The numbers don’t lie.
Researchers like the Pew Research Center have documented the continued decline of mainline Protestant congregations. Over the years, the indicator of congregational health and growth has been the Southern Baptist Convention. While most denominations were in decline, the SBC was showing growth. But not anymore. Even after embracing a more diverse demographic, the SBC is now in decline.
People are still hungry for the things that congregations have historically offered. Now, outside organizations are offering the same experience once unique to congregations. I call this phenomenon “outsourcing.”
Congregations first felt the pinch of outsourcing when annual giving declined. The reason? Not-for-profit organizations began sprouting up everywhere to offer relief for social issues once provided by congregations. As these organizations matured, they became more effective and efficient at both providing relief and marketing their efforts to a broader donor base. Congregations would soon be competing for dollars with these more sophisticated agencies. Today, congregations provide a significant volunteer base to the very organizations that are competing with them for donor dollars.
Opportunities for social gathering have been outsourced. Those who are lifelong members of a congregation can recall a time when large numbers of people from the community attended services. Some congregations were a “who’s who” of community life. While some congregations, particularly those in rural communities and in southern states, are still the social center of everyday life, most people get their fix for social connections in other places. Travel groups, children’s sports clubs and booster programs, and networking organizations like Kiwanis and Rotary (even though these clubs are also seeing marked declines) are all providing a place for social connections.
Worship has been outsourced as well. I recently read about an organization that invites people to sing classic choral pieces in four part harmonies. The organization travels around the United States, renting out large auditoriums and charging singers admission. It used to be that individuals joined church choirs to fulfill their love of singing. Even preaching has been outsourced. Shows like The Moth Radio Hour consists of a handful of individuals competing to tell the most hope-filled stories in under six minutes. These events are typically sold-out.
The reaction to these trends has been strong and varied.
For some, the decline of the congregation reveals how, more than ever, their congregation needs to ramp up the promotion of their ideology into the broader culture. They continue to push beliefs and programs hoping that whatever internal changes they agree to make will attract the “nones” (those with no religious affiliation). They continue this approach, often unwilling to make strategic changes until only a handful of people remain. These congregations continue to see the problem outside of themselves in the values of the broader community. The people outside of the congregation are the ones who need to change and their congregation is ready and waiting for them to come through the doors.
For some, the decline points to an unwillingness of the congregation to let go of the past. The congregation is then engaged in the process of a major, strategic overhaul to find new ways to communicate their ideology in even more hip and relevant ways. They are in a constant state of flux as they continually piggyback on whatever trendy thing comes along. Over time it becomes difficult to sustain this effort without shifting the normative values of the congregation. As a result, the core base of the church starts to leave. The problem is viewed as internal. It is the congregation that needs to change.
The real issue is fear.
Peter Steinke wrote several books for his series Health Congregations. A major theme in his writings is how relationship systems react to anxiety. He identifies five outcomes: Reactivity, herding, blaming, quick-fix mentality, and poorly defined leadership.
Reactivity reflects our tendency to take things personally instead of seeing behavior as part of a broader system. Herding is the polarization of people that occurs as a result of an increased response to fear. Blaming is an effort to identify our own internal discomfort and then make someone else responsible for it. A quick-fix mentality is having short-term solutions to resolve congregational anxiety at the expense of long-term gains. Poorly defined leadership reflects a tendency to elect or appoint immature leaders who are unable to define a self and are vulnerable to setting agendas that only address anxiety in the relationship system.
These are fear-based reactions. Regardless of what started the initial decline many years ago, the fact that it has continued confirms the idea: congregations are approaching decline out of a fear based response. The evidence is observable when looking at Steinke’s five behavioral responses.
Take, for example, the quick-fix mentality. Since the early 1990’s, the denominational conference that ordained me has initiated a new church growth strategy about every four years. These are programmatic initiatives focused on identifying congregational weaknesses and flaws. Training is provided by the conference to help congregations overcome their deficiencies. I’m not aware of any research that has been done to evaluate the success of these programs. My hunch is the outcomes varied from church to church. Some responded well and successfully implemented the training ideas. Others were unable to make the necessary changes, and the ideas from the training became a source of conflict for the congregation. This would be evidence of a fear-based response.
