The Problem With Progressive Churches


Raise your hand if you’ve heard these before: “Progressive churches will never grow because they’re too liberal.” “Conservative churches grow because they embody traditional values and orthodoxy.” “If you take a position on a divisive issue, people may leave, but twice as many new people will show up who agree with that issue.” These are popular phrases thrown around in the ongoing debate over church growth in the United Methodist Church (as well as in other mainline denominations). I’m not that surprised that these and similar arguments still make the rounds amongst our tribe, especially during our current round of the progressive vs. conservative steel cage match. As much as we all moaned and groaned over “Vital Congregations” and the “Call to Action” a few years ago, perhaps this “church growth” argument should have been put to rest when we learned some things from the Towers Watson report that measured characteristics of church vitality, the parts of the engine that must be fully tuned in order to drive church growth. That report was clear that theology and/or particular stances on social issues are not the key factors that drive church growth or decline. What the report did find, however, is that “vitality” is increased through a number of organizational factors such as quality of leadership, preaching, diversity of worship styles, numbers and types of small groups offered, missions giving, etc. However, anyone who’s led a healthy growing church (progressive or conservative) didn’t need a fancy (and expensive) report to tell them that.

It’s past time that we stop using the “my church is bigger than your church because we take a X stance on X social, political, or theological issue” argument, once and for all.

Progressive congregations that are in decline aren’t in decline because they’re progressive. They’re in decline for the same reason that many conservative congregations are in decline: organizational dysfunction/brokenness and general shifts in cultural attitudes/behaviors (a.k.a. the move towards being a “spiritual but not religious” nation).

There’s also a third and perhaps mostly overlooked reason for decline: the lack of ability to create and curate an interesting and compelling community of faith.

We need to flat-out admit that way too many of our churches are just plain boring and uninspiring. Part of the reason I started a new church was rooted in my experience with college students being unable to find a church after graduation. As a campus minister, I became increasingly frustrated with students who would try to find a church that had the total package of being a theological fit, having a large number of people in their age demographic, and being an overall interesting and compelling community. Their experience is not unlike that of many millennials who now consider themselves former church members (though many may call themselves Christians still). Being two years into a new church start, however, I’ve found that this isn’t limited to 18-35 year olds. People in general are just tired of being part of faith communities that seem to have lost their direction and just don’t seem to know what they’re doing anymore. It’s not only boring preaching or terrible music, but also a lack of inspiring mission and community engagement. Many people just don’t see the value a church offers anymore, and that’s because many churches don’t even know what value they have to add and/or how to add it.

So what’s the solution?

I honestly believe that if churches can become really good at innovating new ways of creating interesting and compelling community, then they will grow.

Since the days of early Christianity, churches have grown because they’ve been excellent and created interesting and compelling community. The early church created an alternative community based on the ideals of God’s kingdom that were antithetical to ideals of an oppressive empire. This was community where people cared for one another and worshiped a God, perhaps for the first time in their lives, who wasn’t out to kill them. After World War II, churches became those community gathering places of the sprawling suburbs that were filling up as soldiers returned from war and pursued the American dream. Today, suburban churches are successful when they are able to maintain that community center moniker by creating spaces for meeting, meals, recreation, learning, and gathering. Churches with rock gyms and multi-million dollar amphitheaters stand out in the suburbs among track housing, Applebee’s, and a general lack of anything interesting to do in the community. People won’t stick to, or will leave, a church if they don’t find community there. If there aren’t people with similar demographics to themselves, they’ll bolt. If there’s not a safe place for their kids to be, they’ll bolt. If they don’t quickly find other people to connect with in community, they’ll bolt. Non-denominational Christianity has done a great job in recent years at focusing on these things, while at the same time de-emphasizing any kind of polarizing or controversial theology or social stances, at least up front. It’s not until people get deeper, after they’ve connected in community, that they’re introduced to theological or social stances they may not have initially been comfortable with but will now stomach because “this is where are friends are” and “the kids love it here.” Whether or not you agree with this more or less “bait and switch” tactic, it underscores the point that connecting people in community is a key component to church growth. But will it be enough in the future?

Indeed, the idea of churches as core gathering and community building spaces is beginning to fade. The new urbanism is redefining how people gather and create community. The downtowns and urban cores of cities are growing at a rapid pace as people seek more interesting, compelling, creative, and sustainable lifestyles. In the urban core, places like coffee shops, bars, restaurants, parks, concert venues, art galleries, festivals, and the like, have become the “third spaces” where people gather and build relationships and community together. Drawn together by a sense of common purpose, urbanites are working together to make everyone successful and to make sure everyone’s needs are met. For many of these folks this is “church,” and it comes with a lot less baggage and is far more transformative than anything with a steeple on it. Folks who are spiritual but not religious go on Sunday morning hikes and find God in reading the Sunday paper at a coffee shop, and they do so because it’s just far more life-changing than sitting through a boring sermon or trying to stomach a theology they disagree with. This is not only quarantined to just urban areas, but a preview of what’s to come for suburban areas, as well. Churches need to pay attention to what is going on here and take this very seriously.

