Review the placement openings for the United Church of Christ, and one finds many references to the word “grow” or “growth”—like, “Come Grow With Us!” For many churches, growth is, and has been, a word of profound purpose. Most churches want to share who they are and what they’ve found, the love of God, with others. But, churches also recognize that membership growth—or at least membership/attendance maintenance—is important to the future health and well-being of the church. A church can’t easily take care of its staff and physical plant without people coming to church and making financial contributions.
Churches in Maine, and I suspect in other parts of the country, are beginning to recognize how hard the growth business is. And for some churches, even membership and attendance maintenance is not only difficult, it is impossible—and, mostly, for no fault of their own.
Yet, at least for my denomination, there is little focused talk on how to handle, explore and engage this unwelcome reality. We still hear a lot about “growth,” as if all church’s need to do is find the right program or the right minister, and then the church will grow and everything will be fine. And, even though we are witnessing the closing of churches, and the desperate struggle of others to stay afloat, those communities are simply thanked for the their service and we move on.
I believe that we should take every closed, along with every struggling church, and use them as case studies, object lessons if you will, like in a children’s sermon, and consider what story, and what message, they tell.
This week: Object Lesson #1: The small church in western Maine that tried.
I was at a Maine Conference event a few weeks ago and during lunch, I found myself speaking to a woman who attended a small church in a small town in western Maine. Her church decided, a few years ago, to blanket the town with information about the church in the small center of their small town. They produced leaflets, and other pieces of information, and then personally delivered the information to every household in the town—every single one.
And guess what happened? Not one new person came to church. Not one.
In Maine, I fear that we are at the start of a wave, a strong and determined wave. The recent Pew Research study that revealed the significant rise of the “nones” in the U.S. (and even more troubling, the finding that most of the “nones” are quite content with being “nones” and are not looking for a religious community at all) is one very troubling, and humbling, piece of news that we have actually been witnessing in all of its painful reality.
And, then along with that, are some other difficult pieces of information. Maine is the oldest state in the country (in my late forties, I am one of the youngest members of my congregation) and many communities in Maine are shrinking. The old dominant Maine industries—paper and textiles especially—are a fraction of the size that they once were. People don’t move to, and people don’t stay, in communities where there are no jobs.
The difficulties for church growth, then, are not just about the right program or the right minister. Some churches (many churches?) will not only not be able to grow, they will not be (and have not been able) to maintain even current levels of membership and attendance.
Instead of simply thanking closing and struggling churches for their service, we ought to hold each and every one of them up as an object lesson. What should my church do differently? Is closure the only inevitable option?
Personally, I think not. But, we won’t figure out those other options if we ignore the whole problem altogether. A couple of churches are dealing with this issue—by merging or sharing more of their resources—but, we need to do more, and to do it at a larger level. I find that I have some among the leadership of Old South who simply cannot engage this issue and part of the reason is that they hear it only from me, and not from the Maine Conference.
My hope in the wilderness this week is that we begin to understand how important this issue is and that we find the courage to engage with it in new and meaningful ways. Surely, we’ve been led through some very difficult times in the past. I know that the Spirit is ready and willing to lead us now, as well, if only we ask and follow.