What if you knew that your congregation was on a collision course with its demise? What would you do? Who 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?
The painful truth of the 21st century traditional congregation is that it faces a very grim future without significant intervention. More than the usual hyperbole or alarmist rhetoric, the crisis is real.
The current trajectory
David Olson of the American Church Project has documented the painful truth carefully. Olson, using realistic counts of attendees, reveals that traditional, established congregations more than 40 years old are in steady and persistent decline. Some are in dramatic decline. This tends to hold true regardless of theology, worship style, denomination or locale.
Ominously, the percentage of the American public actively attending local congregations of any type is dropping precipitously. Despite self-reporting that suggests more than 40 percent of U.S. citizens are active attenders, the truth appears to be radically different. Olson’s studies reveal less than 20 percent of Americans attend a Christian church on a given weekend.
Other researchers confirm the facts in a variety of studies. The only growing segments for most denominations are new church starts, mega-churches or 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?
Practices to address the trajectory
In watching congregations attempt to deal with these realities in healthy ways, I have come to appreciate the following 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 they know there is a high likelihood the congregation will point an accusing finger at them.
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My observation is when confronted with the painful truth about their metrics, most congregations react 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 congregation 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 always has 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 mission reminds us: “When we are weak, then we are strong.” Many of us will have the chance to live out our historic lineage in the near future.
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 from you.
A dramatic metaphor for a tough reality
The Titanic? Really?
Perhaps I am being a bit melodramatic. But honestly, I sense this is the truth we all need to face and wrestle with.
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 of you 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.
The iceberg looms. Really. Take action now.
Bill Wilson is the director of the Center for Healthy Churches and has been a leader in local church ministry for over 30 years. This article was published originally in 2013 by the Center for Healthy Churches. The views expressed are solely those of the author.