Now, I want to be careful not to suggest that churches need to adapt to cultural trends for the sake of institutional survival. Churches do, however, need to innovate and adapt because many people are still interested in and in need of “church,” but church as a life and world movement, not as a building or institution. The Gospel message, free of the institutional baggage, is still compelling. People are interested in a church that is honest about who it is and knows how to operate beyond the walls of old buildings and actually lives out the ideals of love, forgiveness, and compassion that Jesus teaches and transforms lives with. People are interested in that kind of church, yet are not waiting around for those churches to find them, especially since there are plenty of other compassionate people and organizations doing transformative work in this world.

The good news for the UMC is that there are many UM-related churches and church starts that are taking innovation seriously, and yes, many of them are progressive and many of them are working. They’re interesting, compelling, transformative, creative, and growing. Let’s not ignore this new life springing up around as we flirt with a messy divorce. New UMC faith communities are living and vibrant testaments to who we are and who we can be, and can be more so if mom and dad weren’t trying to kill each other.

These communities are only possible because there are entrepreneurial pastors and leaders who are willing to take the leap to reach new people in new places. They’re only possible because conferences, churches, and denominational leadership are willing to take that leap, as well. We need to continue to accelerate innovation by re-aligning and redistributing resources, by recruiting and training entrepreneurial leaders, by experimenting with new models of faith communities, and by instilling a culture of innovation in all of our faith communities. There’s a lot to distract us from our mission right now, and our future is uncertain. Yet, there is something that is driving this new generation forward that is connecting with people, and they’re people who aren’t interested in institutional dysfunction and divide. Indeed, they are instead interested in discovering what it means to love in the way Jesus loves, and are interested in using that love to change the world. That’s what gets me up in the morning. That’s what compels me to move forward. So, if you’re in a place where you just want to figure out a way to get rid of the people you don’t like anymore, I suppose that’s your right. There are, however, more interesting and compelling places to be. If you’re not sure where those are, I’d invite you to take a walk out your front door and look around at your neighbors. Start there. Start with community. God will do the rest.

Image by Flickr user James Williamor. Used under Creative Commons License. Cropped from original.

  • stephen fife

    Too many progressive churches today are unsure or are only willing to discuss Jesus on hypothetical terms. It’s the old Jon Stewart Church University of Phoenix joke. We have become wish washy in what we offer. Living in a pseudo christian environment doesn’t help anyone.

    I believe progressive churches can grow into large sized churches, but the progressive churches that I have seen that do so are 100% sure of their Christology. They are progressive because of Jesus and articulate that well. We believe in Jesus and because we believe in Christ we welcome all. They don’t waiver on their convictions. They don’t try to be all things. They focus on the mission that Christ has called them to be.

    • Rob Rynders

      Stephen, I don’t disagree with you, however, I believe it’s not just a progressive issue, it’s a general church issue. Churches that struggle do so because they lack, identity, mission, vision, community, and more. It takes all those things to make a healthy and growing congregation.

  • untied_methodist

    I agree with most of what you’re sharing here, Rob (I’m a Rob too!); but I think Stephen has an important insight as well: How can a “seeker” identify with a community that doesn’t have an identity. Among progressive Christians today, there seems to be a big emphasis on “not”–we’re not homophobic; we’re not misogynistic; we’re not “supply-siders,” etc. But “not” is not an identity. We (progressives) need to know and say and be who we “are.” We are welcoming; we are concerned for “the least of these;” we are more concerned with mercy and justice and peace than with “tithing mint and cummin;” we are about engaging with the community and the world. It seems to me that community must stem from some commonality and that the commonality of “not” is too amorphous to be compelling. What do you guys think?

    • Rob Rynders

      Hi Rob! Check out my reply to Stephen. Also, I absolutely agree that churches need to have an identity, however, I see churches struggle when churches pin their identity on one particular issue at the expense of creating a well-rounded, interesting, and compelling organization. Too many churches believe that if they say they’re “inclusive” or they’re “biblical” then that’s all they need to do to reach new people. My argument is that claiming a specific type of identity isn’t the sole cause of decline or growth.

      • untied_methodist

        “Churches that struggle do so because they lack, identity, mission, vision, community, and more.” Exactly!

        I don’t imagine you were intentionally prioritizing that list; but if I were, I’d go with identity, community, mission, vision: community growing out of identity, mission realized within community, vision which advances (or refines) identity, community, and mission.

  • Chelsey Hillyer

    Yes. Yes. Yes. Thanks for this post, Rob, and for your creative ministry. Looking forward to reading the posts to follow!

  • Michael Brian Woywood

    I love what you are saying here, Rob. I am a UMC candidate for ministry, and I serve as a youth pastor. I can’t tell you how many times I have despaired for my young charges, because the institutional Church just doesn’t get it. The young adults that I serve want to be part of a Body and a Movement, and they are not engaged by what they are hearing on Sunday mornings. I wish that John Wesley’s vision of lay preachers planting churches was still a reality, because I know a good handful of us that would start having worship services in whatever space we could find.