Thinking congregations focus on relationships and not programs.
Denominations and local congregations continue to pour money and time into trainings that offer quick-fixes and identify problematic behaviors. That horse is dead, and yet we continue to use this methodology to pull congregations forward. No program is going to solve the problems congregational leaders are facing today. A concrete list of ideas to save a congregation from decline does not exist and anyone who tries to sell you one is a charlatan. Why? Because programs and initiatives that fail to address problems in the relationship system are doomed to fail.
The reason so many programs that were the bread and butter of congregational life are being outsourced is that they remove the very thing that continues to be problematic for congregations: an anxious relationship system. One can sing in a giant concert hall for an afternoon filled with hundreds of other singers . . . and then go home. You don’t have to deal with all the other alto’s week in and week out. You can plug in and then plug out. There is no messy relationship system. If you meet someone you like, you can start a friendship. If not, you’ve had a lovely afternoon singing.
One can volunteer at a local relief organization and put dehydrated soy products in a sealed bag to be shipped across the world without ever having to attend a monthly meeting listening to people complain about institutional problems. Parents are willing to sign up to bring drinks, supplies, and even volunteer for a day in their kid’s classroom, but please don’t ask them to serve as an officer for the parent organization. Our sensitivity to others continues to increase.
As anxiety increases and we become more sensitive to others in the family relationship system, the anxiety spills over into the broader society and into other systems like schools, courts, and governments. As these systems experience increased anxiety from families, they push back to the family creating more and more anxiety. Ending this cycle of anxiety requires individual leaders who can take responsibility for their reactivity. You can read more about the societal emotional process developed by Dr. Murray Bowen by clicking here.
Bringing programs back.
Congregations are not intentionally outsourcing their programs to external organizations. The growth of these programs is related to the inability of congregations to address the underlying relationship problems. Let me be clear; these problems are not unique to congregations. All organizations that have a large relationship component are facing the same challenge. If congregations are going to reclaim an important role in society, the first step is to develop a systems perspective on human behavior.
From the beginning, congregations have always been about relationships. Congregations don’t flourish because of programs; they flourish because of people. More specifically, congregations do well when individuals have the opportunity to be their best self. It requires good leadership. And good leadership is the result of the ongoing work of defining a self. If I could run an experiment where two congregations attend the same training, my hypothesis would state that one congregation would come back and successfully implement (and possibly excel from) the learnings from the training. The other congregation would come back unable to implement the ideas. The results would show that the leadership of the second congregation operated out of fear and that the leaders of the first congregation operate out of a thinking and less reactive mode. What I am suggesting is the possibility of seeing how the leaders in the first congregation did a better job of defining themselves as leaders or what Bowen called differentiation of self. In some ways, I have seen the results of this hypothesis in every congregation I have led.
So, the key to successful engagement of a congregation has to do with paying more attention to the relationship system and how congregational leaders relate to the system. The hallmark of this kind of effort would include leaders who are:
- Being creative and doing out of the box thinking
- Valuing everyone’s participation and see everyone as equals
- Welcoming and encouraging questions
- Encourage congregations to invest in exploring and discovering new things
- Celebrating people’s efforts in ministry
- Taking risks
- Focusing on facts and what’s actually going on
- Managing their own reactivity to their own and other people’s anxiety
- Thinking systems
What things would you add to this list? You can include them in the comment section.
People intuitively know the difference between these two types of congregations. The problem comes in knowing how to get unstuck and move forward in a different way. Being aware of this reality and working on being the best leader one can be is essential. What is desperately needed is training and opportunities for congregational leaders to be coached to do their best thinking within the context of the relationship system. We don’t need to learn about one more program. As the relationship system does better, is less reactive, less anxious and has leaders working on differentiation of self, important programs will always emerge.