By Billy Strother
Congregations need one another more than ever. They need a sense of unity for mission in community. As congregational leaders, pursuing a sense of unity in community will strengthen us all and increase our kingdom fruit. Jesus proclaimed, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste; and no city or house divided against itself will stand” (Matthew 12:25, New American Standard Bible).
Ministering to the Nons
Christianity is in retreat in our culture. We are familiar with the rise of the “nones” (30 percent of U.S. adults now claim no religious affiliation). But despite the challenges, strategic opportunities are revealing themselves. Even as the percentage of “nones” creeps higher, we are seeing a rise in the “nons,” meaning nondenominational Christians. Simply put, an increasing number of Christians are affiliating with nondenominational churches. A recent article noted, “Americans who don’t identify with a specific religious tradition has grown from just 5 percent during the Cold War to around 30 percent today” (Christianity Today, “‘Nondenominational’ Is Now the Largest Segment of American Protestants,” November 16, 2022).
As an increasing number of believers eschew any denominational affiliation, the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ possess the unique opportunity to expand our Restoration Movement plea for unity and fellowship. Many Christians who have moved from denominationalism are looking for a body of believers with whom to connect, and our churches—regardless of size or geographical location—are well-postured to meet their spiritual needs.
Some may misinterpret my words as advocating sheep stealing. I grew up in denominationalism. I attended Cincinnati Christian University as a denominationalist. I first clearly heard the Restoration Movement plea for unity, to simply follow Jesus based on the authority of Scripture, in Dr. Jim North’s Restoration History class. That simple plea captured both my heart and my spiritual imagination; it launched me on a life journey of enjoying the freedom of nondenominationalism.
I count myself not as a stolen sheep, but as a hungry pilgrim who discovered a healthier, greener spiritual pasture (in the congregations and among people fellowshipping in the Restoration Movement) in which to feed and grow in my relationship with Jesus. In all truth, I will ever argue that you cannot steal a well-fed sheep. Spiritually neglected, malnourished, or even abused sheep should be freed to feed in greener pastures.
So then, as leaders, should we not look to minister to the ever-escalating number of Christians who are dislocated after disfellowshipping from denominationalism? Should we not also be eager to reach out to congregations in our communities that disfellowship themselves from their denomination? As leaders, we should stand at the forefront to pursue unity, not just in our own buildings, but in our own communities, beyond the church property lines. The growing number of “nons” need us.
Partnering with Struggling Congregations
According to the 2020 Faith Communities Today (FACT) study, 70 percent of U.S. congregations have fewer than 100 persons in worship each week, and 50 percent of all churches have fewer than 65 souls worshipping each week. The smaller the church, the harder it is to find a preacher, minister to families, stretch financial resources, and just stay open on Sundays. Yes, some churches will close; my prayer is that each will have a closing service which celebrates the history and ministry of that congregation, and that the assets remaining will be re-tasked for further kingdom service.
Our healthier congregations ought to consider the opportunity to expand unity by offering to partner with Restoration Movement congregations that are stagnant, in decline, or especially those nearing closure.
I realize that will not always be possible. Struggling congregations suffering from hubris and pride will tragically strong-arm any offer of assistance. Yet, a growing number of our struggling congregations—often in communities with vanishing populations or in urban areas which have transitioned beyond the current membership’s knowledge of how to be relevant—would accept help from another Restoration church.
Not all struggling churches must close or continue as if on life support. Healthy church leaderships might consider expanding kingdom unity by offering meaningful assistance to struggling Restoration Movement congregations in or near their community.
I resolutely believe in the health and goal of church planting. But so much can be said for nurturing small churches. Here are five ways to help that are already happening:
1. Share preachers. Some congregations that are unable to afford a preacher on their own are combining to share a preacher, a sort of 21st–century circuit rider.
2. Share buildings. Two congregations are meeting at different times in one building, especially in multilingual circumstances. Many church buildings are used only one hour a week; it costs no more to put that building in service for a second hour.
3. Adopt. Some healthy congregations are “adopting” a struggling congregation to spiritually parent and to provide meaningful people resources.
4. Unite. Two or more churches are “throwing in” together to be a single congregation.
5. Train elders to preach; these preaching elders can then serve as pulpit supply for other churches. Typically, a healthy congregation trains elders or other church leaders to preach, and then those volunteer preachers rotate a few Sundays a month at struggling churches in the area.
Thom Rainer, in his year-end blog post, “Ten Major Trends for Local Churches in America in 2023,” wrote, “The year 2023 will be a record for church adoptions; an adopted church is a congregation that comes into the family, care, and authority of another, usually healthier, church. Of course, more churches will seek adoption because they are about to die or close.”
When it comes to unity, have you and your leadership team thought beyond the boundaries on your church deed? I know, many of us scramble for unity just in our own congregation. Nothing unifies more than mission beyond the limits of the church property. If you serve faithfully in a struggling church, cast away pride (Proverbs 16:18) and ask for help. Congregations need each other.
Billy Strother, PhD, serves as dean of graduate studies and as professor of preaching, New Testament, and leadership with Central Christian College of the Bible, Moberly, Missouri. He also serves as a bench member of e2: effective elders.