Recently, a friend passed along an article that was discussed at a small clergy gathering. The article was titled, “Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 11 Things I Learned.” It contained reflections from a church consultant’s relationship with one particular church that had, as the title suggests, closed. The article was meant to spark a conversation among clergy who serve churches that may be at risk for a similar fate.
The author of the article offered eleven areas that had led, he believed, to the demise of the church that had hired him as a consultant (although he clearly states that some members seemed not to want him there). The problematic areas are familiar ones—lack of clarity as to why the church existed; no community-focused ministries; no evangelistic emphases; members idolizing another era; etc. For churches in decline, many likely share these characteristics, along with the others on the list of eleven.
But, what’s missing is at least some attempt at understanding the community and area in which the church existed. When church consultants and church officials look at the problem of church decline, analysis is almost always located squarely within the “troubled” church—what it does wrong (or not well) and what it could do better. In a statistical profile published not long ago by the United Church of Christ, which outlined the changes in the denomination and among its churches in the last decade, all of the analysis was focused on the trends within the local church in the context of the national denomination.
Analyzing and reflecting on church decline, though, should take a much wider approach. It is simply unfair, and inappropriate, to incorporate such a narrow focus in examining struggling churches. The United Church of Christ, for instance, is heavily concentrated in the northeast. When one considers that population is in decline in general in the northeast, it should be no surprise that churches are experiencing decline as well.
When people at Old South bemoan the lack of young families involved in the church, I sometimes (jokingly) suggest that, if we want more young families, then we should move the church to North Carolina—a place where population, especially among young families, is increasing.
This is not to say that churches that exist in areas where population has declined should just blame geography and demographics, give up on evangelism, and get ready for closure. Churches do need to consider, honestly and prayerfully, who they are and what they do and why they do what they do. But, it is completely unhelpful to blame a lack of robustness within congregations as only their own fault. For lots of churches, in places like Maine and the rest of the northeast, the picture is much more complicated.
All churches, even those with full sanctuaries every Sunday, can do a better job at being faithful witnesses to the love of Jesus Christ. But, for some churches in certain areas, the obstacles to such a witness ought to be appreciated and understood—because those obstacles are considerable and significant. Self-blame and finger-pointing at all of those areas that could be done better, does not allow for a complete picture of the challenges that some churches face. In places where population is in decline and where secularism has a firm hold in the community, some churches could actually be doing everything just about right (energetic pastor, great choir, spirited programs) and still not be able to grow enough to sustain the financial end of the church. There is a critical question for some churches that goes something like this: What if we build it and they still don’t come?
Church consultants and denominational leaders must amass and share demographic data of the wider community, in order to help churches appreciate the situation they are in. Just like those crime scene autopsies in popular television shows, the autopsy of the deceased may lend some clues to the crime, but it doesn’t tell the whole story, nor does it usually lead to a tidy solution. Other evidence must be gathered in order to solve the crime.
The simple lesson is this: don’t just blame the victim. In the case of churches in decline, unlike television murder cases, there are almost always things that could be done better by the “victim.” But, we must be willing and able to look beyond the victim to understand the why’s and how’s of church decline, to gather clues that help us understand the larger issues at play. Through this fuller view, churches may find some liberation to be the church that their Savior has called, or is calling, them to be—whether they remain small, struggling with possible closure, or swell in numbers. After all, church life shouldn’t just be about full parking lots and financial stability. Church life should be focused on faithful witness to the love of Jesus Christ.