While conservative Protestant churches have often responded to the changing culture with a fortress mentality (read my recent post on that issue here), many mainline Protestant churches have responded to the changing culture by essentially adopting postmodern values as their own. Thus, those churches have become increasingly more liberal in how they view Christian principles and values. Perhaps surprisingly to those congregations, this approach has seldom drawn in the community, and many mainline Protestant churches attempting to use this approach are still in steep decline.
Some of the reasons why congregations that choose to become more liberal still do not reach postmodern people are easy to understand; others are more complicated to sort through. Jay Guin, a lawyer from Alabama, who serves as an elder in the Church of Christ, has written two books on how that denomination is dealing with progressive cultural issues. He reminds churches, “Most of us don’t leave our home congregation because change is so painful. But if the leaders make me endure painful change at my home church, I may decide to shop around because, well, I’m already in pain.” What Guin is trying to say is that many people will remain in the congregations they have been in their whole lives because it is too traumatic to leave, but if the values of those congregations change so much that it hurts even more to stay, then leaving becomes a more viable option. As mainline Protestant congregations have become more liberal, many of the longtime members have either moved to more conservative churches or dropped out of church altogether. This has resulted in liberal churches becoming smaller instead of larger.
Paul Vanderklay, pastor of the Living Stones Christian Reformed Church in Sacramento, California, blogs regularly about how the liberal/conservative discussion is aﬀecting the Christian Reformed Church of North America. In discussing what happens when a congregation becomes more liberal, he writes, “It is diﬃcult when a denomination or congregation loses its conservatives, because conservatives often do more work and give more money.” Regardless of what one thinks about theology or values, it is just a reality that the average conservative gives more money to charity than the average liberal. They also invest more time volunteering. That means that in most churches, the more conservative members are the backbone of those churches. When conservative members are removed, the churches lose their leadership, their volunteer labor, and their ﬁnancial support. Even if a church that adopted more liberal values attracted a small number of new members, often the number of older members who are driven away is even greater.
It is important to note that we are talking about changing biblical values, not just adjusting programs, ministries, styles, or organizational structures. People will often endure stylistic, structural, or program changes, even if they grumble in the process. But when biblical values are discarded, that is often when the pain of staying becomes greater than the pain of leaving. Churches looking for ways to attract the next generation are going to have to experience some level of change. Change in inevitable. What churches must struggle through is what to change and what not to change. The evidence seems clear that the kinds of changes that are unacceptable are those that alter the core values of the church. Churches must remain true to who they are as beacons of the gospel in a hurting world. If that focus remains, then whatever is left over can be changed as needed and when needed in order to reach an ever changing culture.
Adapted from Dr. Dorsett’s book, Mission Possible: Reaching the Next Generation through the Small Church, published by CrossBooks, a division of Lifeway Christian Resources.