John Flowers and Karen Vannoy have written a short article in Ministry Matters about how participation in a declining congregation may work to some people’s advantage.
For example, they point out that, if you want to feel indispensable, or if you don’t want to be disrupted by new people with new ideas, you should probably stay in your declining church.
I think there is merit to reasons #2, #3, and #5 in the article: small, declining churches can enjoy a wonderful familiarity that is comforting, especially to lonely people who need a safe place to connect with others. While they may say they wish for more members, in reality, they are happy for the “family” feeling they maintain in their smallness.
Reasons #1 and #7 are more questionable to me. Here, the writers suggest that ego makes some people want to keep their churches small so that their personal influence will be big. While that may be true for a few people, I can’t recall any lay person in my interviews who indicated they enjoyed the responsibility that was put upon them as their church declined toward closure. On the contrary, several lay leaders described the need to step away from leadership positions in order to help a congregation come to terms with its decline. My overall impression was that being a leader in a declining church is emotionally and spiritually taxing, even causing some people to withdraw from the church altogether.
The writers are helpful in suggesting ways churches can promote the feeling of intimacy in a church, even while they are focusing on growth. They suggest forming lay-led small groups, freeing up communication, and giving greater attention to the care of newcomers, among other ideas.
It’s a lonely world, and people don’t want to feel lonely when they go to church, so I can understand the attraction to smallness. But all sizes of church should foster genuine intimacy, not just familiar closeness. If a large, thriving church does not create small group intimacy for its members who seek it, they will drift away, and the church will shrink.
Some of those who leave may end up in small, struggling churches where they will be embraced with open arms by a congregation that is anxious to suck every drop of lifeblood out of the new member to keep their little systems thriving. This may feel like closeness at first, but ultimately, it is destructive to intimacy. In my book, I call these “vampire churches”.
This article reminds me that there truly are advantages to being part of a declining church. But these advantages do not benefit the coming reign of Christ. It’s time to stop being comfortable in an ailing system and start getting healthier.
What is your congregation doing to get healthier?