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Challenged churches

All churches face challenges. Defining the biggest challenge can help congregations determine what can be done to meet it.

“Are we a challenged church?”

One congregation closes every 90 minutes, as Americans continue to walk away from church in record numbers. Five out of six Christian churches are smaller today than they were five years ago. It is not surprising that the term “challenged churches” is growing in use.

Definitions differ. Some will say a church is challenged if worship attendance drops by a certain percentage in a year. Others will talk about a sustained membership decline over multiple years being the lead indicator. Still others claim a church is challenged if its membership does not somewhat reflect the demographics of its neighborhood.

However, I am not sure if, “Are we a challenged church?” is the correct question. Because the answer is simple. Yes. We are part of the church militant, battling against “spiritual forces of evil” (Ephesians 6:12). This side of heaven, every congregation is going to face challenges.

Since that is the case, it seems the better question is, “What are the biggest challenges before us?”

When that is answered, we can ask the follow-up question: “What will we do to attempt to meet those challenges?”

What are the biggest challenges before us?

It is easy to focus on something that is superficial—statistical decline—when thinking about the church’s biggest challenge. WELS is not immune from what is happening to American Christianity. In the past ten years, WELS has shrunk by 50,000 members, a loss of over 13 percent of total membership. Worship attendance was in decline well before COVID. Currently, one in seven WELS congregations has fewer than 25 people in worship on an average week. Two in five worship fewer than 50. That is challenging. It means fewer people to volunteer. It might mean a tight budget. And it can be a little demoralizing to see a sanctuary increasingly empty.

However, while statistical decline is easy to see, it is never the real challenge. Congregations need to go deeper. What is the challenge under the statistical challenge? If your church is in statistical decline, what is the underlying reason?

Perhaps the real challenge is that the congregation is in an extremely rural area. Decades ago, the congregation served dozens of farming families, but those families sold the farm long ago. So the real challenge is simply that there is not much of a mission field around the church anymore.

Perhaps the real challenge is that the congregation is relying on outdated outreach strategies. In the 1980s and even into the 1990s, about a third of unchurched Americans were church shoppers. They wanted to join a church. Today, less than 5 percent of unchurched Americans are looking for a church. Trying to market the church in the newspaper or online isn’t going to resonate with many people. Letting people know “We have a great church!” is pointless if they don’t think they need church.

Perhaps the real challenge is that the congregation has not been interested in evangelism. People expected the congregation would grow from members having babies or WELS members moving to the area. The congregation did almost nothing to reach out to the lost. That does not escape the attention of the Lord. In Revelation chapters 2 and 3, Jesus dictates seven letters to St. John. The letters are addressed to Christian churches in Asia Minor. For two—Sardis and Laodicea—Jesus has mostly rebuke. For two—Smyrna and Philadelphia—Jesus has nothing but praise. But for those other three—Ephesus, Pergamum, and Thyatira—Jesus has both. Jesus cites good things he sees, but then he adds, “Yet, I hold this against you.” Jesus also saw things in those congregations that were causing harm. So he told them, “Repent and do the things you did at first” (Revelation 2:5).

What will we do to attempt to meet the challenges?

What is the real challenge your congregation faces? It is vital that a church be honest with itself because the answer to that question dictates what it does next.

Perhaps your congregation needs to repent of anemic efforts to reach the lost. Take all the excuses, all the fear, all the apathy, and give them to Jesus. Know that when God looks at your congregation, he does so through the lens of the cross. All he sees are people passionate about the privilege of being Christ’s ambassadors. Repent, praying like King David: “Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity. . . . Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, so that sinners will turn back to you” (Psalm 51:9-13, emphasis added).

Perhaps your congregation needs to rethink ministry strategies. If unchurched people are not coming to you, how are you going to go to them? Congregations of all different sizes are reaching the lost. What do they have in common? Their strategies generally de-emphasize corporate outreach efforts of the congregation and focus more on individual evangelism efforts of every member. So how are you going to equip and encourage the saints in your congregation to invest the time and emotional energy necessary to befriend their unchurched neighbors and share their faith at the opportune times that Christ will provide? (Congregational Services’ Everyone Outreach program can help you think this through.)

Perhaps your congregation needs to think about the question of critical mass. WELS has considerably more congregations today than it did in 1990, despite having 90,000 fewer members. If congregations are in close enough geographic proximity, a merger might help ministry efforts by allowing for a larger critical mass. Imagine three congregations, each with a worship attendance in the 30s, merging into one congregation. There are more volunteers. The sanctuary is mostly full on a Sunday. The new church can perhaps have a decent-sized Sunday school or choir. Ministry efforts are benefited by a larger critical mass. (Congregational Services’ Merging for Mission program can help you think this through too.)

Perhaps your congregation needs to think about its existence. The church that truly matters—the holy Christian church—is eternal. All visible churches are temporary. They open. They close. When a congregation closes, it has not failed. In the course of its history, that church served many with the gospel. The fruits of those efforts will echo for all eternity. That is not failure! Moreover, when congregations close, the members often use the resulting resources to support ministry elsewhere, perhaps even starting a new church. So that congregation’s legacy continues, even if the location closes.

Do you notice what all these possible answers have in common? Christ! We take our sins to Christ. We trust Christ to give us the cour-age and the opportunity to serve as the witnesses he has declared us to be. We realize that the end is Christ’s glory and that buildings are only a means to the end. We ask Christ to empower the church to be the church. (He will always say yes to such a request.)

So call them challenges if you want. But if they drive us to Christ—his mercy, his power, his mission—they are actually blessings.

Learn more about WELS Congregational Services’ resources and programs at Hear from several groups of congregations about how merging offers them opportunities to do more ministry, not less, in August’s WELS Connection.

Author: Jonathan Hein
Volume 110, Number 8
Issue: August 2023

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This entry is part 1 of 16 in the series lutheran leadership

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