Guest Blog: Why people are leaving our churches

In this three part series, Dr. Rodney Harrison, Director of Doctoral Studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Kansas City, MO will be discussing why people are leaving our churches. Dr. Harrison has led in the development of two Church Revitalization programs at Midwestern, and has 30 years of experience as a pastor and church planter. He can be contacted at rharrison@mbts.edu.


Part 1: The Missing Presence:

During a lunchtime conversation with several pastors, I was present to hear several church leaders discuss the changing demographics of their churches. The conversation went something like this:

Leader 1: “When I started in the ministry, we had a lot of young adults in my church. They were the backbone of our ministry. They actually wanted someone to ask them to teach, and always seemed ready to go on visitation with me or one of the deacons. When I look at my church now, it’s a bunch of tired, older couples who feel it is time for the younger generation to do the work.”

Leader 2: “I don’t have any young couples in my church. Once our youth leave for college, that’s it, they’re gone. I don’t know what it is about this generation, but you can’t get them to stay in church.”

Leader 3: “That true even in the mega-churches. While on vacation last week, I visited (a local Baptist megachurch), and it was full, but almost everyone was over 50.”

As I listened to this conversation, I reflected upon a recent “field trip” to a local Kansas City area church. On a Thursday night I was joined by two other seminary professors as we visited a local church that was being called a cult by some, and a refreshing wave of evangelicalism by others. The church held services each night, and the night we attended, one thousand people were present for the three hour service. Based on my observation, the median age was 20-30 years old. The preaching was not expository, but at the same time, it was not watered down. The pastor spoke of sin, salvation, repentance and holiness. And the people came, and continue to come to this church. Maybe this generation is not so adverse to church, as it is adverse to “church impotent.”

Currently, I am enjoying the privilege of having been granted a six month sabbatical to research issues related to church revitalization. A common undercurrent in the books I have read during this time, by evangelical and non-evangelical authors alike, is that the church today lacks God’s manifest presence. C. John Miller illustrates the problem well:[1]

Imagine you are the pilot of a jetliner. Suddenly, three engines fail, leaving just one running. Collision with the ground is only ten minutes away. In this state of ultimate crisis, the pilot needs to know only one thing…how to restart the engines…now.

If he is successful and power is restored, the pilot, his crew and the airline as a whole can profitably consider ways to improve passenger service, enhance airline efficiency and friendliness, and even give input on improved aircraft design. But in a situation that is life or death, the only thing that is worth time and effort is concentrating on the cause of engine failure and how to correct it. Other improvements are useless if that problem is not addressed first.

I am of the belief that one of the most frequent causes of church failures is the absence of God’s manifest presence. So let’s start with the theological foundations for His manifestation.

God is Omnipresent
A foundational theological doctrine concerning the attributes of God is that He is Omnipresent. This doctrine, that God is everywhere and that there is no place beyond his reach, means in one sense of the word that we’re always in God’s presence.

Psalm 139:8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

However, there is a difference between the omnipresence of God, His indwelling presence, and His manifest presence. A.W. Tozer wrote, “The Presence and the manifestation of the Presence are not the same.”

God Manifests His Presence

James 4:8 Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded

Matthews 18:20 For where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them.

Of course, there are many more passages that speak of the omnipresence, manifest presence and indwelling presence of our Lord.

If you have a bad case of the flu, would you invite your friends over? Of course not. And yet, in many of our churches, a significant amount of time and effort is spent “bringing in the people.” But are we inviting them to join a friendly fellowship of the faithful or a fighting frenzy of the feuding? Another way to consider the condition of your church is to ask the question, “If I was not the pastor (or on staff), would this be the church I would join?”
In 2007 I planted a restart church in Missouri. Within six months it was clear the congregation was not ready for prime time! Since having a guest attend one of the four Sunday School classes the church offered would be an anti-evangelism strategy, I led the church to use the 10 o’clock hour for AWANA, cancelling all Sunday School classes for a season. Since we didn’t have quality (or even mediocre) musicians, we discontinued congregational singing for a season. The objective for the next six months was to learn to love God, love others and love one another. On Sunday afternoons, the church went through the Experiencing God study by Henry Blackaby. Many in the core group had “participated” in this study before, but this time, participants were held accountable for completing the daily assignments and readings. That was it. No other services or meetings. By doing less, we were actually doing more, which provided me, as the pastor, time to disciple one of the men in the church.

After six months, visitors started showing up. The common response to worshipping with us was, “I feel God’s presence here.” That was the indicator it was time to start an outreach and evangelism program. Whereas before this, members were encouraged to pray for their neighbors, the church now engaged neighbors by bringing them fresh baked bread or cookies and inviting them to church. Within months (but over two years after the church started), growth became steady and sustainable. The greatest attraction was not the preaching, program or facilities (which were anything but great), it was God with us. And the man I discipled? He is now the pastor.
Many years ago (before I was a professor and kept good records) I recall reading an article that described the characteristics of growing, plateau and declining churches based on “feeling God’s presence.”
· In growing churches, members and attenders reported they felt and anticipated the presence of God each week.
· In plateaued congregations, members and attenders reported they felt the presence of God two or three times per month.
· In declining churches, pastors and members felt the question was inappropriate, and attenders reported they felt the presence of God once a month or less.

Although I do not have a reference to this survey, the results seem to be supported through my interviews with pastors, church members and attenders. So, what about your church? Is the manifest presence of God a normality or an anomaly?

In part two, I will reflect on strategies that often fail to bring results.

[1] C. John Miller, Outgrowing the Ingrown Church, Zondervan, 1996, p. 16-17.


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