Procreation, Proselytism, and Church Growth: Developing a Theology of Church Decline

Last month, I flew cross-country to a meeting with the Seminary Stewardship Alliance at Asbury Seminary (KY)—an organization headed by Nancy and Dr. Matthew Sleeth, Will Samson, and Laura Leavell expressly created to forge conversation among seminaries on how they might connect faith to environmental integrity. During our final evening, the Alliance visited a “Shaker village” which, today, is little more than a tourist attraction and a signpost to a people from the past, to share a night’s meal together and hear a lecture from Dr. Richard Mouw.

The Shakers were a sectarian Christian organization that flourished in the early years of America. How might I describe them? Think the village in the movie The Village—simple, sustainable, off-the-grid, odd. Shaker theology was rooted two beliefs: the practice of pure celibacy and the refusal to evangelize. In fact, the tour guide told us the only way someone might become a Shaker was to leave their home, family, sex life, and possessions to join the village’s communal ideals. No sex. No evangelism. Just egalitarian, rural, communal, simplistic living.

Now, that might sound frightening (or appealing) to some, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone to find that there remain three Shakers in the whole world—all live in Maine and are close to death. Once the last one passes on, the Shakers will effectively cease to exist.

Understandably so, the Shakers had a difficult time passing on their faith to the next generation. No procreating or proselytizing will do that to a community! There’s a good lesson for us: celibacy and silence, over time, don’t do much for church growth. The church of Jesus must be willing to do whatever they can to pass the faith on. Sex and proselytism, as messy as they may be, are important keys to the spread of the gospel throughout the world.

In a sense, I suppose that the extreme opposite of the Shakers is the church growth movement that started nearly thirty years ago. And as we continue to read story after story reporting the decline of American Christianity, seems as though some are panicking. Others are not. But, all told, I’ve ultimately come to believe that modern Evangelicalism has no theological room for seeing God in a shrinking church.

Do healthy things really grow?

The pressing danger for those in my own Pentecostal tribe is that we uncritically assume any and all church growth is a providential sign of God’s hand of blessing. Likewise, we assume something that shrinks has, so to speak, “lost the Spirit.” An important element of a historic Pentecostal eschatology holds to the idea that before Jesus returns, there will be an unprecedented time of evangelistic fervor, societal holiness, and ecclesial sanctification. This is why so many of the early Pentecostals were pacifists. Pentecostals believe we prepare for the parousia. Like Jesus, we’re ignorant of the timing, but we certainly like doing all that is possible to make it happen quicker.

Luke Harms, in a brilliantly argued piece, deals with these issues head on. He rightly identifies this eschatological assumption as the underpinnings of many ills in Pentecostal missiology. If evangelistic success is a sign of Jesus’ soon second coming, then evangelistic success must be produced at whatever cost in order to create that sign. In more recent times, Pentecostals have been quick to force an unspoken policy down everyone’s throats that if we don’t succeed at the work of evangelism by leading a certain number of people to Christ every year, we’re failing. But such evangelistic quotas do nothing but create guilt, shame, and awkward evangelistic conversations that do more harm than good.

I’m quickly reminded about how John the Baptist comes to us in the Bible: “for the Lord’s hand was on him.” (Luke 1:66) Quite the generous statement from the biblical witness, don’t you think? Considering how this hippy-for-Jesus revolutionary died a painful, embarrassing, anti-climatic death at the hands of Herod while at a birthday party. How do those two go hand-in-hand? Theologically, this seeming irreconcilable paradox is central to our contemporary theology of mission—it is not only entirely possible, but commonplace, for the person in the Bible upon whom God has placed his hand to get his head on a plate. Or receive a cross. Jesus receives the same treatment in Scripture.

Translation: God’s hand can be on the one who appears to all to be losing.

This, of course, provokes a rather tender point for contemporary Evangelicalism: we simply have no theology of church decline. By that, I’m simply affirming that we’ve no theological room to comprehend a shrinking church as possibly part and parcel of power of God’s Kingdom. I no doubt suspect this is an attitudinal leftover from the dead Christendom/Constantian spirit of yesteryear which the church perennially channels every few years—a spirit, mind you, which only has room to imagine growth and expansion as the proof in the divine pudding. For that spirit, growth will always equal God. But that simply won’t do. Because if we assume that spirit, then God is dead. The church in American isn’t growing like it used to.

When the mind of Christendom takes over, it leaves no room for Jesus as the head. When Jesus is Lord, everyone abandons him at his death. There is no imperialism in that. As of now, our imperial ecclesiologies will continue to create little to no space at the ecclesial table for a church that isn’t showing signs of growth, expanse, and conquer. That is, until it realizes that it is living in the past. The church of Jesus can at one moment be shrinking in numbers and growing in power, grace, and mercy. We must stop channeling the dead spirit of Constantinian Christianity and wake up to the Spirit that is now alive to us: God’s Spirit.

Again, translation: God’s Kingdom can spread even if the church thins.

I propose a theology of church decline that…

  • suggests that God’s work in this world is in no way tied to our Constantinian assertions about conquering the world.
  • declares that God’s sovereignty isn’t by any stretch of the imagination brought into question by our declining numbers.
  • asserts that it is possible for the church of Jesus Christ to be on mission and be shrinking at the same time.

Do healthy things grow? In some cases they do. I’ve been quoted this apocryphal axiom my entire adult ministerial life: healthy things grow, I’ve been assured. Not sure where that came from, frankly. But as I’ve wrapped my mind around it, I’ve come to believe it is absolutely baseless. It comes from nowhere in my Bible. Truth is: sick things grow too. Deadly things grow even faster. Cancer, weeds, disease can take over. Does that mean they’re good?

Here’s my new pithy saying:

Healthy things carry their cross.