Here’s a little rant: I was just reading an article called “Rational Functionalism” by N. Graham Standish in the Alban Institute’s “Congregations” magazine (Summer, 2010). He writes about how there is a spiritual vacuum and lack of reliance on God in some mainline churches, and I certainly agree with that. But he makes the claim that this is the main cause of church decline. “Declining churches tend not to be open to God’s presence,” he writes.
To me, that is a little like saying you got cancer because you didn’t take your vitamins.
If you are reading this blog, you have probably experienced the decline of a church you loved. And you have probably heard the message that your church is declining because of something you did wrong. I just want to tell you that it is never that simple. There are multiple reasons why churches decline in our era. Some of them have to do with mistakes made by your congregation; opportunities missed, flabby faith commitment, poor financial decisions, and the like. Some of them have to do with flawed pastoral leadership, changing demographics and the manufacturing plant that pulled out of town in the 80’s. In some cases, the mistakes a congregation made occurred in a previous generation, and the church was never able to re-group.
There is a lot of shame and judgment out there about why churches shrink and die. You may hear it from your own members, from your judicatory leader, and from your pastor in the pulpit. It’s important to accept appropriate accountability for your part in the process. All congregations make mistakes; some survive them and some don’t. But it isn’t productive to cast blame on yourself or anyone else.
The kind of spiritual ailment Standish is writing about exists in some large, financially healthy churches as well as some declining ones. We all fall short when it comes to genuine faithfulness. What matters is how you will carry out your ministry from here on. Be honest about the past, and about your lack of faith. Acknowledge your mistakes, your triumphs, and the realities of the setting you are in. Return to God for the help you need to be the Church, wherever 2 or 3 are gathered.