I have the good fortune to be working with a mainline pastor who gets it and is working hard on the transformation process at his church. After he read my blog on my frustrations as a consultant, he wrote me an email that contains the following questions (reprinted here with his express permission).

“I was reading the leadership thread about church decline, especially in the mainline.  What is your take on this for underlying reasons?  Are people looking for a more conservative message?  Are people finding too many spiritually bankrupt people in the mainline?”

My response is below:

My take on the underlying reasons for the decline of the mainline are pretty much a part of my previous blog post on being frustrated, but let me not pull the punches.

(1) Pride, especially regarding the need to teach and push “right theology.”  I think the mainline’s theology, in terms of Reformed or Arminian or … or … are absolutely okay. We need those theologies to answer questions. The problem is, we’re desperately trying to answer questions that aren’t being asked, and that’s where our theology gets in the way. The other place it gets in the way is in “how” we do church. There are far too many mainliners who have married theology with an order of service, music, liturgy, etc. style. Far too many are stuck in the flow of worship that tries to accomplish too much … confession, reconciliation, celebrating the word, response to the word, blah blah blah. Someone who is seeking a touch from the Divine is looking for two things: A touch from the Divine in authentic worship that engages the spirit, not just the intellect. Second, they want to “hear” how following this crazy Jesus works – what does that mean in their real lives in terms of relationships, vocational decisions, financial decisions, even their health issues (I maintain that if the Seventh-Day Adventists ever get their heads out of the ground in terms of legalism that they’re set to be one of the fastest growing denoms in the US because of their holistic sense of Gospel and Life-Choices).

(2) Laziness. In my experience, the vast majority of mainline pastors of plateaued and declining churches are spiritually lazy as well as vocationally lazy. I get more push back on the need for being a spiritual model than almost anything else. In my experience, these pastors are too “busy” to practice the big three: personal Bible study, prayer time that includes significant listening and wrestling with God, and personal faith sharing. The refusal to be conspicuous spiritual models is astounding to me. Second, they are vocationally lazy in terms of doing what it takes to faithfully grow their churches. Instead of spending time with the unconnected, they spend 40+ hours in their offices doing mostly busy work. Instead of mentoring and starting small groups that make disciples. Instead, they hand off some curriculum or another to someone else and hope that this will be the magic bullet that will set their congregation on fire. Of course it won’t because small groups seldom make disciples. There is a lazy dependence on programs rather than is actually doing something.

(3) Leadership – the lack of it. Only 6 percent of mainline claim that they are leaders – in my experience, that’s about right (a Barna statistic). In fact, I’d add that 6 percent is about the right number of those who are effective managers as well. What I find is that most pastors are really good at going with the flow. They don’t want to make trouble for themselves (or ostensibly for the church), so they simply keep their heads low and try to let sleeping dogs lie. And so, little if anything actually gets accomplished. Of course, the rank and file folk in the pew, who are not disciples but cultural Christians (they claim the name, show up at church when it’s convenient, but whose lives are imprinted with cultural norms rather than Christocentric norms) are frankly just as happy that change is incremental within their church, especially since they embrace the twin values of personal comfort and status quo (keep me happy and don’t change nuthin’).

So, what happens when a mainline pastor gives up their pridefulness, their laziness, and picks up the mantel of leadership? They become a target for everything that’s wrong in the world, beginning in the church. However, first, the churches begin to grow. As the pastor gets out of the Christian ghetto and into the real world where Christianity and church are both worse than four-letter words, they begin to model their faith and come alongside spiritural travellers. As the pastor’s spiritual authenticity is verified, some of the spiritual travellers will make their way to the congregation. Which, of course, creates issues. When the pastor declares that the congregation needs to make changes in their hospitality, the cry “What about me?!” echoes in council, session, or board meetings. Old conflicts begin to emerge. A rivalry arises between us and them, with the pastor siding with the them (even if they aren’t). Tempers flare and even if the pastor had the foresight to develop and get a congregation’s Expected Behaviors approved, there’s trouble in River City.

That’s the time when most pastor’s “repent,” quit, or get fired. There are few real leaders in the mainline who will or can see the transformation through (80 percent of all transformation efforts in the mainline fail). Those who have the stomach and the backbone to do so face a year or more of a roller coaster ride. Good things will happen, the church will see some real growth (and at first it’s often real slow in coming), and many of the detractors will either be converted or they leave. But there are precipitous drops in the ride too. Good and needed people leave – especially if the pastor is too mercy-driven and allows conflict to drag on too long in hopes of stemming the loss of membership. The first ones to leave will be the intelligent ones who figure out quickly that this conflict gets in the way of faithful worship and discipleship and so they head for calmer waters. If the conflicts aren’t quickly put to rest, the next group to go will be the spirirtually faithful who have remained to pray for righteousness in the church and to support the mission to reach beyond the church walls, but who eventually cannot abide the bullies and terrorists so are compelled to surrender and leave. And that leaves the spiritually bankrupt bullies and terrorists, their families, their cronies, and the few faithful who will simply not let go. On the other hand, if the pastor acts too quickly and decisively, some of both groups may decide the pastor is autocratic and leave. Balance is called for in the process. If the pastor keeps on keepin’ on, and if the congregation follows, and if the pastor has a clue about what it takes to actually pull it off (i.e., they are either incredibly gifted our they have a good coach), then the transformation of even a mainline church can happen … but it isn’t happening very often because of the above issues.