BUILDING A LEGACY: Learning, Discerning, and Leaning In | Part 6: Changing the Narrative: Moving from “Decline, Failure, Closure, and Death” to “Maturity, Legacy Building, Ministry Completion, and Resurrection.”

BUILDING A LEGACY: Learning, Discerning, and Leaning In | Part 6: Changing the Narrative: Moving from “Decline, Failure, Closure, and Death” to “Maturity, Legacy Building, Ministry Completion, and Resurrection.”


Changing the Narrative: Moving from “Decline, Failure, Closure, and Death” to “Maturity, Legacy Building, Ministry Completion, and Resurrection.”

The narrative for many churches 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 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.
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 ignoring donor restrictions (generally not legal), struggling to recover the past, or delaying 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 connect to something larger than themselves.  People still need these things, but they don’t see “going to church” – an 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.
Maturity, not decline.  All organisms reach maturity: People, trees, …. Even inanimate things reach maturity: Mountain ranges, software programs...  While maturity means the end of some kinds of growth, there are often gifts in maturity.  Rather than focusing on decline, we need to focus on the gifts.  What do we celebrate from our past?  What do we look forward to, even if the future may be limited?
Legacy building, not failure.  A gift of maturity is the ability to think about legacies.  What impact have we had on the world?  How can we continue to have an impact on the world?  What do we want that impact to be?  What gives us meaning and purpose?  What will please God?  If we aren’t going to live forever, how do we make the time we have as impactful as possible?  These questions work for people and congregations.  Discipleship is an individual and a collective journey.
Ministry completion, not closure.  Buildings close, companies close, but churches are more than buildings and legal constructs.  Of course, some churches do close, some of them with more pain and suffering than there should be or needs to be.  Instead, churches need to focus on ministry completion, the orderly conclusion of activities in a way that honors and celebrates what good has been done, and in a way that creates new paths for good things to continue to be done.
Resurrection, not death.  Resurrection is not resuscitation.  Resurrection is a radical transformation from what came before.  Congregations that use the gifts of maturity to build a legacy and complete their ministries faithfully and well will continue to be a part of the Body of Christ, even if the congregation that was once alive is no more.
Jesus changed the narrative of what a life connected to God should be like.  If we are on the Way with Jesus, if we are disciples on a faith journey, changing the narrative is the narrative!


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Charlie Kuchenbrod

Charlie is Legacy Church Specialist for the Southern New England Conference.

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