Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Friday, August 10, 2012

A Woeful Tale: The Decline of a Church

A Message From Richard

Summer is the season in which church problems often surface.  Members’ and pastors’ vacations can result in spotty attendance, boards and committees often take time off, and discontent can find fertile ground in which to grow.  Richard sometimes referred to it as “The Silly Season,” a time when conflict would brew and, come September, pastors and churches would find themselves in crisis.  One of the last pieces he worked on for this blog arose out of his many years of consulting with churches and pastors in such times.  He drafted it just about a year ago, sent me a copy, and suggested that though it differed in theme from most of our postings, we might hold it for a time and see if there would be an opportune moment to post it.  With September approaching, I believe this is the time.  It speaks for itself, and while it lacks a happy ending, it contains a warning which, if heeded, includes a corrective.
H. MacMullen, August, 2012

The past two years I have been mentoring a bright, gifted young pastor who served a small marginal congregation in suburban Philadelphia.  She worked very hard for four years until it became evident that the congregation was reluctant to do what was necessary to become a living church.  The situation deteriorated to conflict with several individuals who eventually join forces to blame and abuse the pastor because she did not “make it better.”  She went through a period of time of prayer and discernment and decided to leave for her own well-being.  She called recently to inform me that she has a new call to another small marginal congregation and is committed to that ministry.  I admire and respect her faith and courage and pray for her daily. More than 45 years experience in this field has taught me that, sadly, her experiences are not unique. 

The number of churches declining at an accelerating rate is rapidly growing, and there seems to be no stopping the trend that has become endemic and systemic throughout the Reformed, Lutheran, Episcopal and Protestant traditions.  There is a pattern to this decline which is obvious but mostly ignored for a variety of reasons, the most serious of which is a patent reluctance churches and some pastors to confront reality.

The beginning period of decline represents time of decision in which there is hope, a possibility that the church can reverse the trends.  Membership losses are still relatively small, and the decline is slow.  There seems to be good reason to assume that the downward trend can be reversed.  While it is not an easy task to change a self-centered congregation into one that witnesses faithfully and effectively to God’s ongoing love and grace, an aroused leadership, discerning the will of the Holy Spirit, can accomplish great things.

On the other hand, if there is no change in the spirit, attitude, witness and mission of the church, the rate of decline accelerates into a reversal of the pattern of growth.  People sense the impotence of the congregation and find logical excuses to transfer to more active churches or simply drop out altogether.  Once the pattern of transfer has been established others find it easy to follow.  Non-members in the community who are not part of any congregation may become aware of the church’s impoverishing lack of concern for non-members or for the community.  Near neighbors pass by the church building without thought, unless it is to pity the congregation’s struggles, or feel ashamed if they are from the same faith tradition.  Their unwillingness to join is most significant, and in the midst of God’s people the church becomes weaker.

In this period, the situation becomes desperate; radical changes in attitude are needed to save the church.  If it is located in the midst of people it has not served, the radical change must first take place in the hearts of the members.  They must turn from being self-centered to being God-centered, and through God to witnessing of Christ’s love for others.

If these radical changes are not made, the church enters a period of stubborn continuance during which an ever-dwindling handful of members maintain the church.  They soon turn to blaming one another, the lay leadership, and eventually focus all the blame on the pastor.  Maintenance becomes a heavy financial burden.  The congregation’s lack of community concern and involvement results in its impact on the community becoming out and out negative.  No one cares anymore, and for the few remaining members, the church becomes an unconscious promotion of personal fear and selfishness that is patently un-Christian.

Finally, the few remaining members turn to conflict with one another, no one willing to take responsibility for the circumstances.  The pastor departs; there is no regular worship, no witness and mission in the community.  Eventually the church dies.  The building crumbles into disrepair or is sold and torn down for another use. Sadly, within a generation no one remembers what once existed in that place or why it died.  A woeful tale indeed. 

Kyrie eleison.

Richard Hammond Price, OCC
© August, 2011

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