When people are anxious, they become overly focused. Sometimes people overly focus on themselves. But more often people project their anxiety onto others. Spouses do this with each other. Parents become overly focused on the well being of a child. Congregations become overly focused on a problem. One problem for congregations is declining membership.
If you aren’t aware of this problem then let me tell you that membership decline is a really big problem for most congregations. No one really seems to know what to do about it. Back in the day, when it was becoming clear that denominations were in decline, a popular strategy was to redevelop and retool congregations to be more intentionally welcoming of visitors. This strategy worked for a small percentage of congregations. But it turned out not to work for most congregations. As decline continued, congregations became more anxious.
A recently read an article about the new strategy which has become very popular. It goes something like this: if you want to grow your congregation, get out of your building and go into the community. So instead of having a Bible study in the church, have it at a bar. Instead of having worship in the sanctuary, have it at a local restaurant. Don’t do “church” stuff in your building. Go out and find public spaces to use. While it's true that some congregations have had success with this approach, the assumption that it is applicable to all congregations comes from a deep anxiety about the future. Congregations would do better to engage this problem at a local level.
As attendance began to decline in mainline churches, denominational bodies at every level became anxious. There were concerns first at the local church level. In some cases, local congregations worked on the problem and developed appropriate and successful solutions. These congregations either maintained or grew their membership. Other congregations didn’t do so well. They took a more hopeless position and turned to others for help. Some congregations hired consultants while others sought solutions from their denomination. And help did come. But when is helping not really helping?
At higher levels of the denomination, the focus was on solving the problem of membership decline. As decline continued, so too, did their anxiety. Before long, anxiety was being passed back and forth from one level to another. Congregations and clergy passed their anxiety onto supervisors and judicatory officials who in turn passed the anxiety back to clergy and local congregations. This became the context for visitors who responded to those well-crafted invitations. How much of the anxiety of this process was visible to the people who visited these anxious congregations? Is it possible that visitors picked up on the anxiety of a congregation that was in decline? Could they “sense” the anxiety of a congregation who wanted to welcome them but wasn’t confident in how to do it? Did the fear of decline become a self-fulling prophecy in which congregations became the very thing they were worried about?
To be fair, it didn’t happen just to congregations. Most volunteer organizations went through a similar process as they struggled to win over volunteers and raise capital. It is really a societal emotional process that is fueled by anxiety and reactivity. So, what can organizations like congregations do to address the problem of decline without letting anxiety get the best of them? That’s an excellent question!
Congregations that are growing have leaders who are doing a couple of things right. First, leaders work at toning down the anxiety whenever they communicate with others in the congregation. Second, leaders help the congregation articulate principles, values, beliefs and goals. Third, leaders get overly curious and inquisitive about what it takes for a congregation to act in ways that are consistent with their principles, values, beliefs and goals. When a congregation says one thing but does another, leaders want to understand what’s going on. Fourth, leaders ask a lot of questions. You can never ask too many questions. Finally, leaders work on defining a self both in their families and in their congregations. That last one may not seem like it fits with the others, but it's essential.
The result of these activities is vision. If you want to close the doors of a church, then fill the congregation with people who worry about everything. If you want a congregation to thrive, engage a congregation to create a vision. As leaders walk through this process, a vision appears that is big enough to propel a congregation forward.