The Myth of How to Save A Shrinking Church

boy in superhero cape.png

The Thinking Goes...

“The Mainline Church is dying. Therefore, Preachers, you must do ______ to fix the problem.”

Depending on the article or workshop, the blank is filled with everything from firing up the congregation for programs to creating "relevant" liturgies to preaching biblical literacy.

As evidence of what "works," we're offered anecdotal stories of congregations who have landed on “it": community gardens; cultural music specific to a region that brings people back to their roots; a way to preach to young people. 

The implication is that anecdotal evidence can be extrapolated to the whole.

These stories suggest that “it” is simply waiting for each of us to imitate or discover. If only we find “it,” the congregation will revive. It’s up to us to keep looking for “it,” and if the church doors close in the meantime, we are to blame for not finding “it” in time.

Of course, they say, pray a lot and rely on the Holy Spirit

But in truth, most messages imply it’s really up to us   

Wow. That’s a lot of responsibility. 

But is it truly ours? What, exactly, is our responsibility here?

In Real Life

I have two friends, both of whom are as faithful, loving, dedicated to, and passionate about their pastoral and preaching work as I could ever hope to see.

Both are leaving their aging, gray-haired congregations because the writing is on the wall.

Between the rate of death among members and the demographics of the towns they serve, the likelihood of a resurgence in membership is next to nil. Neither preacher feels called to remain and preside over closing the doors on their beloved congregations. Among other reasons, the grief is too much to bear.

I’ve heard both of them play What if? scenarios endlessly:

What if I had preached better?

What if I had started that program?

What if I had better inspired my congregation to evangelize?

What did I do wrong?

Aging congregations aren’t the only ones losing members. The problem is so much bigger than any one preacher, or any one congregation.

Church systems, changing demographics, and our collective understanding of what “church” means is affecting all kinds of churches across the country. None of us alone has that much power to influence an entire system. 

"Right-sizing" the Preacher's Responsibility: Hanging up the Superhero Cape

“According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is caring for it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ” (I Cor 3:10-11).

Some years back I had a pastoral conversation with a parishioner with whom I had a warm relationship. I’ll call her Ann.

To provide a few hours’ respite to her sister, Ann stayed with her brother-in-law, Bill, who was dying of cancer. Bill was mobile but his balance was compromised.

A foot taller and sixty pounds heavier than Ann, Bill was sitting in a chair opposite Ann in the living room. When he stood up, he toppled and crashed into the rectangular glass coffee table between them.  A trip to the emergency room ensued for multiple stitches. 

Ann was racked with guilt. I asked her what she felt guilty about.

“I should have stopped him from falling!”

“So,” I said. “Let me get the picture straight. In the nanosecond when Bill started to tip towards the table, you believe you should have seen his fall coming and leapt diagonally across the table to stabilize him—a man who has a foot and sixty pounds on you?”

Ann looked stunned as the physics sunk in.

I added, You’re a mere mortal, Ann. Not a superhero.” 

“Well,” she started to smile with relief, “when you put it that way…”

Ann was as faithful as she could be to her sister and her husband. Once she “right-sized” her responsibility, she found peace again. 

Like Ann, we are mere mortal preachers in a church that is changing in unprecedented ways.

Our responsibility is to remember in humility that we are, and always have been, part of something much larger than ourselves.

No part of the church's salvation is or ever has been the preacher's sole responsibility, neither for the broader church that has existed for millennia, nor for our individual congregations. As soon as we believe we bring salvation, we miss the Gospel

What is a Preacher to Do?

Even if we see the fall of a congregation coming, we may not be able to prevent it. The changes in the church are of such seismic proportions, many call our age the beginning of a Second Reformation.

To think that any one of us can stop what is happening is to take on more responsibility than is fair, accurate, or human.

So what can we do? 

Rather than pursue an outcome, focus on the process.

Be faithful to the process of preaching Good News. Seek God in your life, your congregation, and the world. Proclaim God's grace and mercy in all and for all. Welcome and love every person who enters not just your church but your life.

Then leave the results to God. For who can guess the mind of God? Who can say what new life will arise after the “death” of a congregation?

By all means, we can and should stay open to the surprises, shifts, and possibilities of the Spirit. God is always doing a new thing.

But you can hang up your cape.

And take heart that whatever word you are called to preach is sufficient unto the day, and will not return to God empty.    

Never miss a blog post.

Plus, get extra tips and BsP info that only subscribers receive—delivered directly to your inbox.