Why Churches Change

There’s a debate among historians about the underlying cause of historical change: Is it people or societal structures? Originating in the nineteenth-century, this disagreement is still alive and well today. On the one side are the heirs of the Great Man Theory, who think people change history. It’s the Julius Ceasars and Winston Churchills who move the world. Judging from the books at Barnes & Noble, I’d say this theory is still alive and well. On the other side are the intellectual descendants of Karl Marx who say that impersonal forces like economics and class conflict are the real causal engines. There’s a similar debate in church circles about what causes churches to change for the better or worse, grow and decline. Is it church leaders or demographics?

Most people in the pews will praise the pastors who grow churches and blame the ones whose tenures experience decline. Ministers often do to. I remember a conversation with a pastor of one of the larger churches in the Washington, DC area, who happens to be a graduate of the same seminary I attended. When I asked him about what made his church successful, he attributed it to himself and his gifts. Incredulous, I asked him whether he thought he could take any of the countless plateaued or moribund churches in the DC area and lead it to health and growth. He said yes with one caveat: as long as the people were willing to follow his leadership unconditionally. I was flabbergasted by his lack of humility but intrigued by his theory of church growth. Maybe he’s right. Maybe it’s just a matter of having a shepherd with the right skills to corral enough sheep and keep them healthy and well fed.

There are two other churches in the DC area that make me think differently about the situation. One is downtown, the other in an affluent suburb. Both churches were founded by the same church planter over two hundred years ago; however, while the one in the suburbs has mushroomed in size, the one in the city has been in decline for years. My conservative friends would say the difference is due to doctrine, because the downtown church is more liberal and the other more traditional. But that confuses cause and effect. The city church is more progressive because most of the families moved out to the suburbs in the 1960s and 70s, leaving yuppies and the urban poor behind. Both of these groups tend to be left leaning. It’s hard for me to say that the pastor of the thriving church is doing a better job than the one downtown. A demographic shift seems to be largely responsible for their differences in size and theology.

And then there’s God. God often gets praised or blamed for church growth or lack thereof. If the church grows it’s because God’s blessing; if it declines, he’s not.  Although I find this value judgment simplistic, at least it assumes God has something to do with the fate of his churches.

While it’s hard to ignore the effects of leadership, demographics, and divine intervention on churches, my view is rather indifferent on the subject of why churches thrive or die. It’s not that I don’t care about local churches. I do. However, I believe the true church is the body of Christ, which is universal, immortal, unconquerable. Jesus said, “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). What happens in earthly churches is only a vague shadow of the heavenly reality. While God cares about the goings-on down here, they’re of little consequence compared to the happenings up yonder.

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