  • Drew McIntyre

    Very interesting piece, Rob. I think the question for UM church plants is not whether they are
    conservative or progressive but whether or not they are identifiably
    Methodist/Wesleyan. We have so uncritically adopted the methods of
    non-denominational and Calvinist church planting that in many instances a
    UM Church plant cannot be identified from any other generic Christian
    gathering. This becomes an issue, as we are seeing, when churches wake
    up to realize that are UMC and then balk at itinerancy, apportionments,
    etc. – not to mention how practices of Communion and Baptism, along with
    many other aspects of classic Wesleyan theology – can be quite
    heterodox because the identity is more congregationalist than

  • Bill Habicht

    Great article! The challenge for the entrepreneurial leaders (in my opinion) is stamina… at least if you’re working in a traditional church setting. It’s a very lonely road with many uphill battles. It can be utterly exhausting.
    My question to you is, do you think such a movement can occur in a typical, established church? It’d be great if some examples could be shared.

  • Christian Doppelganger

    From the article: “Many people just don’t see the value a church offers anymore, and that’s because many churches don’t even know what value they have to add and/or how to add it. So what’s the solution?” – That’s easy. JESUS CHRIST. If you notice, the article makes no mention of Him anywhere as part of a viable solution. Perhaps that’s because He’s been dismissed from the Church altogether. (But of course, no one will ever humbly admit this). Innovative programs will never replace the transformative power of the Holy Spirit. We can never justify our faith through works.

    • Brandon Lazarus

      I fully agree that the solution is Jesus Christ. There still leaves the question of if Jesus is what you have to add then how are you going to add it. I don’t believe that it’s fair to simply write off what Rob has to share and say that Rob has dismissed Christ altogether simply because he does not explicitly say Jesus Christ. He says “Since the days of early Christianity, churches have grown because they’ve been excellent and created interesting and compelling community. The early church created an alternative community based on the ideals of God’s kingdom that were antithetical to ideals of an oppressive empire. This was community where people cared for one another and worshiped a God, perhaps for the first time in their lives, who wasn’t out to kill them.” Innovative programs will never replace the transformative power of the Holy Spirit but if we continue to have stale, bland programs we run the risk of stifling the Holy Spirit.

  • Diane Rheos

    Hey Rob, I was so happy to read your post about the problem with
    progressive churches, you are talking my language!

    You are so right that progressive congregations are not the only
    ones in decline. Progressives might be trying a few new things but basically we
    are attempting to get different results with the same old “organizational
    dysfunction / brokenness”. To create vibrant, thriving congregations I believe
    that the solution is to shift our conversation from what we talk about
    to how we talk about it. The answer is that we need to use a different operational
    structure. That might sound difficult but it really isn’t. I am not talking
    about throwing away the org chart yet. The change happens when we make
    communication and authentic community our primary goal which is what I believe
    you are saying in this post.

    You identified it yourself, “So what’s the solution? I honestly
    believe that if churches can become really good at innovating new ways of
    creating interesting and compelling community, then they will grow.”

    I think you hit the nail on the head by mentioning the cultural
    move to “spiritual but not religious”. Diana Butler Bass writes in Christianity After Religion that our
    planet is at time of spiritual awakening. “This transformation is what some
    hope will be a “Great Turning” toward a global community based on shared human
    connection, dedicated to the care of our planet, committed to justice and
    equality, that seeks to raise hundreds of millions from poverty, violence, and
    oppression.” I know this is what I am looking for; a community of people who
    want to BE the church. Many of us now want something different from our Church experience;
    we are yearning for a place of vibrant action and one that connects us to our
    personal faith.

    In my opinion the move from spiritual not religious is a move
    toward bottom-up faith and away from top-down faith. We want to believe faith
    for ourselves, experience it in our lives, live it every day. We don’t want to
    have anyone else tell us about faith and then accept it whole. It is a move to
    participatory faith instead of consumerist faith.

    That’s why my work is to teach how we can institutionalize communication
    systems that allow us to participate in the co-creation of our congregations.
    In turn that creates committed loving communities where we can be safe to be
    our unique selves. To me that is what I want in a church.

    I am creating a framework on my website that any congregation can use as “organizational self-help” and begin to utilize more conversational opportunities.
    Looks like some of the work you are doing on Blue Yarn as well.

    • alocasio

      Diane, I love Diana Butler Bass too. You and I are on the same page. I wrote the following article for United Methodist Insight and if you want to read it and comment, that would be great:
      I invite and would welcome further conversation with you.

      • Diane Rheos

        I was happy to read your article! I too am coming from a systems perspective. I have a masters in Whole Systems Design and have created a model that is simplified for any congregation to implement. It is based on creating a flow of living communication so that the system can ‘self-organize’. The reason we are not adapting from top-down to bottom-up is that we are still using the structures and processes for the hierarchical model. I think we are going to get very different results once we take a structural approach! I am going to comment on your post as well tomorrow. Looking forward to more conversation.

  • steveleong

    Jesus was never concerned about the size of his followers. Every single person brought to him by God was a special person. Sometimes size and power creates greed. I would be curious to see how much money some ministers, pastors, bishops and preists have, or have invested. Their churches certainly have poured obscene amounts of thithings into efforts to stop LGBT equality. While people are starving, jobless and homeless, this becomes the SIN of the century.