The more I work with “stuck” congregations, the more I hear two interrelated themes.
One is unwillingness to think beyond Sunday morning. The other is unwillingness to consider an aggressive small-group ministry.
Leaders seem stuck in the belief that all they need to do is to provide Sunday morning worship. It worked 50 years ago; surely it will work now. They would rather fight over elements of Sunday — music, for example — than consider expanding weekday, off-site and online ministries. They fail to see how thoroughly the culture and religious context have changed since 1957.
The people they know aren’t interested in such ministries. They fail to understand that their future depends on people they don’t know. If they want to reach younger and more diverse constituencies, they will need to offer more.
The challenge of imagining, funding and executing that more forces them to ask: do they even want to reach younger and more diverse constituencies? Too often, the answer is No.
They fear loss of familiar rituals like Sunday fellowship and loss of their specific duties as ushers, readers and such. If going beyond Sunday means dislodging them, why support it?
Similarly, this graying leadership can’t imagine any need for small groups. They already know each other and see enough of each other. They don’t want to go deeper. Therefore, why should anyone else?
By projecting their preferences onto others, they fail to see that many prospective constituents are hungry for deeper faith experiences, for Christian fellowship and for weekday activities for themselves and their children.
What needs to happen?
First, the congregation needs a leadership cadre that won’t shrink from imagining the more and seeking out new constituencies. These leaders probably will be younger and less grounded in the congregation’s history.
Second, the congregation’s younger leaders need to insulate the congregation from being bullied into standing still by long-timers who threaten to withdraw funds. If that means rethinking facilities, so be it. It is simply wrong for a few people to prevent change and growth until after their funerals. Most mainline congregations don’t have that many years ahead.
Third, older members who do see the need for change and growth must speak up and clarify the moment. It isn’t youth vs. age; it is change vs. resistance. Those resisting change often claim to be speaking for all the elderly. In my experience, they aren’t speaking for anyone but themselves.
Fourth, pastors need to teach about core values, including tradition. Stand-still advocates claim to be speaking for the best of the past. They are doing exactly the opposite, namely, denying the drive for change and the responsiveness that have marked Christianity at its best.
Yes, these steps could lead to serious disruption, even conflict. Better that disruption, however, than squandering the present and choosing to die. A needy world yearns for healthy faith communities. Closed and change-resistant congregations trespass on that yearning — and guarantee their own demise.