Is Church Decline Ever a Good Thing?

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Christ Giving the Keys to Peter, Pietro Perugino

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” John 15:1-2

Do an internet search on the United Methodist Church, and chances are you will see the words “membership decline” in the results.  Since the 1960’s the UMC has experienced a slow and steady decline.  The news isn’t all bad for the UMC –– see this article about how they are growing in Africa. Still, is there anything positive to say about membership decline?

Lesslie Newbigin, an Anglican missionary and bishop, said we must consider God’s big picture.  Read his words with my parenthesis:

“It may well be that for some decades the church will grow rapidly in other parts of the world (Africa), Christians in Europe (or the USA) may continue to be a shrinking minority.  If this should be so, it should be seen as an example of that pruning that is promised to the Church in order that they may bear more fruit (see John 15 above).  When that happens it is painful.  But Jesus assures us, “My Father is the gardener.”  He knows what He is doing, and we can trust Him.” 

He goes on to say that this is not the time for anxiety (perhaps like the kind we see in denominational programs designed to turn things around).  Rather, this is a time for self-searching, repentance, and a fresh commitment.  And we can be sure of this: “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:6)

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About Corey Sharpe

Where do we get our beliefs? Three theological perspectives have significantly shaped my Christian identity: Evangelicalism, the early Methodist tradition and liberation theology. From my coming to faith in a Baptist church and throughout my education in a Baptist school and college, I was nurtured by convictions that emphasized a spiritual rebirth, a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and the centrality of the Bible. Even when I disagree with certain aspects of evangelicalism, it has deeply influenced my sense of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. My seminary studies spawned my interest in early Methodism, particularly its approach to spiritual formation. Its leaders were convinced that only a foundation of doctrine and discipline would lead to a meaningful transformation of the heart and mind. In other words, having the mind of Christ enables me to be more like Christ. Life in a suburban culture obscures the increasing gap between the poor and rich, as well as the Bible’s close identification with the poor. My doctoral work in socio-cultural context exposed me to liberation theology, which helps me see redemptive history as a history of oppressed groups, written from the perspective of the powerless, about a God who is actively involved with the poor in their struggles. I am now the pastor at Huntingtown United Methodist Church in Calvert County, Maryland. Together my wife and I are raising 4 young theologians.
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5 Responses to Is Church Decline Ever a Good Thing?

  1. Coale says:

    The more important membership to be concerned about is the membership of souls being lead back to Gods Kingdom. If Gods word is taught the membership shall increase.

  2. Janice says:

    We know God’s word is being taught in church, but we need to reach the ones outside the church. This is not easy.

  3. Sharon Worthington says:

    Church decline in America is not surprising me-because moral decline is rapid in America. Also, we are connected to each other through gadgets-where in places like Africa-the church is a center of their social life. They gather strength from congregating together and the spirituality is catching. They are seeking answers-where we in America think we have them all and don’t think we have any need for others to tell us what is right and wrong-we try to find a way to make everything acceptable and our churches are too! America is confused because religion doesn’t take a stand. It is not just the UInited Methodist Church-it is religion in general.

  4. Sharon Worthington says:

    And I forgot the main question! We aren’t pruning the trees-we are destroying the roots!

  5. Carol says:

    I agree with Sharon. Well said.

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