Too Many Churches?

Is it possible for a particular area or community to have too many churches? Maybe that sounds like an odd question. The more churches there are, one might think, the more kingdom work is being done, the more effective the witness of the church is, the more the good news of Jesus is being shared.

However, I wonder whether this is true. I believe I have reason to think otherwise.

Because it often seems to me as though there’s not so much a Church but churches. Many churches. Indeed, many small, struggling churches. In part this reality is a holdover from a time when people not only didn’t travel to go to church, but often they didn’t drive at all.

So now we have a good handful of churches in our small region, but fewer people attending each one.

Moreover, when I think of the many churches in our area, unity is rarely a word that comes to mind. I am referring to the fact that our local churches so infrequently cooperate on mission together. The last year of COVID shutdowns aside, churches in my area do not regularly serve our surrounding community alongside one another. We don’t get together for fellowship. We don’t work together to share the gospel with our neighbours.

Worse, one gets the definite sense that most churches actually don’t want to do this. Whether this is because of a preoccupation with their own institutional survival or because trying to work together with other churches is too risky and too much work, our collective witness to the good news of Jesus is divided and therefore, I submit, considerably weakened. Kingdom resources, spread out as they are among several congregations attempting to maintain some kind of ministry on their own, are spread thin indeed. With each church independently striving to serve the Lord, I believe less is actually accomplished for the kingdom.

Think about it. The structure of most local congregations has to support a part time or full time pastor, maintain at least one building (more, if there’s a parsonage), and be able to recruit enough willing volunteers to serve on committees, boards, and run programs of discipleship and outreach. When struggling with attendance and aging members, a lot of local congregations are less and less able to do this, much less live effectively into the calling given them by Christ. They end up in maintenance rather than mission mode.

For this reason, I think that our institutional structures and embedded traditions often impede our good intentions. They box us into the corner of thinking that if we as a local congregation cannot manage our particular system and fulfill our mission, then we must be a failure as a church. Dallas Willard, in his book The Divine Conspiracy: Recovering Our Hidden Life in God, writes of churches: “Your system is perfectly designed to yield the result you are getting.” Sobering thought, that.

And the result of all this? We have weary congregations and discouraged pastors, fund-raisers for aging church edifices, the blaming of declining numbers on Sunday shopping and sports. And, most importantly, a surrounding community that sees church–and the gospel for which it ought to stand–as a relic of the past, irrelevant and unnecessary.

All because we try to go it on our own. All because of pride, stubbornness, and a refusal to let go of the past. Or a fear of losing what’s already long gone–or well on its way. Or maybe even a simple unwillingness to think outside the box.

Here’s the thing: we can’t equate the survival of our specific institution, our local congregation, with the moving of God’s kingdom mission. We can’t equate the maintaining of our structures and traditions with the gospel itself. Yet we often do so. We become spiritually myopic. We confuse the wineskins for wine, and both end up lost.

Skye Jethani writes in his book The Divine Commodity: Discovering a Faith Beyond Consumer Christianity, “the only thing of value the church has to offer is the gospel.” But is that what we’re offering? Is that what we’re seeking to offer? Is it the good news of Christ that drives us, that instills us with passion, that gets us out of bed in the morning? Or are we instead too preoccupied with our own little kingdoms to be bothered with God’s kingdom?

Consider the possibility of some local congregations, perhaps even of different denominations, working together to provide a Vacation Bible School. Maybe because none of them can do it alone or even because it’s a powerful witness to the good news to do it together.

Perhaps a few churches might even have the collective vision to become one congregation, and therefore pursue God’s mission for their community rather than be content with or feel powerless about their continuing decline. What’s better, a few churches recognizing the possibility of joining forces and increasing the work of the kingdom in their neighbourhood with a sense of renewed purpose or resigning themselves to eventual closure and losing their witness to Christ altogether?

None of this would fit into our preconceived church structures. Indeed, our current ways of doing church intrinsically prevent us from taking these steps.

Do I think moving in this direction is easy? Not in the slightest. It requires vision. It requires humility. It requires courage. It requires people of sufficient spiritual maturity. And it certainly requires hearts more passionate about the good news of Jesus than the survival of our individual corners of his kingdom.

Change is painful, and this certainly applies to churches. But I recall a speaker once saying that all churches will experience painful change. There’s the painful change of gradual decline, of losing whatever gospel witness you once had out of a refusal to honor the past by moving into the future. And then there’s the painful change of moving on from what is familiar and comfortable into the future to live out and share the hard work of kingdom mission together. The above-mentioned speaker also said, “You have to choose your pain.” Sadly, the kind of pain most churches opt for is evident all around us.

But it doesn’t–and shouldn’t–be this way. Jesus himself–our Lord and Savior–prayed for unity among his followers. Consider these words of Jesus in John 17:21: May they all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us, so that the world may believe you sent me. Jesus connects our witness with our unity.

Now, I get it. There are sometimes deeper reasons for churches not associating together. Deep theological differences, and strongly held but differing views on current social and ethical issues, may sometimes be a barrier to working together.

But when this isn’t the case–and it often isn’t–then what’s stopping us from taking our Lord’s words more seriously?

Perhaps we should all be more open and willing to follow the call of the gospel, wherever it leads, and whoever it leads us to work with to proclaim it, instead of letting our possibly outdated structures and ways of thinking have priority. If we trust God for our salvation, can we not also trust him with our churches, with his church, and what he wants to do in and through it? Even if that means losing what we’ve always known? After all, wasn’t it Jesus who said that whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of me and the gospel will save it? Maybe these words of his apply to churches too.

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