making a list
Reading Time: 10 minutes (Glenn Carstens-Peters.)
Reading Time: 10 minutes

Christians do love their listicles–articles that consist mostly (or only) of a numbered list of items. And one of their favorite listicles concerns church growth. I’ll show you what this listicle entails, and why one Christian has cried out for an end to them. Then I’ll show you why his cries will go unheeded. Today, Lord Snow Presides over a favorite Christian listicle that’s getting a little pushback!

making a list
(Glenn Carstens-Peters.)

“10 Reasons Your Church Isn’t Growing.”

Christian writers love listicles. In turn, Christian readers tend to receive them without skepticism or questioning of any kind. And in an age of steady Christian decline, one of these folks’ favorite listicles concerns church growth. Specifically, they like listicles about “X Reasons Your Church Isn’t Growing.”

Usually, writers cobble up ten reasons. Sometimes, though, they switch it up and offer five or seven reasons–or even twenty. But ten works as a nice, manageable number for most of ’em.

This post wasn’t originally going to be a Monty Python gif storm. But here we are.

Christians have been writing listicles along this line for years.

And so on and so forth. You only need to read a couple before noticing they all say the same stuff: JESUS HARDER!

The Great Need For This Listicle.

Christians have been noticing a problem with stalled-out church growth since well before they admitted as a group that their religion was in decline at all.

Consequently, church growth posts generally enjoy a great deal of attention. Simply put, Christians ache for some advice here.

After all, most of their churches do not grow. They either stagnate or they dwindle away to the point of closure. Many thousands of churches close every single year. Though it is difficult to ascertain exactly how many close, we can see that the decline has been catastrophic–especially for smaller churches that simply possess less cushioning for an increasing number of rough periods that are themselves of deeper severity than in years past.

Unfortunately, most Christians have no idea why their churches dwindle in the first place, much less any idea of how to fix it. They cling to these listicles, hoping against hope that they’ll find something useful in them.

And one can see the appeal, for Christians at least. These listicles share a great deal of common ground. Every one of their writers assume that church growth is not only possible but impossible to avoid if a church and its leaders can only meet a list of requirements. And intense certainty just slays a certain kind of Christian dead on arrival!

Except they kinda are.

Why Churches Decline (According to Listicle Writers).

#1: Christians don’t spend nearly enough time thinking and muttering at the ceiling.
I suppose I can’t blame the listicle writers for this one. They really can’t avoid mentioning prayer somewhere in their lists, or everyone will get mad at them.

#2: They’re not drilling down hard enough on their totally perfect message.
The message is always perfect, in a broken system. If Christians hold perfect beliefs, then their practices will also be perfect because practice flows from belief. And if their practices are perfect, then churches will grow like gangbusters. See how logical that is? So maybe the problem is that the non-growing churches don’t drill down hard enough on correct beliefs and fervor.

#3: They’re not trying hard enough to make sales.
Obviously. The Mormon church is currently flinging more missionaries at the world every year to convert barely more people than they did in decades past–a 44% increase in 2015 to bag a 9% increase in converts. But that’s not feasible for most other groups. Christian leaders have been railing for years about their flocks’ lack of enthusiasm for sales, and that railing has finally hit fever pitch.

#4: The church’s ministers don’t appoint enough/the right internal leaders, or they hold too many meetings, or they’re not engaged online very well.
Finally, something sensible. Sometimes a list accidentally includes something useful. But often, the church’s congregation refuses to allow the ministers to change anything.

#5: Maybe the people in the church in question simply aren’t very nice to be around.
I only saw this in one or two listicles, but it’s also one of those “accidentally useful” items that pops up from time to time.


Why Churches Decline (For Realio-io-io).

I’m feeling super-helpful today, obviously! Here’s the main reason why churches stopped growing and began shrinking and dying:

The social risks of rejecting Christianity have dropped significantly, making membership purely voluntary.

Christians have never figured out how to market themselves to a world that can take or leave their product. They never needed to, either. In years past, they could exert a great deal of social pressure–and sometimes even legal pressure, up to lethal points–to make membership mandatory. That’s changed. In most areas, people can now freely reject Christianity with very few fears of Christian love hammering down on them as a result.

Without regaining methods to force people to attend and then keep attending churches, a luxury now out of reach for almost all Christian groups, churches need to become places people actually want to be.

And simply put, that ain’t gonna happen except in a few places here and there because of our next item.

The Second Problem: Christians Themselves.

Unfortunately, the most evangelism-minded Christians also delight in being boorish jerks.

The type of Christians who get way into evangelism tend also to hugely resent the implication that they should even need to create appealing groups. Indeed, you should see all the digital ink spilled in criticism of seeker-sensitive churches! It’s a riot! That 2013 Christianity Today link functions well as a template for the objections I hear from these Christians:

Unfortunately, [Millennials’] spiritual coming of age has coincided with many Protestant pastors relying on a consumer business model to grow and sustain their churches. This template for doing church and the millennials’ hunger for authenticity has caused an ideological collision.

OH, this evil bad nasty naughty consumer-driven culture! NAUGHTY consumerism! BAD consumerism!

Everyone remembers Zoot as the bad one, but Dingo was pretty naughty too, really.

Instead, Christians want to draw people to themselves without changing anything. These Christians neither can nor want to accept that how they are is deeply repulsive to many people. No, they expect to make sales exactly like they are. And they’re totally positive that they can find the magical way to reframe their product to appeal to everyone. Even if everyone objects to how these TRUE CHRISTIANS™ conduct themselves, once they all convert they’ll see that this is totally how Jesus prefers his followers to act.

