A Response to "A Growing Church is a Dying Church"

A few facebook friends have been sharing a link to a blog post titled “A Growing Church is a Dying Church” by Pastor J. Barrett Lee who blogs at The Theological Wanderings of a Street Pastor. This is actually one of a number of different blog posts I seen recently from clergy who feel like their congregations expect too much from them. The thrust of this article is that clergy cannot grow the church, God does that. What they can and do try to do is to make changes to a church that will allow it to grow. These changes and the new people they might attract, necessarily lead to the dying (in the sence of Good Friday) of the original stuck congregation.

Go ahead and read the whole thing this post will still be here when you’re done.

Being a faith community takes passion and imagination, creative energy, prayer and faith; all the more so when a transition is happening.

I find a number of premises in this post a little off the mark, but let’s begin by looking at where we agree. Most obviously, I think we would both agree that there is no magic bullet that will automatically bring more people into church. The better part of the success of any congregation is found in God’s Grace. On the other hand, I think we would both agree that this grace should not be expected to fall like pennies from heaven. No congregation can be so naive as to make no attempt to improve their community and just pray that God keeps sending them people. Being a faith community takes passion and imagination, creative energy, prayer and faith; all the more so when a transition is happening.

This is all well and good, but Pastor Lee and I have some differences of opinion on what growth means to a congregation, how exactly a congregation might go about making space for growth, and what the responsibility of the clergy in in that process.

Growth Means Killing Off the Existing Community

My largest hesitation comes from what Pastor Lee assumes growth will mean to a congregation:

[New members] won’t fit in with the old guard. They won’t know about how you’ve always done it. They’ll want to make changes of their own. Their new ideas will make you uncomfortable. Your church won’t look or feel like it used to. You’ll feel like you’re losing control of this place that you’ve worked so hard to preserve. It will feel like your church is dying.

I have certainly seen churches grow this way. In my experience one of three things happens. either 1) The church becomes the place of the new and the old either drift away or remain but cease to contribute to the community, 2) Long time members rebell against the changes and most of the new members leave usually at about the same time the clergy does, 3) the congregation grows what one of my seminary professors called the Mickey Mouse ear. There are now two distinct communities connected by a very small overlap. In many Episcopal churches this would be “the 8 o’clockers” and “the 10 o’clockers.”

Too many clergy on taking a new call hope for number 1, but are only able to implement number 3, and ultimately find themselves at number 2. The reason, this happens is spelled out in Lee’s long fourth and fifth paragraphs about what the new pastor is going to do to the church. The basic model that we all learned is, “Its not working. Try something different.” Only, it is working, at least for the people who are actually there. From my perspective, it is far too common for clergy (and lay leaders) to abandon the dedicated members in the pews for the mythical people of whom Pastor Lee says, “You might see a few new faces in the crowd. There won’t be many of them. Some might stick around but most won’t.”

I think the dirty little secret is that some clergy would like their new calling more if it didn’t come with an existing congregation. Many clergy look at all the opportunities a healthy church would have to live the Gospel their church’s neighborhood, if only their congregations would let them do it. Some find it very tempting to use “We’ll grow the church” as an excuse to collect members for a new community whose vision is more in line with that of the clergy.

This in turn is connected to congregations and clergy not being matched well. Clergy, like everyone else feel pressure to “land a job” and will take a call that may not fit their ministry calling because its better than being unemployed. Congregations also take anybody with a “plan to save your congregation” even if that plan involves killing off the current community.

The Only Chance for Growth

I next want to address what I perceive to be a difference of opinion about what need to be done to get a church to grow. Here I’m going to go out on a limb, and put words into Pastor Lees mouth .. er .. blog. He spends a good two-thirds of his words answering the question “What can a your pastor do?” He then goes on at length about some of the most common and generally beneficial changes new pastors make in congregations, framing each in the ironic negative context in which such a change might be seen by a congregation displeased with the change. The implied message seems to be: The pastor has to force through unpopular changes for your own good. You are all going to hate it, but you have got to suck it up.

Let me as a counterpoint offer three conditions that I have found a congregation need to start growing. The congregation must be healthy, happy and active. Healthy means that the level of internal conflict is so low that it is not noticeable on Sunday Mornings. (No, you can’t hide it you really do have to resolve at least the majority of it.) Happy, means that most of the people you talk to after church are excited by at least one thing in the church and want to tell you about it. And active means that I can see evidence the people besides the clergy are doing ministry. Congregations need to also do some of the baseline ministries of a christian church like having a decent worship experience including music, outreach ministry, acceptable financial stewardship and at least a passing attempt to be hospitable to visitors who might be thinking about joining.

Now consider the idea of ramming through unpopular changes, and consider whether this leads to a healthy, happy, active membership. I would propose that even in the event such changes were absolutely essential, making them in such a way that alienates the existing membership is still counterproductive.

Now admittedly, the final thrust of Pastor Lee’s argument is that congregations need to be more open to needed changes in their community, not only because they might draw in new members, but as he points out in his conclusion, it will have great benefits to the old members as well. My assertion is that a successful pastor ought to start by selling any change as good for the existing congregation, and as Pastor Lee says let God grow those seeds into a larger congregation in God’s time.

Ministerial Responsibility

This growth has made the con­grega­tion feel more whole rather than more divided. Like we were adding people we were missing not trying to ac­com­mod­ate people who didn’t fit.

Pastor Lee is clearly articulating a frustration that is common among clergy. They are held responsible for every success or failure the church experiences, and many feel like they have very little control over whether the congregation they serve succeeds or fails. I agree, I just don’t think the line ought to be as close to “no responsibility at all” as i think Pastor Lee puts it.

In part that is because I have see two different leaders face the same challenges in the same congregation with one succeeding much more clearly than the other. The first did a fine job following Pastor Lee’s playbook, and found himself with a bifurcated congregation with lots of conflict between old and new. When he had to retire for health reasons – health reasons that he would admit were caused in part by the stress of running a congregation in conflict – most of the new members his efforts had helped to bring in left. The conflict died away but so did the growth.

Our current co-rectors came into our congregation in a state very similar to where the last rector had found it. Instead of focusing on what needed to change in order to grow, the focused on what needed to change in order to become healthy. Not all of them were immediately popular, and the decision drop any contemporary music and return to all traditional hymnody in particular probably resulted in an initial drop in attendance as those members left to seek a worship experience that spoke to them and their tastes. But over a period of three or more years the congregation got to a place where we were happy healthy and active. We have grown, and much of that growth can only be attributed to God blessing us with an abundance of the right resources at the right moment. About the best we can say is that when God dropped a chance for growth on us, the congregation had the energy and enthusiasm to respond.

This growing has been different in another way as well. The people who are coming feel like they belong in our congregation. There are some that would rightly argue that too many of our new members are too white, too old, or too privileged. In other words they look a lot like the people we already had. On the other hand, this growth has made the congregation feel more whole rather than more divided. Like we were adding people we were missing not trying to accommodate people who didn’t fit. The remarkable thing is that as we have grown a wider variety of people have been able to find connections and feel like they are a part who we are as a congregation. We have changed, but it has been a natural expansion into new opportunities rather than the tare it down and rebuild model. I think it is healthier this way. I know that I am happier this way.

Pastor J. Bennett Lee’s post makes it sound like the only way to grow is to change who and what a congregation is; that a congregation that needs to grow is not working and need to be fixed, even if doing so will lead to a kind of death for the congregation. I do not doubt that there are some congregations where this is the case, but I believe they are few and far between. I believe it is better ministry for clergy to grow the congregation they have then to try to create the congregation they think they can grow.