The Indispensable Church


People don’t need to go to church.

At least that’s how the majority of people in America act.  Less than 18% of the population attends church on any given Sunday.  In the U.S. we are chasing downhill Europe’s church attendance rate of 7%, and David Olson predicts by 2020 we’ll be halfway there.  And that is precisely our problem:  we’re stuck on Sunday morning church attendance as both the measure of a church’s health, and an indicator of a person’s spiritual life.

The question that church leaders need to ask now is not, “How can we get more people to come to church?” We’ve been asking that question since the numbers started turning down in the 1970s.  All our solutions together haven’t turned the tide of declining church attendance.  Throw in all the megachurches, all the church growth seminars, all the church marketing, the millions spent on programs, and the kitchen sink, and the result is the same:  people continue to stay away from church in droves.

The question we need to be asking is, “How can church become indispensable to a community?”  People don’t come to church because church isn’t essential to their lives.  Church is a take-it-or-leave-it experience, and most are leaving it.

Our challenge is to make our churches indispensable to our communities.  The well-worn, but telling question — “If your church closed tomorrow, would anybody notice?” — has been answered by millions of Americans with a resounding “No.”

But, I am not advocating a return to “attractional church” programs and activities, either.  Rather I am advocating the following:

  1. Sunday morning worship isn’t the most important thing we should be doing.
  2. Missional isn’t missional until people outside the church notice.
  3. The unchurched will tell us how we can be indispensable to them.

Those three ideas all reflect the need to change perspectives from our self-congratulatory, self-validating point of view to an outsider point of view.

Here’s an example:  In North Carolina, Crossfire United Methodist Church got started because one biker (the Harley riding kind) had been befriended by a member of the dying Moravian Falls United Methodist Church.  When Alan Rice, the UM district superintendent, showed up to close Moravian Falls, Duncan Overrein showed up on his Harley and wouldn’t leave until Alan promised him to keep the church open.

But, the old church congregation was too small to sustain the church, so the old Moravian Falls church died and the new Crossfire UM Church was born in the old church building.  Now 110-plus people, bikers and others, ride from 30-40 miles away each Sunday to come to church.

But Sunday isn’t all they do, or even the most important thing they do.  They help each other.  They repair houses, fix cars, buy groceries, care for the sick, pray for their brothers and sisters.  Crossfire is buying an old abandoned refrigerated warehouse as their new home.  Part of the refrigerated space they’ll rent out, but they intend to start a beef aging business there, too.

The church has become indispensable to the community of bikers and their friends and families.  It’s there because one pastor listened to one long-haired, do-rag wearing biker who wanted a church for people like him.  Crossfire doesn’t have any problem with attendance, except they’re outgrowing the old Moravian Falls building.  They don’t have any problem with wondering how to get people to come.  Instead they go into the community to families in need, to those who are sick, to brothers in jail, and they listen to them.

I want our church to become indispensable to our community.  I want us to touch more lives during the week than we have bodies in the pews on Sunday.  I want people to ask us to stay in business because we’ve made a difference in their lives.

I am repeatedly drawn to the Celtic Christian abbeys.  Those early monks built their monastic compound at the crossroads, or next to a village.  The abbey became the center of the community.  It became necessary for the community’s survival because they fed people, cared for the sick, gave shelter to the homeless, provided refuge for the weary and wanted, and lived out the Gospel in tangible and essential ministries.

What do you think? Is your church indispensable in your community?  Would anyone notice if your congregation folded?  What are you doing to become indispensable to the people around you?

8 thoughts on “The Indispensable Church”

  1. This doesn’t exactly fit what you’re talking about, but we’re getting there. One of the ministries we just added at our church (that I’m leading) is a military ministry. We live in a military-heavy community and reaching this population would indeed help us be indispensable. At least that’s how I see it, but I’m in the Navy, so I’m a bit biased. Thoughts?

  2. Great post! Gordon Cosby, Church of the Saviour in DC, built a missional church by focusing on the inward and outward journey-roughly the same as spiritual formation and social action respectively. They kept their Sunday morning attendance intentionally small, so they could maintain a high level of commitment. The sad, and perhaps telling, thing is that if I found a church in my community with a high level of commitment and requirement for service, I’m not sure I’d join. My life is so busy right now, I haven’t the time or energy. Or is it that my priorities are wrong? Either way, it’s just another reminder that if we want to see the problem with the church, we only need to look in the mirror.

  3. Dan, I think you’re right on it. Obviously most churches will not be indispensable to every segment of their community. But to find one or more niches where you can make a transforming difference is the key, I think. To be indispensable to at least one slice of your demographic pie. Military is certainly an area where a church with the right focus could make a tremendous impact. Military issues are very different from civilian issues for one. Sounds like you guys are on the right track.

    J.T., thanks for reminding me of Gordon Cosby, one of my favorites. I really didn’t have them in mind when I wrote this, but they fit well. I’m not necessarily advocating for the Church of the Savior model everywhere. I think they were a type of neomonastic community before anybody had thought of that word. But, a church that is focused outwardly to make a difference is what I’m after. Of course, as Elizabeth O’Connor’s book points out, the journey outward requires the corresponding journey inward for that type of missional engagement.

    Good conversation about this idea, and I’ll be saying more about it in the future. Thanks.

  4. I feel a bit different , faith is indispensable , the Church is not , i mean how corrupt are most priests today, faith in the word of God is what matters like resting on sabbath as the Bible says

    1. While I agree that personal faith is the foundation of our relationship with God, churches can be indispensable, and the Church as a whole is certainly indispensable to God’s plan. Paul refers to the Corinthian congregation as the body of Christ, and they certainly weren’t perfect at all. Despite the human failings within the Church, churches as communities of faith, just like the nation of Israel and the 12 disciples, were indispensable parts of God’s plan. Thanks for your comment.

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