The Future of the Progressive Churches of Christ: Shrinking Churches, Part 5 (the Near-Death Congregation)

cooperation.jpgImagine that you’ve been hired as a consultant to a congregation that’s lost so many members that it’s near death. What approach would you take to solving the problem?

It’s a tough question, isn’t it? I have an idea or two — all of which have actually been field tested.

Here are my thoughts. Please add yours.

1. You have to start with a theology check. If the congregation is eaten up with legalism, the first step is teaching, hopefully followed by change.

2. I think you next consider looking for a merger partner. I think we need lots and lots of mergers — even when a congregation’s survival doesn’t depend on it. There’s just no reason to spend money on two buildings, two preachers, and two power bills when one is enough. And why be divided when greater unity is so readily available?

Now, this only works if there’s a nearby congregation that is compatible. My own congregation is the product of a merger beween a larger, growing church and a smaller struggling congregation. And although it was a marriage of unequals (in terms of size), it was no act of charity. The smaller church brought much need vitality to the larger congregation.

You see, the larger church was a university congregation, filled with professionals and academics. The smaller church was more blue collar. The merger brought balance and a better blend of talents. The resulting church was much stronger than either of the merged churches.

In many parts of the country — especially here in Alabama — there are multiple congregations nearby that a struggling church could merge with. People are much more willing to drive a while to get to church than used to be true (we have a family that drives 1 1/2 hours one way to our church!). Many thousands drive past one or two Churches of Christ to attend their “home” congregation. Merger partners are often plentiful.

And unlike a few decades ago, many of our members are looking for a larger church, with a good youth program and well-run ministries. Whereas a church of 100 used to be plenty big enough for most of our members, today the younger members especially are looking for something bigger. Merging to reach a more attractive size is no defeat and no shame.

In fact, mergers allow churches to dedicate more resources to Kingdom business, and so merging should be highly missional.

3. Your merger partner doesn’t have to be a Church of Christ. An independent Christian Church would often be glad to add an a cappella service as part of a merger strategy (it’s happened more than once).

4. Merger partners don’t have to be the same race. There have been successful mergers of predominantly white churches with predominantly black churches. Mergers that cross denominational and racial lines are very attractive and very missional — they demonstrate the power of the cross. And such churches tend to grow.

5. But suppose there’s no merger partner nearby. What’s another choice? Consider this “Letter to a Dying Church,” by James McDonald. This post describes a dying church that agreed to become an additional campus for a larger, growing church — and they soon grew to over 1,400 members with 200 baptisms. Wow!

You see, many larger churches have become multi-campus churches. They have one preacher whose sermons are delivered to the other campuses by satellite or on DVD by courier. The ministers at the away-campuses thus are freed from sermon preparation duties to minister to the flock, equip the members, etc. The members receive a higher quality of preaching, and the congregation benefits from the combined talents of the ministers at all campuses. And when done right, it works.

In fact, it even works across state lines. There are some multi-campus churches that are also multi-state.

Now, some in the Churches of Christ will wonder whether this structure is scriptural. Obviously, there are no First Century examples of sermons being recorded and couriered across town! But there is plently of evidence that many churches met is multiple locations under a single eldership. In fact, I have less trouble finding authority for multi-campus churches than for 20 single-campus churches in the same town, each teaching a minutely differentiated doctrine and damning the others, while the members drive past three churches to get to the only church that affirms exactly what they want to believe.

6. Finally, of course, there’s the very real possibility of growing where you are. The Remel congregation in Arkansas did just that. They changed their theology and their hearts, became servants of their community, and went from near death to vigorously alive and growing. It can happen.

These are strategies that work — and that have actually been tried and proven.

There are also some strategies that have been proven to fail —

a. Blame the other churches in town. If your church is bleeding families, it must be the preacher or elders down the road who are sheep stealing. It’s certainly not your failure to feed your own sheep.

b. Blame the TV. Post articles on your website against entertainment because your members are leaving for churches with powerful, moving worship. You have all 5 acts of worship every single Sunday. What else could a congregation need or want — that is, if they hadn’t been corrupted by the entertainment industry?

c. Blame politics. If people are leaving, it’s because of discontent being spread by that former deacon you removed for being unhappy with the direction of the church. Were does the Bible even say we need a “direction”?

d. Blame the neighborhood. We knew how to grow when the neighbors were just like us. Now that they’re different, well, we prefer to ask our members to drive 20 minutes into a culturally unfamiliar neighborhood so that the church can keep on being just like it’s always been. I mean, it’s not that we don’t love our new neighbors. It’s just that we love staying the same more.

e. Blame God. If you’re following God’s instruction book and it doesn’t work, it must be God’s fault. Very convenient, isn’t it? Refusing to change may also avoid the necessity to re-examine beliefs and may even let you avoid taking the blame. I mean, it’s so much easier to blame God for not giving the increase, when the real problem is not sowing any seed.

The church that turns things around is the church that points the finger of blame at itself. Humility leads to change. Pride leads to destruction. Once a congregation sees itself as the problem, then it can honestly evaluate its shortcomings and reconsider what role it should fill in God’s Kingdom in this place.

Is it easy to change? No, it’s actually much easier to hire a realtor, sell the building, and take communion by yourself at home. But imagine the joy of helping a struggling, failing church turn around and thrive. Imagine the feeling of knowing you were a part of the change.

