The Shrinking Church:
Reversing the Course to Demise
This thread of articles is for clergy and leaders of mainline protestant churches who are struggling with diminishing attendance and general apathy in the culture in a time when Atheism is the largest “religion” in America. Do Christian churches offer a worthy alternative? The perspective I’m writing from is that of a Christian observer who has spent 40 years on a church staff, planning and leading worship and fine arts ministries, while a serious student of leadership and the theology and tradition of corporate worship. My comments are observations and questions about how current church leaders can reverse the exodus from church attendance and membership, and grow healthy congregations interested in growing their own faith and serving all of God’s people – moving from apathy to excitement, passivity to engagement, and from scarcity thinking to a mindset of abundance.
These articles are intended to prompt meaningful dialogue about topics that are important to our communities and essential to our country – building healthy churches that not only make disciples, but lead members on a faith journey and to serve others. Hateful rhetoric and critical comments will be deleted. The custom of talking about others, especially in derogatory terms rather than talking to each other directly, addressing situations and subjects, rather than pretending to be polite and then attacking others after the fact. We must learn to do better communicating, which begins with listening and then responding in a calm, direct, and kind manner. At the point in history that I’m writing this series of articles, our country is in turmoil with people taking sides, with hateful comments and actions to others who have a different perspective, and basically shutting down any opportunity for meaningful dialogue about things that matter to all of us.
As my colleague Dr. David Gruder has said, “We can choose to live life to the level of our dreams or to the level of our wounds.” We seem to be acting out our woundedness. The church has the opportunity to set a higher standard by modeling a new way of being and acting towards each other.
Also at this point in history, the church of which I am a member, The United Methodist Church, is in turmoil over the ordination of those who have been created with a sexual orientation different from what the church has found acceptable in the past. The UMC as a denomination is distracted unnecessarily from fulfilling God’s will with the politics of this issue. It has divided the church and drawn energy from other very needed work.
It seems that an outside force is stirring things up so that we are in conflict internally, giving power away without full awareness. I’m thankful that the local churches are going forward with their ministries, sometimes unaware or uninhibited by the denominational drama. It’s a chance to rethink who we are as the Church or the church.
Here are some headlines and quotes to prompt us to think creatively and to get out of the box we are in that limits our awareness:
If it doesn’t stem its decline, mainline Protestantism has just 23 Easters left on the Washington Post website.
This article is now 2 years old and the situation hasn’t changed. If anything, it’s gotten worse.
Bishop Will Willimon on why no plan can unite United Methodists
Observations following the UMC General Conference, noting how delegates were not talking to each other and certainly creating more division.
“The traditionalists did a bang-up job of political organizing and counting the votes. The progressives were all busy talking about unity and community and listening and loving. The conservatives were on the floor getting the votes.”
Reinhold Neibur – …Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted…
Richard Rohr – The best way to facilitate change is from inside an organization, but not at the center of the organization. Changing from the edge of an organization is best.
Richard Rohr – …transformation is often more about unlearning than learning…
Richard Rohr – Too much of both religion and common therapy seem to be committed to making people comfortable with what many of us call our “false self.” It’s just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, which is going to sink anyway. The false self is all the more delusional the more it appears to be “good.”
Christ Has Died and Sadly, So Has the Church
Has the church died and we just don’t know it?
People don’t need an explanation when I share that I’m still a committed Christian despite the fact that I served on a church staff for 40 years. The sad reality is that the church, as a representation of Christianity, is not living up to that role.
It’s become a haven for people who have no power anywhere else to hold a power position, and a place for blaming, criticizing, and excluding. Sometimes the people who hold the power in the local church are the very cause of the dysfunction: we avoid conflict and it then takes control.
I currently visit a different UMC church each Sunday as I accompany my wife in her work of revitalization. There are many, many devoted and passionate pastors wanting to energize the church and engage members in a vital and relevant faith journey. They are all doing the best they can and using the best tools they know.
This thread is intended for those pastors wanting to lead revitalized ministries, and who are willing to looking inward in order to have an outward influence that makes a difference. This journey begins with self-awareness and isn’t about blame or criticism. Church leaders are not intentionally damaging the church. Church leaders are working within a system that’s broken, and are so close to the situation, they can’t get a view of how to facilitate transformation. As St. Paul states, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Rom 12:2
My pattern is to ask questions, hoping to prompt creative thinking and problem solving. Readers can be offended and criticize the questions; however, we remain where we are if we are not growing. James Allen said, “Men are anxious to improve their circumstances, but are unwilling to improve themselves; they therefore remain bound.”
Transformation begins with the leader. My background is in teaching leaders new pathways to transformational effectiveness through embracing Transformational Leadership as a system of higher functioning corporate culture. The culture is a reflection of the leader.
Here are some questions to ponder:
- Why don’t we just bury the church this Good Friday with Jesus?
- Where does this leave us as Christian leaders, and what options are available?
- How do I as a Christian leader equip myself to be the influencer for transformation?
- What will the local church, in which I am the leader, look like in 5 years?
- What’s my responsibility in leading a community of faith?
Upcoming titles that might be of interest to you:
- No More BS…The Church Needs Resurrecting
- The Way We Perceive Church Leadership is Way Wrong
- Are You Feeling Worthy to Lead?
- Children’s Sermons: A Form of Child Abuse
- Church Leaders Untie!
- Dumbing Down: How Church Leadership Has Set Up the Exodus
- Got Conflict? By the way, did you cause it?
- Hire a Church Consultant – Sucker!
- Pastors Are Entrepreneurs…So, Get Over It!
- So, You’re Leading a Church with No Plan: Think Again
- The “Earl Grey Pastor” – Doing Nothing Isn’t the Answer
- Using the Great Commission as a Church Mission Statement is Irresponsible
- Eliminate Volunteers: It’s Not Consistent with Our Theology
- Why Leadership Equality is Dumb
- How a Lack of Worship Best Practices is Killing Meaningful Worship
Please comment below.
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(c) 2019, Hugh Ballou. All rights reserved.
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