You can find numerous articles attributing the decline in Mainline Protestantism to the church being stuck in the past, not moving fast enough, not being visitor or new member friendly, not being Open and Affirming, not being racially diverse, being too desperate, etc etc.
Those are certainly all the places to start when it comes to church growth.
But I've seen concrete, step-by-step solutions offered to all of those problems.
There is one issue I haven't seen addressed anywhere, and certainly have not seen a clear cut path offered to remedy this fact.
It comes down to this one word: GEOGRAPHY.
For many churches, it's in our very name.
The First Congregational Church of Newenglandville.
United Methodist Church of Generictown.
Third Presbyterian Church of Southerncity.
Our churches are defined by our denomination and our location.
Our very identity is limiting our scope.
Imagine your church is located in a town of 15,000.
There are 14 churches/synagogues/mosques/temples/etc. in this hypothetical town.
Assuming an even spread of people who identify with one of those 9 places of worship, and adding in a category for people who identify with none of those religious institutions, that means as the First Congregational Church of Newenglandville, you have limited your potential clientele to 1,000 souls.
Some studies show that in many places, 15-45% of people consider themselves unaffiliated. That means your potential clientele is limited to more like 910 best case scenario and 589 worst case scenario.
So let's assume best case scenario, you've got 1,000 people who would be potential church members.
It wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility, that 200 of them decide your church isn't for them because they don't like the minister. And maybe another 200 think the church is too liberal, or too conservative, or they don't like the music. So now you've got 600 people who "go" to your church.
Of that 600 people who "go" to your church, 200 only show their faces on Christmas and Easter. And another 200 only come every 6-8 weeks. So now, by defining your church as the church that serves Congregationalists in Newenglandville, from the very start, you've limited yourself to a pool of 200 people likely to attend on a weekly or semi-weekly basis.
Say your annual budget with two full time ministers is $500,000. That's a heavy financial burden to put on 200 people. That means, people attending are offering $2,500 a year, which translates to every person attending putting $50 in the plate every single week of the year.
What's that you say? Most people just reach in their wallet and put in the smallest bill they find? Thanks for that crumpled up $5! The church, surprisingly, is not making its budget, so you have to cut your second minister. Now you have only one minister to serve the 600 people in the community who identify with your church. People feel less connected to the institution because they're getting less and less face time with the solo minister. Your solo minister has less and less time to create quality worship experiences, so less and less people are attending. Pretty soon, your solo minister is being cut to a part-time minister. And now you're screwed. You're caught in a downward spiral of irrelevance.
Churches are "dying" because of all of that other important stuff. But also, churches are dying because the numbers are against us from the start, just because of the basic premise of church as a geographically confined community. Churches are dying because from the start in American Christianity, we defined ourselves by geography.
Here in Connecticut, in the early colonial days, in order to incorporate as a town, you had to first establish and get permission to have a church. The church defined the town. But now, it's reversed, and the town defines the church. And that's a problem.
It's no coincidence that the churches I've seen thrive are churches who have members coming from hours away on a regular basis.
Professional sports franchises have faced down a similar hurdle. You can map their fans onto a literal map of the US.
Like church, at first this geographic identity was a source of strength. It helped build a sense of community. But at some point, that geographic boundary becomes a hindrance to growth.
Enter: Fantasy Sports.
Fantasy Sports Leagues have become an industry unto themselves. Whether this was an intentional marketing move or a grassroots movement, the teams are reaping the benefits.
In the old days, if you lived in Boston, you watched the Patriots play and maybe some other rival teams from nearby locations, but the average sports fan wasn't quite as concerned about watching other teams play. But now, with Fantasy Leagues, "your team" is no longer confined by geography, or even an actual team. If you live in Boston, you'll watch the Patriots play because their your city's team, but you'll watch the Sea Hawks, the Giants, and the Bears with passion because "your team" has players spread out across the country.
What's our Fantasy League in the church? How do we build a community that is not confined by geography?
My Connecticut church's Facebook Page has followers from Canada all the way to Nigeria, but that's peripheral. We've also done a lot of great work building local and global partners, from Bridgeport to Jamaica to Palestine, but that's different institutions connecting across borders, not a single ministry open to a wider population. My former church in Boston had people listening weekly to the worship services online as far away as China, but that's only passive participation.
The brilliance of the Fantasy League is the active participation. People gain a sense of involvement and even control. How can we redefine our church's purpose in a way that defies geographic boundaries while still building an authentic, engaged, and meaningful community of Christ? As Ephesians 2 says, Jesus came to preach peace to those who are far off and to those who are near, for we are no longer strangers and aliens, but we are citizens with the saints.
Maybe we need to think bigger.
Maybe we need more nationally recognized ministries and ministers like Rob Bell.
Or maybe the answer is to build online communities like the Salt Project or First UCC of Second Life.
Or I just discovered this quirky online community started by Joseph Gordon Levitt called "Hit Record" that is centered around the idea of collaborative art. Isn't that what church is supposed to be? A community that works together to collaboratively and creatively explore and express the meaning of life?
Or what if we built a nomadic church? A church designed around the idea of pilgrimage? Not confined by a single building or a single space.
Maybe this is already happening, and I just don't know about it. So send me your stories. Share some of the ways your church or community of faith has found a way to transcend borders, to not define yourselves by limits, but by possibility, to not define yourself by your local community but by the global community.
As an a addendum to this posting...
After I wrote this post, I heard this great two-part podcast on This American Life, called "The Problem We All Live With," Part I and Part II, named after the Norman Rockwell painting of Ruby Bridges.
It chronicles some modern struggles of desegregation in America's public schools.
I love this two-part series for so many reasons. It reminds us that systemic racism is not a thing of the past. It reminds us that perfectly well-intentioned people often inflict a lot of hate.
It also provides a great lesson for the church around this idea of geography that I discussed above. Schools, like church, were founded with geography in mind. Our public schooling system was founded to be run by and to serve the local community in which they reside.
That's why I love Part II of this series. Part II examines a case from Hartford, CT where the school system tries to use incentivize desegregation. As it relates to my above rantings, the Hartford school system re-imagined what public schooling can look like if it's not confined by geography.
As church, we are supposed to live above the injustices of the mundane world. We are supposed to provide a glimpse of God's world.
If we as a church continue to define ourselves by geography, we will continue to be defined by the unjust segregation of this world. Instead of providing an example of what could be, we will be feeding the fire of what is. Instead of providing an example of justice and diversity, one body with many members, we will be a hand disconnected, segregated from the foot, and the heart, and the brain.
Overcoming geography is an imperative of our faith. The New Testament is story after story of Jesus and the Apostles trying to overcome mundane and social borders. It's time for the church to be the church.