More of the Same?

Presentations.  Private conversations.  Statistical analysis.  Consultations.  The words may vary but the picture they paint doesn’t.  The way we’re used to doing church isn’t working any more.  Not just us Lutherans, but literally every mainline Protestant denomination is losing traction nationwide.  Attendance is down.  Congregations are shrinking.  Youth is largely non-existent.  Conversions & baptisms are essentially a trickle.  

I sit in a conference room with perhaps 150 other pastors and congregational leaders.  We hear the words.  We take in the charts and numbers.  We sigh audibly and nod our heads in ready agreement with the conclusions.  But then we go back to our congregations and do the same thing that we did last week and the month before that and the decade before that.  For some, it has worked – sometimes very well – for years.  But for more than not, it isn’t working any longer.  
For many the writing is already on the wall.  The local numbers are not sustainable.  Costs are trimmed as much as possible.  The wagons are circled in an effort to stave off the inevitable.  We pray for a miracle, hope for an influx of energy and giving, some young families with kids – surely we have to have kids, right?  
For other pastors, while we acknowledge the truth of the words and numbers, while we fully acknowledge the trends, we aren’t there yet.  It’s somebody else’s problem for now.  Things are going well.  Maybe really well.  Well, well enough at least.  The budget isn’t as strong as we’d like it.  A little in the red but manageable.  Some well-timed endowments or perhaps a giving program could solve that problem though, and then we’re set to keep on moving.
It can’t possibly be that the statistics will one day apply to us.  That will be somebody else’s problem.  Somebody else’s cross to bear.  We can last a bit longer.  Until we retire.  Until we die.  We don’t want to be the one that redoes everything in the congregation.  Not on our watch.  Our job is to faithfully keep the church on course, not tear things apart and begin rebuilding from scratch.  Surely that can’t be our job.  Our duty.  Our privilege?  
If not us, then who?  If not now, then when?  When it’s too late?  
The added problem is that there are very few (any?) reliable road maps for what lies ahead.  There are innumerable experts and gurus that are willing to sell books and seminars and consultation programs, claiming to be able to equip us for the future.  I haven’t seen any of them work first (or second) hand.  It’s not that the intentions aren’t good, it’s just that there don’t seem to be a lot of (or any?) models that can replace 500 years of accumulated congregational practice and structure.  Too much ambiguity.  Too much uncertainty.  Satan in the midst of it all stirring the pot and driving us to distraction and conflict and frustration.  Congregations spend their dwindling resources on consultations and programs that more often than not don’t yield the results we hope for.  People grow further frustrated and jaded and cynical.  Whatever impetus and resolve for change was once there is expended in dead-ends.  
How do we maintain the best of what we have inherited while freeing ourselves up to take that best into our communities?  How much of what we do is ultimately driven by comfort and familiarity, memory and memorials?  
And if nobody is willing to budge until it is too late, how are those new road maps going to be written?  If nobody is willing to risk a change that might fail, preferring to stay a course that is almost certainly doomed to failure, what happens?  

2 Responses to “More of the Same?”

  1. Doug Vossler Says:

    The visible results can certainly seem bleak at times. Fortunately, God is in control. He reminds us of this in Isaiah 55:8-11 where He says that His Word will not return empty and will accomplish His purpose. We may never visibly see this (what a blessing if we do!), but can be assured it has and will continue to happen.

  2. Paul Nelson Says:

    I agree with the spirit of your comment.  God is definitely in control.

    But, He has chosen to work with us.  I struggle with the mantra that we don’t need to pay attention to what, in any other context, would be a signal for panic.  While we are promised that the gates of hell won’t prevail against the Church (Matthew 16:18), we are also given marching orders (Matthew 28:16-20).  We may quibble about who those orders are directed towards (Just the disciples?  Just evangelists?  All the faithful?), but it seems clear that there is work to be done.  

    I’m not one to put ultimate faith in metrics, because metrics can only show us how we are doing based on an existing model.  They can tell us that we are smaller than we used to be, or older than we used to be.  But they can’t tell us what you’re getting at – is the Gospel still being shared, but not resulting in people who come to church?  That’s a very good question to ask, though I suspect the answer should disappoint us either way!

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