The Whole Neighborhood Was Flooded

Posted: March 1, 2013 in Uncategorized
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The parable is an old one. Once upon a time a man noticed leaks in his basement and so he went about patching them. He tried everything, but to no avail. And then one day he looked out the window and realized that the whole neighborhood was flooded.

Forces larger than me often determine my personal situation. No matter how well I waterproof the interior walls when the neighborhood is flooded everybody gets wet.

As the visioning task force of our congregation considered current research around the current decline of many churches we gazed out of the window and looked at the flooded neighborhood. Though the 80s and 90s realized some membership and worship attendance growth in the mainline churches, the first decade of this century experienced a dramatic decrease, especially in worship attendance. It was a sharper decline than anyone imagined and no one is quite sure why. The only churches that seemed immune to the drop were those averaging well above 1000 in worship every Sunday. They seemed to have the capacity and critical mass to sustain and thrive when others did not. Winner take all. The Walmart phenomenon.

Sidebar: The mainline churches, having been around for a long time, have already experienced much of that slow decline. The newer “big box” Bible churches – of which every community has at least two – have finally begun to experience the same decline experienced by their mainline brothers and sisters. In our community two of those churches rose, peaked and now have started to decline. The third one, popular darling of the moment, is still in its ascendancy. But keep watching. Ten years from now you’ll see the same bell shaped pattern emerging. Every congregation, regardless of size and age, has to negotiate its life cycle. I know we do.

So why has this trend materialized during the past decade? Some point to demographics; a greying church and church models that don’t reach out to new generations. There is pertinent research that indicates people just worship less often – much less than every week – and consider that “regular.” But I have my own deeper suspicions.

I believe that the crux of it has to do with the growing irreligious proportion of our citizenry. More and more people check “unaffiliated” or “none” when it comes to religious preferences on various surveys or questionnaires.

The long and short of it is that these trends do exist and they are largely cultural, bigger than any one congregation. Sure, there is a lot we can do to make it either worse or better. And we need to keep that in mind and work on it. But the neighborhood is flooded after all.  The leaks shouldn’t surprise us as much as when we didn’t know that.

I’ve known churches that crucified pastors for this trend as though it was necessarily a deficit in ministry or leadership. They blamed him or her for the flood outside, pointed to the leaks and shouted, “Do something!” They defined one person as responsible for forces larger than any one person. When that leader drew their attention to the neighborhood flood outside the window, they said to him or her, “Quit making excuses!”

Roy Oswald, senior Alban Institute consultant, has reminded church leaders that the tough work of congregational renewal requires change, the kind of change few congregations are willing to make. They want to grow, to thrive, but without having to do anything differently to bring it about. The other thing is that almost every congregation that has transitioned to a new phase of fruitful life encountered conflict as a result. The shifts were not painless. And the congregations that, on the edge of making the big turn, lose nerve,  send ministers packing or shelve their ambitious vision, bounce off that granite wall and slide back down the long slope of decline – because they are not willing to go the distance.

In the end this is not about numbers, though quantitative assessment is important. The real challenge is a qualitative one. Are we being faithful? Are we being true to our sense of calling? Are we pursuing selfless service and loving care of the neighbor? Are we cultivating lives of prayer? Are we striving to worship with passion? Are we embracing the young and caring for the old? Are we challenging one another to be what God has called us to be? Are we discerning God’s voice – and not the drone of the culture – to determine where and what we do next?

If we are true to these things God will bring the right people to our doors and we to theirs. If we worship in spirit and truth then the truth shall appear. When the flood recedes the ground will flourish for having been so quenched. And the earth will sing a song of praise.

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