There’s a lot of talk about shrinking congregations. The decline in attendance is most noticeable in the mainline Protestant church. There is considerable debate about what factors contribute to decline. The lack of clarity about it is concerning. It’s creating fatigue among congregational leaders because they are in an untenable position. Leaders cannot effectively lead change if they don’t understand the processes and factors driving the problem.
Over several decades, well-intentioned coaches talked about the importance of contemporary worship, the size of the parking lot, the number of people in the choir, the colors of the interior of the building, removing denominational insignia, greeters in the parking lot, cushions on the pews, gift bags for visitors, a robust social media presence, and a branding plan. A case can be made for the importance of any of these solutions. But none of them get us closer to the heart of the matter.
One motivation for writing this weekly blog is to provide an alternative way of thinking about the challenges congregational leaders face. It is an alternative to the “what works for us” and “do these five things and have success” mentality that feeds much of the leadership training that is offered.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. We can claim, with a degree of certainty, that the following list is essential for building congregations: Critical mass, money, a compelling narrative, and a system for developing relationships.
Butts in the Pews
Critical mass is essential for long-term sustainability. If you walk into a congregation that has a dozen people in worship, you might wonder, “what’s wrong with this congregation that there aren’t more people here?” As a consumer, you are more likely to purchase from an online company that has hundreds of positive reviews then from a company that has no reviews, even if they offer the best price. Critical mass matters. But we can’t stop there. Even megachurches (with their stellar attendance records) are facing decline. Clearly, other factors are in play.
Congregations with long-term sustainability have access to money. Those who are able to raise capital are able to grow. Money matters. Other resources matter too, like having well-trained leaders and volunteers. But let’s not forget that even if you have access to money, leaders, and volunteers you still need to use them wisely. A community built along the ocean will have thirsty citizens if they don’t figure out how to purify the water and disburse it to the people.
A compelling narrative is one that resonates and connects with us. A compelling narrative is relevant to our daily lives. It speaks to us. It motivates us to action. It gives us meaning.
I titled this section “beliefs” because the narrative and our beliefs eventually intersect at a point of understanding. To believe in a narrative, one must understand it and be able to connect it to one’s life.
I still have questions about narratives and whether the decline in the mainline Protestant church is related to the narrative. Organizations that are growing do a good job of telling a compelling narrative. But is the decline in congregations related to the narrative? If so, how can congregations do a better job of telling a compelling narrative?
Belonging Precedes Believing
I’ve written already about belonging vs. believing. You can read my blog about it by clicking here. Congregations that thrive have a highly structured and well-maintained relationship system that helps new people become connected, and supports an individual's effort to reach their goals. Congregations flourish to the extent they connect people together in meaningful ways. Belonging without believing is more important than requiring people to agree to a fixed set of creeds and doctrines before they can belong.
Where Do We Go From Here?
I still have questions about these characteristics of vibrant congregations. How can they be measured quantitatively and qualitatively? What is the interplay between these characteristics (does one dominate or are they all equal)? How many of these characteristics do you need to thrive (all of them, a mixture, or just one)? Are there examples of vibrant congregations that have none of these characteristics or only one of them? What characteristics are missing?
And what about the one thing I have yet to mention: leadership? How in the world do we develop good leaders? Dr. Murray Bowen described the importance of having a good family leader when dealing with challenging families. More than ever, congregations need good leaders. Bowen observed that good leaders are working on differentiation of self.
Many factors make up the concept of differentiation of self. One of them is the ability to make good use of new and relevant information. Leaders working on differentiation of self are open to new ideas and new ways of thinking. They are open to incorporating these new ideas into their way of thinking when appropriate. They evaluate the way they think but are unwilling to give up their thinking when faced with the immature or irresponsible thinking of others.
Leaders are flexible. Instead of buckling down to achieve some sort of short-term gain, they step up and out to embrace a new challenge. Leaders understand that flexibility is the key to long-term sustainability.
Differentiation of self is about leaning into the complexity of these issues and their connection to a congregation. It’s about curiosity, discovery, reflective thinking, creativity, and risk-taking. Without these things, congregations become reactive to their changing circumstances and face an avoidable death. Leaders who are working on differentiation of self places themselves in a better position to lead their congregation into the future. Critical mass, money, a compelling narrative, and a system for developing relationships may be essential, but differentiation of self is key.