How to turn a square church into a round community
My frame of reference is The Episcopal Church but I have participated in and observed numerous other Protestant congregations that had stalled out and were headed south on the long road to decline. Here are some common characteristics of such churches:
- Two or three difficult personalities divvy up control over resources and reign from their respective small fiefdoms. (Often this includes one or more of the largest contributors).
- The majority of those remaining avoid conflict and instead of confronting the difficult personalities, or insisting upon resolution and consensus, they grit their teeth and try to stay out of the way.
- Worship and music settle into a clear, smooth, predictable rut that those remaining find acceptable and comforting; and even if their worship is clearly unattractive to visitors they cling to it as if the way they do worship is the Holy Grail.
- The leadership group keeps a sustained focus of attention and resources on institutional maintenance, including the capital needs of the building, to the exclusion of a mission that engendered passion among members.
Nothing is simple and these are only a handful of the possible reasons a congregation chugs stubbornly toward demise like the little engine that could. In such congregations fatigue and depression sets in and a chorus of “we tried that” is the response to any call for change and renewal. It is also the way resistance to change is vocalized without saying, “No, I don’t like that, it scares me.”
If the remainder has become too small and ossified it may not be worth the effort to revive them. Some small congregations become like people “The Big Book” of AA says are unable to get sober, “usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates.” But sometimes, it may be possible to let the small group go on toward its death and begin building new communities within the same congregation.
This is a well-known strategy called “parallel development” in which additional congregations are grown alongside the original congregation like different flowers in the same garden.
If done with care, each of the congregations, new and old, grow up together with clear and open means of egress between them. For example: a worship for families with small children can grow next to a traditional worship that hasn’t changed much in generations, and on the other side, there could be an experimental worship aimed at people who would normally not be caught dead in church. Imagine such a scenario and the vibrant diversity of people calling the same sanctuary their spiritual home, meeting one another and influencing the atmosphere and hopes of each.
Suddenly even the resistant community previously evaporating Sunday-by-Sunday may begin to show signs of life.
Of course there will also be conflict over shared and usually limited resources, so developing brave norms for actually addressing conflict and not allowing individuals to usurp the agenda of the whole, is vital.
Even more than that though, the community of communities as a whole must be held together by a vibrant, compelling and shared mission. At the outset, before planning the newest parallel congregation, it is important to inspire the creation of a mission the original congregation upholds and has a personal stake in. The creation of new communities within the same church must be rooted in a shared sense of mission so as not to split the old wine skin.
It all begins by listening for, remembering and naming what it is we exist for in the first place.