I needed some good news. Working with congregations and clergy these days is often an exercise in encouraging the discouraged. And sometimes, even the encourager gets discouraged.
Data, surveys, media and real-life experiences combine to paint a bleak picture for the vast majority of congregations in America. Consequently, I often receive calls from clergy and congregations who are increasingly bewildered by their declining numbers — in every phase of their existence. They’re gradually awakening to the reality that what worked in the past is not likely to pull them out of their 21st century nosedive.
On average, the congregational coaches and consultants with which I work find churches wrestling with a 40 percent drop in physical worship attendance compared to pre-Covid numbers. Fuzzy reports regarding online participation seem to indicate many formerly active congregants have dropped out and may not be coming back to church. These statistics — coupled with assumptions by lay leaders who often think all the issues are the result of poor local leadership — create a breeding ground for heightened stress, anxiety and discouragement.
So, I was hungry for some encouragement, and I found it in presentations by four pastors at the Center for Healthy Churches’ Project Thrive conference in Nashville this fall. We invited two Presbyterian pastors from Philadelphia, Chris Holland and Cean James, and two Baptist pastors from Charlotte, Amy Dean and Russ Dean, to share how their faith communities are navigating the challenges of the 2020s.
The topics they addressed included creative use of buildings as ministry tools, collaborative partnering, re-thinking building construction/renovation, and engaging with the local community to infuse Gospel salt and light where it is desperately needed. Lay and clergy leaders from 18 participating churches in the Nashville Project Thrive at Belmont University comprised their audience.
What a day of encouragement and inspiration! From the beginning, it was clear Amy, Cean, Chris and Russ were not going to add to anyone’s sense of doom and gloom.
Instead, they offered thoughtful and wise guidance about how to lean into the opportunities that exist for churches today. Despite their long odds, declining metrics, skeptical members and cultural pushback, each pastor described a congregation willing to admit the ways of the past might not provide the paths into the future.
Their churches — in downtown Philadelphia and in central Charlotte — offered a needed dose of hope and insight to conference participants.
Here were some of my takeaways from listening to them tell their stories:
- Humility is essential. Admitting “we need help” and “we don’t know it all” formed the heart of both church situations. Pride and an addiction to the past would have prevented any of the ensuing vitality from taking root.
- Church leaders, both clergy and laity, need to be in the game for the long-term. When it comes to creating a healthy culture and vibrancy, we’re talking years, not months. Short-term thinking will exhaust clergy and laity alike. Long-term thinking helps leaders follow a reasonable pace.
- Leading churches isn’t easy. No simple solutions or programs or books will cure what ails your church. Beware those who think a technical change in the worship service, a new minister or some other simple fix will turn things around.
Thriving churches often experience as many or more failures as they do successes. That means an extra dose of grace and tolerance needs to be baked into the culture of the congregation.
- Thriving churches often experience as many or more failures as they do successes. That means an extra dose of grace and tolerance needs to be baked into the culture of the congregation.
- Speaking of culture, these ministers described churches willing to seek God’s dream for their congregations, resisting both the lure of conventional wisdom and the toxicity of traditionalism.
- These pastors had lots of smiles and hope to share. Despite the scars they bear, they find purpose and meaning in the lives they touch and the impacts they make.
- Collaboration with others is vital to their successes. This will be a defining trait of thriving churches going forward, as formerly self-sufficient churches realize they no longer can be all things to all people.
- Church buildings no longer are thought of as “ours,” but simply are tools loaned to this generation to utilize for ministry. Allowing valuable space to sit empty six days a week is poor stewardship to these folks. So, they make their buildings gifts to the community at nominal fees.
- Becoming more outward focused does not necessarily mean huge surges in Sunday attendance and weekly budget collections. In fact, these churches count their metrics differently. No longer is Sunday morning their exclusive measure of success. Instead, they have moved toward a “measuring culture” that quantifies the impact they are having both internally and externally.
These people not only love Jesus and the church; they also love their cities. Like Jesus, they weep over their Jerusalem out of affection and a broken heart for the needs they see all around.
Thank you, Amy, Cean, Chris and Russ. I needed that!
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Increasingly, churches are unwilling to adapt, new survey indicates / News by Jeff Brumley
Increasing rejection of church ‘a good thing,’ Brian McLaren says / News by Jeff Brumley