As I consult with Presbyterian congregations, the same scenario keeps recurring: In 1966 the church was full; today, after five decades of relentless decline, the pews feel empty.
This scenario is painful for church leaders. They feel guilt, shame, frustration and fear. They wonder who is to blame. Is there any future for their beloved church?
The good news is this: There are “turnaround strategies” that a church can pursue. The hard news is this: Those strategies will change everything — not because what we’re doing is all wrong, but because the world has changed and God needs different ministries from us.
In other words, working with God to find a new future for the Presbyterian Church won’t be easy or comfortable, nor, in the absence of bold and self-sacrificial leadership, will a better future even be possible.
Here, briefly, are nine turnaround strategies that I have identified.
Overcome invisibility: We know what street corner our church occupies, but we have become invisible to the community at large. That community (our mission field and source of future members) isn’t opposed to us – they just don’t know we exist. Our response should be aggressive marketing, use of powerful digital and web tools, to speak in language people beyond our walls can hear and to answer the questions they are asking.
Look outward: We keep having the same internal conversations. People out there are different from us: more ethnically diverse, younger, not as prosperous, living in ways different from our ways. We cannot possibly serve this larger community unless we see and care for them as they are.
Outcome-based decision-making: No more nostalgia, no more magical thinking, no more pretending. See the data, see the trends, see reality — and then make a solemn vow that we will measure what we do and pay attention to whether it works.
Fresh leadership: Strong pastors working with strong laity, with neither cadre trying to control the other. We need younger and newer leaders.
Rethink affiliation: Move beyond Sunday morning worship as the primary marker of affiliation and, thus, as the primary focus of funding and effort. Work on relationships, such as those formed in small groups. Go deep with people.
Rethink stewardship: Adopt the biblical practice of harvest giving, and stop asking people for charity giving aimed at funding the church budget.
Communications that work: No more monthly paper. Instead, use the best modern technology to reach people. No more rehashing church news and church controversies. Convey faith with personal stories and words that inspire.
Stop the power struggles: Our conflicts are killing us. Control battles paralyze us.
Focus on young adults: Reach a world whose average age is 25, whereas our congregation’s average age is over 60. Younger generations aren’t like us. We need to serve them as they are, not as we remember being.
These strategies are eminently doable. But they would mean change. Is our will to thrive and serve stronger than our fear of change?
TOM EHRICH is a publisher, writer, church consultant and president of Morning Walk Media, based in New York.