By Jeff Brumley
Declining memberships and contributions, shuttered sanctuaries and surging megachurches have generated a lot of fear in U.S. congregations.
The problem is that fear is a turnoff to those that struggling churches hope to serve, M. Craig Barnes, president of Princeton Theological Seminary, wrote in a Jan. 29 article for The Christian Century.
The church, he said, “has never looked less attractive than when it dresses in anxiety. Historically that’s when we’ve made our worst mistakes. Fear makes us desperate. We throw the little money and energy that remains into trendy programs that make no substantive change.”
Barnes’ article, “The post-anxiety church,” was aimed at mainline churches concerned about the health of their denominations. But Baptist ministers said its diagnosis of fear can be applied to their churches, too.
And so can Barnes’ prescription.
“The alternative response is for the church to do what it’s always done at its best, what it did from the beginning: stop thinking about its future and sacrifice itself to its mission.”
‘Concentrate on mission’
Much the same is true for Baptist and other non-mainline churches coping with downward membership trends, said David Hull, coordinator for the Center for Healthy Churches-Southeast.
Clergy and congregations are often eager to learn what they can do to reverse those trends and to ensure the survival of their institutions. Hull said that’s the wrong way to look at the situation.
“Don’t concentrate on survival,” he said. “Concentrate on the mission.”
At the same time, a church’s health is a worthy goal, he said.
“We do our best not just for survival but to be good stewards of the church that Jesus Christ has entrusted us into our care.”
To be good stewards means to overcome the tension of attractional versus missional models, Hull said.
“It’s both-and, not either-or.”
“A church needs a good balance between that sense of attracting people to come to Christ, as well as a sense of going and being missional,” he added.
‘A means to an end’
And in some cases it’s the missional — the going out — that ends up attracting people to a church.
At least that’s what Susan Rogers has discovered as pastor of The Well at Springfield, a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship missional church plant in Jacksonville, Fla.
Rogers, who launched the inner-city church in 2011, said the idea wasn’t to grow membership through expensive ministries, but to help meet the spiritual and material needs of local residents.
“Church is not meant to be an end; it’s a means to an end,” Rogers said.
So as the congregation grew, members set about volunteering at local nonprofits and schools.
“We looked for opportunities to intersect with people where they naturally are,” she said. “We don’t want them to necessarily come to us, we want to listen and learn about the needs they have so we can partner with what’s already happening.”
But that approach to ministry has come with a good amount of fear, Rogers said.
Fear is ‘natural’
Finances was one area that generated some anxiety. The Well was launched with three years of combined funding from CBF national and CBF Florida. Since then it’s been making its own way.
And then there’s the congregation’s worship space situation. Since its founding, The Well has met in three rented spaces — an events center before and after worshiping in a Lutheran church.
Plans are now being formulated to move to a collaborative space shared by artists and a restaurant.
With the uncertainty of finances and space, Rogers said, it’s easy to get caught up in worry.
“I feel like fear is a natural part of dealing with finances and also of creating something and trying to become independent,” she said.
Looking back and forward
But there are two actions that help alleviate those fears, she added, looking back and looking forward.
Looking back is a reminder that the congregation repeatedly met and overcame its challenges.
“We look back on how God has provided for us in the past.”
Looking to the future also helps, especially by using CBF’s Dawning’s resource, she said.
“It’s been helpful to follow a rhythm of visioning, forming and engaging throughout the year,” Rogers said. “That way, we are never done seeking, asking and learning and are listening for God’s voice. This helps to reassure us when fear creeps in.”
But it also helps to remember that even if The Well were ultimately to close, “it would not be the end of the world,” she said.
So that gets back to the basics — doing the mission the church is called to do and not worrying about the eventual outcome.
“It’s not about gathering a large congregation, it’s not about how much money you take in on a Sunday or about a huge reputation you are creating for yourself,” Rogers said. “It’s about transformation. Are people being changed because of their experience of your church and the gospel?”