Of course, #notallchristians. Sometimes a church finds itself top-heavy with wonderful, compassionate, charitable people–and yet it still does not grow.

So that’s not the entirety of the answer.

And Third, the Dynamics of Groups.

Given that people have increasing freedom to choose which groups they will join or leave, and given that so many Christians themselves represent a great reason to avoid organized Christianity, we come to the nail in the coffin for Christian churches:

Most Christian groups represent a poor value for the resources they demand of members.

To grow a group, you need a few things:

  • An ideology people can respect, preferably one that bases itself in reality.
  • A group that its target members will consider both fun and meaningful to join and support–as well as being a good value for the resources (time, money, etc) they’ll spend to belong.
  • Functional leadership that can successfully organize the group’s members and resolve conflicts and problems.

Basically, the group needs to be one that members actively want to be around. Because if it isn’t, then those members will stop coming around. They’ll vote with their feet. They don’t have time anymore for groups that waste their resources. They won’t hang out with such groups simply out of obligation–not anymore.

Little known history fact: French knights were the Mean Girls of the Middle Ages.

The Stated Response: SHAME.

Christian leaders can see their decline even more clearly than I, an outsider can. It confronts them every Sunday, after all.

But their response is not Hey, y’all, let’s make ourselves a place people will want to be, for a price they’re willing to pay.

Instead, it’s SHAME ON THOSE PEOPLE for not hanging out with us!

And it’s Churches are obviously doing something wrong with our perfect message!

Sure, these responses only reinforce existing biases and problems in Christian groups. But we don’t call the worst Christians conservative just because of their political leaning. They really despise change, especially when it comes to what they enjoy most about their current situation.

To prevent any change from occurring, they create these endless ass-patting listicles congratulating themselves for holding firm on their doctrinal stances and attitudes–and shaming group members who admit they’re struggling and doing poorly. (Cuz there’s no way that can go hideously wrong.)

Well, guys, one Christian leader is so totally OVER it!

A Voice Cries Out: NO MORE Church-Growth Listicles!

A couple of years ago, Karl Vaters, a pastor writing for Christianity Today, lamented the proliferation of these listicles. He begins his post by expressing how much he loves his church and how deeply he wishes for it to grow. Then he tells us that he, like most church leaders, once devoured all those listicles in whatever form he could find–podcasts, books, blogs, whatever.

But–record scratch!–he doesn’t want to consume any more of these listicles. He’s realized that they rest entirely on shame and finger-pointing to sell their suggestions. He writes, regarding why he’s stopped reading these church-growth listicles:

Because they’re based on a false premise. They presume that if a church isn’t growing numerically, it must be filled with self-serving, petty attitudes. . . But when an already-discouraged pastor reads a list telling them their church isn’t growing because they’re visionless, self-serving and petty, it doesn’t lift them up, it beats them down. Guilt doesn’t motivate, it discourages.

Midway through the post, he writes, “Don’t slap our hands, put tools in them.”

The Problem He’s Having Here.

When I saw that line, I said out loud, Oh, my sweet summer child.

Remember the other day I was talking about how often Christians talk about stuff that they can’t meaningfully define?

This situation fits into that problem too.

Karl Vaters wants meaningful, tangible advice he can put into action. He wants useful tips he can put into motion to produce results he can quantify.

And I hate to tell him this, but there ain’t no such thing in his end of the religion. There’s a very good reason that none of these listicles really sound like truly helpful advice.

Why He’s Having This Problem.

If any Christian blatherers had truly meaningful advice to share, they’d have handed it over many years ago. By now, they could have amassed a functional library full of this advice.

Reality-based professions and avocations can boast of having such libraries of advice. If I want to become a good woodworker, stage costumer, English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher, chess player, or Barbie doll collector, resources aplenty exist on all of these topics. I could easily educate myself about any of it.

Then I could turn around and critically evaluate future advice. If someone telling me how to make a maple-wood table advises that I should first make sure to let my cat pee all over the power drill before plugging it in because the ammonia in cat urine is good for the finish, then guys, I can be pretty sure that this advice-giver doesn’t actually know what end of that drill goes nearest the wood.

But terrible advice is all that populates the shelves of Christianity. Christians can’t evaluate any of it–and consequently, likely only a fraction of it is useful in any way. Instead, it’s all pretty much of a muchness, all the same dreary fake rah-rah and shaming, simply reworded into new pablum and porridge that flatters the insincere–and frustrates the sincere.

So What Happened After Karl Vaters’ Cri de Cœur?

I wonder if Karl Vaters will ever realize why so little meaningful advice exists in his religion regarding church growth and decline.

Whether he does or doesn’t figure it out, nothing at all changed after he wrote that post in 2017. I looked in on him and he’s still making mouth-noises clamoring for change while his hands and feet keep doing the same stuff that helped his religion get to where it is right now. In fact, he’ll be popping up for us tomorrow when we look at some new numbers about Christianity’s decline.

It’s a little aggravating to see a Christian get halfway to the right answer to his very own question, and then skitter away from it like it’s on fire!

Hey, anything that keeps him and his pals safe from real changes, eh wot?

Today, Lord Snow Presides over listicles that show us something about Christianity that Christians themselves don’t even know yet.

NEXT UP: We dive into that news about Nones–and look at how evangelical leaders are spinning its bleak news into pablum and porridge for the flocks.

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Lord Snow Presides is our off-topic weekly chat series. I’ve started us off on a topic, but feel free to chime in with anything on your mind. Pet pictures especially welcome! The series was named for Lord Snow, my recently departed white cat. He knew a lot more than he ever let on.

This post came out of my Christianese book’s entry on “seeker-sensitive” churches. Word count: 131,348.

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...

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