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6 Responses

  1. Jay,
    We have tried to help some churches turn around. The prevailing idea whether we want to admit it or not is: “If we have the right conclusions from scripture that is all that matters”. In a small church in Vicksburg MS the preacher told us that if God wanted the church to close down it would. Shocked I asked him how he would explain that to God. He said if we have the right theology and that is all that really matters. I had suspected this and heard in directly but never so succinctly and with so much conviction. This since has caused me great concern that most churches will not turn around but close down with the false security of just having the “right” theology. Maybe I am too negative but I am realistic I think. Also we must understand that there is a huge difference in “making disciples of all people” and dragging people to baptistery or just increasing in membership. Until we understand that; we can fill the pews but never fulfill our mission of disciple making. In fact I believe it is our failure to understand this principle in its context that has led to our numerical decline. Most people who made up the churches of Christ during it’s heydays of the middle part of the last century were previous pious members of other Christian denominations. A few months ago we traced back our religious heritage on both sides of the family. Well before we were church of Christ we were all Methodist, Baptist and Lutheran. My aunt tells of how she left the Methodist church in the 1940’s because of a gospel meeting where the preacher pointed out all the so called error of the denominations. The church of Christ saw its greatest numerical increase in the USA by convincing other Christian they were doctrinally wrong, not by making disciples of a culturally, racially, ethnically, and religiously diverse group of post modern skeptical non-believers and people of non-Christian faith such as Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and secular humanists. So a main core element of turning a dying church around is not only to rethink our theology but to regain context of our mission in light of our immediate mission field and what it means to make actual “disciples” (not just church members, believers, or institutional loyalists) of all people rich, poor, educated, uneducated, all races, from all different faiths. The Gospel is for everyone not just who we think is worthy or receptive to it.
    Jay you said:
    “The church that turns things around is the church that points the finger of blame at itself. Humility leads to change. Pride leads to destruction. Once a congregation sees itself as the problem, then it can honestly evaluate its shortcomings and reconsider what role it should fill in God’s Kingdom in this place.”
    This is the hardest thing a church will ever do. It is so hard that most would rather wither on the vine instead. The church in Remmel is by far the exception though an encouragement of what is possible. They have made some good changes but they are not in a multi ethnic, cultural and racial part of the country. Most everyone in and around Remmel AR is white middle class. I don’t think it would have done what they have done in an area that is more diverse both culturally and religiously.
    Jay you also said:
    “Is it easy to change? No, it’s actually much easier to hire a realtor, sell the building, and take communion by yourself at home. But imagine the joy of helping a struggling, failing church turn around and thrive. Imagine the feeling of knowing you were a part of the change.”
    I would hate to have to stand before God on the Day of Judgment and explain why I as an elder let a church die because we were unwilling to rethink our theology and do hard things. That is going to be a tuff sell but with an average of 300+ churches closing down each year just in the southeast and south central USA alone I fear it this scenario will be more common.

  2. There is a fresh wind blowing. Many of our folks have discovered “love” is a verb and are going to where people are, loving them like they are, demanding nothing in return. This is a foundation that will give credibility to our message of hope in Jesus.

    Joe is correct. Much of our historical work was “correctional”, not “redemptive”. Some of our efforts have been like trying to save a man from drowning who is standing on dry land in good health.

    It is not enough to have right doctrine, to love theology, and to love the “church of Chist”. All is vain unless we love the people Jesus died for in tangible ways. Churches that are experiencing real growth from new converts are known as people who love the folks in their communities, and preach the gospel.

    Royce

  3. I think it is odd though , our perceptions of the church as universal has us looking at stats and trends in order to mend a denomination. It is much like the new ideology of global warming ( climate change) and being green. The remedies of a healthier church are juxtaposed with realities of true nature of inevitable change.

    Is our decline natural or is a man made phenomenon? The churches of Christ are still mainly associated with a right wing pragmatism progressive or not. Thus most would look at the call to action of a shrinking church as mostly a chicken little problem. As for myself I am perplexed . I like your ideas Jay but I am also conscience of the fact many would think of these ideas as over the top.

  4. Mark,
    I think it is ironic that we use “chicken little” as a metaphor as no one listened to him but he was telling the truth and everyone was really sorry they didn’t listen. To a church that is about to close its doors it is meaningless to refer to institutional stats. When flavil had announced in 2007 that we were growing at rate of 1.6% over 30 years a bunch of people in churches that were actually in the process of closing down or very close were comforted because they thought the institution or dare I say the denomination of the churches of Christ was not in any real jeopardy. So they gladly close down their church with the assurance that the churches of Christ as a distinct religious group (not the kingdom) are not in any real danger. The Christian Chronicle did a story on the Rosemount church in Ft. Worth TX that recently closed down but were comforted that the Baxter Institute was bringing in Hispanic preachers to reach Spanish speaking south Ft. Worth. Well Hispanics are not the only ones in Ft. Worth. The down town area there has been completely revitalized and young well educated post modern professionals from diverse racial and ethnic back grounds are quickly moving to town, what about them?

  5. I believe a significant part of the problem lies in focusing internally versus focusing externally.

    Stop trying to save the congregation, and start serving people outside the congregation. It’s remarkable how serving those outside gets us past our internal squabbles and draws others to faith.

  6. Very well said! I work in college ministry and our young people (aka the future of our church) have this figured out. We just need to follow their lead – which is a challenge because we have been so externally focused. Just this week I found this excerpt from a book by Jonathan Edwards entitled, Religious Affections:

    “The nature of human beings is to be inactive unless influenced by some affection: love or hatred, desire, hope, fear etc. These affections are the “springs of action,” the things that set us moving in our lives, that move us to engage in activities. When we look at the world, we see that people are exceedingly busy. It is their affections that keep them busy.

    It is the affection we call covetousness that moves a person to seek worldly profits; it is the affection we call ambition that moves a person to pursue worldly glory; it is the affection we call lust that moves a person to pursue sensual delights. Just as worldly actions are the spring of worldy affections, so the religious affections are the spring for religious actions.”

    So we should consider our “religious actions” for these speak volumes about our religious affections. Do we have true affection for those who are different from us? Or does the action in our church show that we only have affection for ourselves?

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