Why church won’t change

Free Range Priest

Those left in our church pews are the least likely to change. Maybe we shouldn’t ask them to.

‘I feel that I am more of a burden than a support for my congregation,’ writes a relatively newly ordained minister, who is struggling with his role leading a group of people he loves, but is not sure how to help. They called him to be their leader because they know they have to change if they want to continue to survive, but they’re not really sure what that means. Neither is he.

‘I try to offer a lot of things for their spiritual growth’, he says. ‘We pray the daily office, we have a weekday Holy Eucharist, a book club on Zoom, etc. All of these tend to attract the same few people. Most simply come on Sunday morning, give generously to the church, and hope for growth.’

I can feel his frustration, his fear. This is a clergy person who takes his vocation seriously, who longs to lead this group of faithful people to fulfill their mission of sharing the Gospel.

‘Here’s what to do,’ I tell him. ‘Stop doing all these things.’

Over the past decade of working with congregations and clergy, through all the steep decline in church membership and attendance, this is what I’ve observed:

The people who are still in our pews are the ones for whom the system is working. That makes them the least likely to want to change.

Pushing them to do things they don’t want to do is only increasing everyone’s stress, and increasing church decline. So what should we do instead?

1. Preserve what we can

We all know small churches are a bastion of community for those around them. They are the base of caregiving and Christian service to each other and their neighbors.

I remember showing up as the traveling preacher at a tiny rural North Carolina church on a Sunday that happened to be just after a hurricane hit. Before the service began, there was a general roll call of all the parishioners and whether they’d suffered damage. Then they moved on to the larger community – did anyone know how this person’s farm had fared, and that person’s store? Plans were made for relief and assistance.

We shouldn’t lose these small pillars of light and love, that stand at the center of community life for so many places. That may be the only place to worship God for many miles in any direction.

Our attention should be on supporting them to continue doing what they do best for as long as possible. These are not the folks who want Zoom church or social media, and that’s ok. More than ok, actually.

2. Serve in new ways

The truth is, we know we can’t keep supporting small churches while the whole church is in great decline. Not in the same way. We simply no longer have the resources. And as much as clergy want to help, most of us need to be paid for our work in order to support ourselves and our families.

Change is already upon us.

Instead of asking congregations to change, though, we can change how we serve them as clergy: 2 Sundays a month (max) if part-time, serving on task-based contract, not being ‘in charge’ of a congregation, and other practices of Sustainable Part-time ministry will help small congregations get the ministry they need and still be able to afford it.

This will help support them to stay – and thrive – as they are, without worrying about whether they ‘grow’.

3. Support clergy reaching new communities

Serving very part-time is good for congregations staying the same, but it certainly doesn’t provide a living wage – or much to do – for clergy.

This is where new ways of doing and being church come in.

Serving sustainably part-time means that clergy can really serve more than one church without being overwhelmed. I serve a congregation of about 30, and I probably spend about 10 hours a month with them. I give them what they need – worship leadership, pastoral care, guidance and advice on church and theological matters – and I let them do the rest. They run the church pretty much as they always have.

And I have time to serve in other churches. Recently I led worship and met with the leadership of another church, 50 miles in another direction (the church I currently serve is 30 miles away). I will be serving with them occasionally as well.

I also have time to develop my own ministry – consulting, coaching, teaching and speaking about church changing in the digital age. I have time to share on social media, reaching people with God’s love who would never even consider coming to the kind of church I serve. They are two distinct communities.

4. Let small churches support Creative Ministry

In this way, small congregations can support evangelism, and clergy who are launching creative ministries. Literally.

Congregations provide some financial support for clergy who provide them with the basics – which is all they really need. Clergy then have a base from which to develop new ministries to reach new people.

In the end it’s a win-win: digital and in-person ministry, multiple income streams that support clergy doing both traditional and creative ministry, congregations get to stay as-is, and new people are reached with the Gospel.

We can let our congregations continue to be church the way they always have and develop ministries to meet the needs of a changing world.

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