What if you knew that your congregation were on a collision course with its demise? What would you do? Whom would you tell? How would it change the way you lead? Would it affect your sense of urgency? Would it help you better distinguish between minor and major issues?
Business as usual for established churches is going to lead us to a world of declining resources, dwindling congregants, and the loss of vision and passion. Now is the time to speak the truth, reclaim our hope, and launch a realistic and thoughtful plan for our future as God’s people.
The painful truth of the 21st century traditional congregation is that, without significant intervention, it faces a very grim future. The only growing segments for most denominations are new church starts, mega-churches, and ethnic congregations. That leaves the vast majority of American Protestant congregations that have been in existence more than 40 years facing a very uncertain future.
So how do congregational leaders lead when facing such fierce headwinds? In watching congregations attempt to deal with these realities in healthy ways, I have come to appreciate these practices:
Initiate some honest assessment. The starting point for creating a hopeful future is a realistic assessment of where you are. Many clergy and lay leaders live in denial of the truth about their congregational life. Someone will need to have the courage to point out the obvious, raise awareness, and wrestle with complex issues.
Resist the blame game. One of the reasons clergy are hesitant to point out the truth of declining metrics is that they know there is a high likelihood that the congregation will point an accusing finger at them. My observation is that, when confronted with the painful truth about their metrics, most congregations respond with predictable knee-jerk reactions and seek a quick fix to a deeply complex set of issues. If leaders can agree to hold off on blaming and focus on understanding and prayerful analysis, then honest and helpful conversation is a possibility.
Develop new metrics that fit today. Our measurements tend to fall into the “nickels and noses” variety. We think the only measure of spiritual health or success for a congregation is bodies in the seats on Sunday mornings and dollars in the plate. We are woefully ill prepared for the realities of the 21st century. Such metrics are a holdover from the churched era when congregational involvement was a given and our faith traditions were the exclusive option for the religiously inclined. Dramatically new ways of measuring success and engagement are needed and available for thoughtful congregations.
Engage in Spirit-led proactive planning. Many congregations and leadership groups have neglected proactive planning and fallen victim to reactionary planning. We fail to look beyond the next quarter or 12 months, and find ourselves in a reactive stance, juggling whatever the culture or the economy or demographics or anxious congregants throw at us. Far healthier are the leaders who insist that their congregations invest resources and time to look ahead, anticipating rather than reacting.
Reclaim your heritage. Living in the mid to late 20th century has spoiled us. The church of Jesus Christ has always had its best days when facing the steepest odds or under the most intense persecution. We have grown lazy and sloppy in our outreach, discipleship, and stewardship. Our heritage as God’s people on a mission reminds us: “When we are weak, then we are strong.”
Lead. When we are in a crisis, we need leaders. Don’t go at it alone, but don’t think your congregation can navigate these turbulent waters without clear leadership.
Business as usual for established churches is going to lead us to a world of declining resources, dwindling congregants, and the loss of vision and passion. Many are already there. Now is the time to speak the truth, reclaim our hope, and launch a realistic and thoughtful plan for our future as God’s people.
This article is adapted from a column published in the Associated Baptist Press and used with their permission and that of the author.