Need some good news?
I needed some good news. Working with congregations and clergy these days is often an exercise in encouraging the discouraged. The data, surveys, media and real-life experiences combine to paint a bleak picture for the vast majority of congregations in America. As a result, our calls increasingly are from clergy and congregations bewildered by their declining metrics and gradually awakening to the fact that what worked in the past is not likely to pull them out of their 21st century nosedive. On average, we find churches wrestling with a 40% drop in physically present worship attendance compared to pre-Covid numbers. Fuzzy numbers from online participation seem to indicate that many formerly active constituents have dropped out and may not be coming back. These kinds of statistics, coupled with lay leaders who often assume all the issues are a 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 the presentations by four pastors at our Project Thrive conference in Nashville over the weekend. We invited two Presbyterian pastors from Philadelphia and two Baptist pastors from Charlotte to come share with us how their faith community is navigating the challenges of the 2020-decade. The topics they chose to address were: 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 into the community where it is desperately needed. The audience was a collection of lay and clergy leaders from our 18 participating churches in the Nashville Project Thrive at Belmont University.
What a day of encouragement and inspiration!
From the beginning, it was clear that Cean, Chris, Russ and Amy 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 in the current milieu. Despite their long odds, declining metrics, skeptical members and cultural pushback, each described a congregation willing to admit that the ways of the past might not be the paths into the future.
One cluster of churches was in downtown Philadelphia, the other is central Charlotte provided a needed dose of hope and insight to those gathered.
Here were some of my takeaways from listening to them for the morning:
- Humility was essential. To admit that “we need help” and “we don’t know it all” was at the heart of both situations. Pride and an addiction to the past would have prevented any of the ensuing vitality from taking root.
- Leadership, 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 your team and you. Long-term thinking helps you pace yourself.
- This isn’t easy. There are no simple solutions or programs or books that will cure what ails you. Beware those who think a technical change in your worship service, or a new minister, or some other simple fix will turn things around.
- Thriving churches often have 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 genuinely seek first God’s dream for their church and resist the lure of conventional wisdom or the toxicity of traditionalism.
- These people had lots of smiles and hope to share. Despite the scars they bore, they found purpose and meaning in the lives they touched and the impacts they made.
- Collaboration with others was at the heart of their successes. We believe this will be a defining trait of thriving churches going forward, as formerly self-sufficient churches realize they are no longer capable of being all things to all people.
- One remarkably consistent theme was that the church buildings were no longer thought of as “ours”, but were simply tools that had been loaned to this generation to utilize for ministry. Having valuable spaces sit empty 6 days a week is poor stewardship to these folks, and so they sought to make their buildings a gift to the community at a nominal fee.
- Becoming more outward focused does not necessarily mean a huge surge in Sunday attendance and weekly budget collections. In fact, these churches count their metrics very differently. No longer is Sunday morning their exclusive measure of success. Instead, they have moved toward a “measuring culture” that seeks to quantify the impact they are having internally and externally.
- These people not only love Jesus and the church, they love their city. Like Jesus, they weep over their Jerusalem out of affection and a broken heart for the need they see all around.
Thank you Sean, Chris, Russ and Amy.
I needed that!