Changing the Narrative: Moving from “Decline, Failure, Closure, and Death” to “Maturity, Legacy Building, Ministry Completion, and Resurrection.”
A narrative is a story, often a shared story. The narrative for many churches today is decline leading to failure, leading to closure, which means death. This is what it feels like to people inside many struggling congregations. It is not a helpful story to be telling ourselves. I
I have at least two problems with this narrative. First, I don’t think it is faithful because it does not see God as still being at work in the congregation. Declining congregations sometimes feel that God has abandoned them. I don’t think that God ever abandons anyone, much less a congregation. However, if a congregation has blinders on, they may only see success as measured by traditional metrics of membership, worship attendance, and financial support. These churches may be missing – may be blind to - the new opportunities to align themselves with God’s purposes in the world and to partner with God to create a more compassionate, just and peaceful world.
I have heard different suggestions for how to avoid this trap and see new opportunities. One idea is to ask and keep asking where transformation is happening in the life of the congregation. (Mark Tidsworth, I think.) Another is to ask who needs to experience God’s love, and how can we incarnate God’s love for these people. (Kenda Creasy Dean, I think.) I’m not seminary trained; I went to business school. I learned that not everything that you can measure is important, and not everything that is important can be measured. There is a difference between measurable and knowable. (Maybe Peter Drucker.) Focusing on transformation and expressing God’s love, even if these things are hard to measure, may help us to change the narrative.
While I am not seminary trained, I have studied scripture and have great appreciation for the care with which the Gospels have been written. Episodes of Jesus healing blindness are used to “frame” important teachings of Jesus. It is a way to say that people are being blind to the message and seeing the message will heal them. This is an important question for churches in decline: What are we being blind to? What do we need to see in order to be healed?
The second problem I have with the narrative of decline, failure, closure, and death is that it often leads to poor stewardship decisions. Churches consume assets inherited from previous generations, including by ignoring donor restrictions (generally not legal), struggling to recover the past or delay decline without dealing with the fundamental issue. Churches are not in decline because they have forgotten how to “do church.” Churches are in decline because the way we do church is no longer aligned with social and cultural needs for providing people with ways to be more fully human and to be connected to something larger than themselves. People still need these things, but they don’t see “going to church” – interesting way to describe discipleship, when you think about it – as a way to meet these needs. Churches squander resources without finding new directions, which is not fruitful, which means that the assets are not being used in new and potentially more fruitful ways. I don’t think that this pleases God. We are back to not being faithful by not seeing God at work!
There is a better way. There is a better narrative. Stay tuned for the next episode in this series.
Charlie is Legacy Church Specialist for the Southern New England Conference.