Is the Church Dying? Part II

A while back, I wrote a blog by the same title as this one, promising a second part. For what it’s worth, the time between Part I and Part II hasn’t been a function of distraction, though God knows there have been many. It’s been more of a time of observation and reflection, reading of others’ thoughts and opinions, and assimilating some of their ideas while discarding others.

My answer to the question in Part I was yes…and no, depending on which definition of “church” was in focus—the church as an institution, an organized structure of unchanging dogma and doctrine or the more loosely organized group of those worldwide who seek to apply the principles of Jesus, as they understand them, in a tangible form in their everyday lives.

For what it’s worth, my answer is still the same. And I think it both good and natural. Energy spent in service of maintaining rigid structures in the midst of constant change is generally wasted—as demonstrated by the failure of countless organizations whose management refused to adapt to changing conditions or the collapse of buildings constructed with no flexibility, no capacity for moving with as opposed to against the forces they will always encounter. I remember the first and only time I visited the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center. I could feel that the skyscraper was bending every so slightly in the wind, and though it was a bit disconcerting to watch low-hanging clouds drift by the windows, I understood, at least, the reason the physics principle employed in determining which materials to use in construction were what they are.

As a lifelong student of human emotion and behavior in a variety of settings, I depend, too, on core principles I’ve learned through the years when I think about the church. Having faced the challenges of leading a membership-based organization (Georgia Writers Association) and of developing and executing a strategic marketing plan for a charitable nonprofit, I often employ what I learned back in college and on the job, as a marketing director for a corporate firm and my own small businesses. (I can feel the pushback already from those Christians who think of marketing as advertising and consider the whole idea of “marketing” the church abhorrent at best, but stay with me for a moment.)

Here’s the deal. It is much easier to keep customers than to win them back. In many ways, it’s admittedly more complex and therefore somewhat harder on the church and nonprofit side of things, because most of the time on the for-profit side, the “buyer” is also the direct beneficiary of the service or product, and it’s usually tangible, at least in a dollar and cents way. (You buy the cereal—and usually you’re the one who eats it, so you also have a front-row seat in evaluating the effectiveness of the product in achieving what it says it does.) That’s not necessarily so for churches, whose focus (hopefully) is quality of one’s spiritual life, a most intangible thing. Hard to measure.

At the same time, when we give money to our local churches and parishes, it is much easier to see the result – the improvements in the parish hall, the PowerPoint presentation of the J2A trip to England, etc. And that’s where the loyalty lies.

But that’s just the back end issue. The problem in the church today, across denominations, is that the average age of a church member is aging and that “customer” isn’t being replaced. It’s the new members we’re failing to attract. When you look at it through the lens of a marketing professional, the evidence seems to suggest that what we’re offering isn’t something people—especially younger ones—want and certainly not what they need. The noise of anti-this and anti-that coming from the mouths of many so-called “Christian” leaders certainly isn’t it. I don’t recall Christ ever holding a town-hall meeting to talk about how to depose Roman rule.

I often think, “What was it about Jesus that made grown men stop doing what they’d done perhaps all their lives – fishing, carpentry, tax collecting – and go with him? How was it that he made them feel that was so irresistible? What need, what hole, what craving did Jesus fulfill? What would be so compelling that I would drop everything and follow this guy?” And the answer I come to is always the same. If I know that you love me, you will have my loyalty forever. If I know that no matter what I may have done, you will never reject me, you will have my loyalty forever. (I don’t mean accept and condone my behavior, by the way.) If I know that we can differ in our opinions and get into heated arguments about everything else in the world but never lose sight of the fact that if God loves me and God loves you NO MATTER WHAT, then who are WE to draw lines?

If we care for each other, respect the boundaries of each other (including the boundaries protecting our individual relationships with God), celebrate the successes of each other without jealousy or rancor or fear…you will have my loyalty forever.

How can we offer what Jesus offered those so long ago? Isn’t that why the church was established in the first place? That’s the question the institutional church needs to ask and answer for itself, the “message” it needs to return to—the only one that has any relevance at all.

But it can’t stop there. A marketing “message” has short shelf-life if it isn’t true—cereal promoted as cholesterol lowering stops being exciting if your blood work doesn’t reflect that yours has gone down. When we as Christians figure out that we are all in obvious pain, that all the things we are trying to fill the voids in our lives obviously don’t work, that no man-made solution to any problem will ever be forever, then differentiating the message of Christ from all of the noise will be easy. But the marketing person in me is pretty darn sure that until we “get” that and live up to it, nothing we “advertise” about the church will make any difference.

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