Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Renew the Table: The Lord's Supper and Dying Churches

Analysis, even based on hard facts, is a subjective thing. The best example I can think of is sports. Everything a player or team does is measured statistically and then meticulously broken down by analysts to further understand how a team is doing or why a player is performing a certain way. Statistics are facts, but facts often cannot tell us the entire story because we simply cannot measure everything. So analysts fill in the gaps. They look at the data and try to tell us what it means.

I'm going to try to do that right now. And like a sports analyst, I don't have all the data and my interpretation might be flawed or not fully informed. What I'm saying is that this interpretation is subjective. 

Some Statistics
If you've been following my Renew the Table series you'll note that I kicked things off with some statistics regarding how often Southern Baptist Churches celebrate the Lord's Supper. Without rehashing the discussion, I wanted to remind the reader how I looked at this data. While the graph below shows five different answers, I grouped them into basically three: Weekly Partakers (1%), Monthly Partakers (18%), and the Quarterly + Holiday Partakers (80%). (I explain my reasoning in that post.)

Now the reason I highlight this again is because of a graph that I ran across today. I found it on the North American Mission Board's Church Revitalization Conference page. Along with the graph below they say: 

"More than 70 percent of the Southern Baptist churches in North America have plateaued or are declining in number." 

So for starters, I'm thrilled that NAMB is focusing on church revitalization and I pray that their endeavors go a long way for the glory of God and the good of the church. But when I saw their graph it struck me as being eerily similar to the Lord's Supper graph above. NAMB has determined that more than 70% of Southern Baptist Churches have plateaued or are declining, and that only around 10-15% of Southern Baptist Churches are "healthy & multiplying".

First, let me say that I don't necessarily equate Healthy with Multiplying. I may be wrong, but what I think NAMB has in mind here would be more crass sounding than what they labeled their graph. They are saying that 10-15% are living, vigorous churches while the rest are dying. The "At or Near Risk" means "At or Near Death", as in the doors are going to close permanently. Unfortunately there's not more info, but I think we can safely say they've divided it into Living Churches and Dying Churches.

A Correlation?
Now here's where my subjective analysis kicks in. What I see is a correlation between an anemic understanding of the Lord's Supper and a dying church. Let me be clear. I don't think that an anemic understanding of the Lord's Supper is the cause of this, but I think they cannot be disconnected. I'm just calling 'em as I see 'em: 80% of your churches are not celebrating the Lord's Supper regularly and 80% of your churches are dying.

To be sure, we don't have all the information. I would like to see a study that linked the two in order to confirm a correlation. Maybe they could ask a follow up question about the Lord's Supper to all the dying churches? But I think the information we have now is plain enough to at least consider the possibility.

Now again, I don't think that the neglect of the Lord's Supper is the primary cause of this. That's too niche. But it does give me a hunch to what the problem might be. Again it is subjective (and likely offensive) but it's what I see. If your church does not have a sound understanding of the Lord's Supper then, in a real sense, it is likely your church does not have an adequate understanding of worship in general.

The Supper is anemic because Worship is anemic. And when Worship is in decline, so too is the Body. My fear is that many of these churches (knowingly or unknowingly) have severed the Head from the body. Like decapitated chickens, they are still running around kicking up dust without realizing their Head is even gone.

Again, I applaud the efforts of NAMB and I think the aims of church revitalization are noble and should continue. I don't know what they officially think the problem is, but I think the answer lies in renewing a right understanding of worship. Right understanding leads to right practice.

Christ builds his Church, not a preacher or a mission organization, so we should align our efforts with him, and that means the Author of our faith is also the Author of our worship. If the neglect of the Supper isn't the cause, it's at least a dead canary in the mine which should not be ignored. It's a warning that there is a problem. To live you need air, and worship is the air of the Church. Right worship is clear and clean and reinvigorating as a mountain breeze. And worship that rightly understands and administers the Lord's Supper offers an air that carries "the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

For the sake of the Church, renew the Table.