and because of that belief, it will probably come true.
The congregation of my childhood is like so many around the country that have fallen victim to changing times and an inability or unwillingness to change. There was a time when people would simply visit their neighborhood church and where people stayed loyal to denominational affiliation, but times have changed. We are living in an age where fewer people are going to church (or any faith community, for that matter) and many have had terrible experiences of exclusion from churches (the LGBTQ+ community is a case in point). If churches are not actively trying to reach out to their community both by having a physical presence at important community events and a digital presence that communicates their values, they are signing their own death warrants. Churches are closing at rates never before seen and many have felt helpless to actively affect any kind of meaningful change in the trend. Yet, taking seriously the call to share the Good News that we find in the Gospels could reinvigorate churches and help them to find a resurrection in the digital age. It is time for churches, especially mainline churches that have been hesitant about evangelism, to embrace the Great [Digital] Commission.
Praise for The Great Digital Commission
“The church is being pushed to go digital, whether we want to or not. In this lively, wonderfully useful book, Caleb Lines suggests that part of the prodding toward digital may be Christ and his determination to embrace all of God’s world. Caleb stresses the importance of churches using digital media for specifically Christian reasons, is honest about the pitfalls and temptations of the digital world, and gives church leaders specific guidance. Caleb even ends with Ten Social Media Commandments for congregations who go digital as a way of being more faithful as God takes us into God’s future.”
—Will Willimon, Duke Divinity School
“In The Great Digital Commission, Caleb Lines makes a compelling case for embracing this new age of digital connection as one of the most exciting times in Christian history. For the first time in human history, we can shift the cultural narrative away from a story of fear and scarcity to one of love and belonging on a global scale. At a time when we are deeply divided, Caleb speaks to a pathway back to one another and the God who loves us relentlessly. Highly recommended!”
—Cameron Trimble, CEO, Convergence
“Caleb Lines has long seen what we all now know to be true: congregational leaders must engage with social media, faithfully shaping the church’s presence in the online world. But to be clear, this book is neither simply a how-to manual nor an abstract academic exercise on the subject. For those seeking thoughtful, theological, practical engagement with questions of ecclesial presence and witness in the complex context of social media, this book is for you.”
—Jeffrey Conklin-Miller, Duke Divinity School
About the Author
Caleb J. Lines is an ordained minister with standing in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ. He currently serves as the Senior Minister of University Christian Church in San Diego, as the Co-Executive Director of ProgressiveChristianity.org, and as the Co-Host for “The Moonshine Jesus Show.” He has a passion for pursuing social justice for the marginalized, demonstrating the Good News of God’s radically inclusive love, and proclaiming a relevant message for today’s ever-changing world. At the time he was called to his current church, Caleb was the youngest Senior Minister in his congregation’s history. Within three years, the congregation had already grown by over 50% and experienced much revitalization; a trajectory that continues.