Gaze upon the current reading lists of pastors of old, struggling mainline churches, and you are likely to find books about church vitality, church growth, and the changing outlook and circumstances of the Christian Church in the twenty-first century. These books offer advice, counsel, new insights into “post-Christendom,” and other perspectives on Christianity in the United States, and in the world. Some books even offer bold resurrection-suggesting pronouncements like “How Our Church Came Back from the Dead and Yours Can, Too.”
The problem with these books is that they can be perceived as “how to” books for a certain kind of “success” that always seems to be associated with getting more butts in the pews. There is a calculus to these books: follow the steps proscribed and your “problems” will be solved—unless they aren’t, which likely means that you are doing it wrong.
These books tend to focus entirely, or almost entirely, on the “patient,” on the church—as if each church is somehow separate and not entirely attached to, or influenced by, the community in which it exists. For some churches, though, the context—demographics, population, the changing face of employment opportunities, etc.—ought not be ignored. The context is very serious, and significant.
Some areas of Maine, for instance, have experienced profound changes in population, driven by large employers downsizing or shutting down entirely. For example, in places where the paper industry was once the driving force, there is likely a very different picture these days. Many paper mills have closed down; others are much smaller. Drive around these communities, and you can easily see what is left in the wake of the shrinking paper industry—homes up for sale for long periods of time, some homes even abandoned, properties boarded up or left in disrepair, town centers with more empty buildings than full. One only needs to read Richard Russo’s Empire Falls to get a sense of what it’s like to live in a dying mill town.
For churches in these communities, it’s just not right or appropriate to try to sell them some kind of program or path to that particular form of “success” that involves growth of people. The community as a whole is in decline and so too, the church.
In other communities in Maine, where the population decline is not so steep, but the face of employment has altered from one sort of industry to another (or several others)—from paper mill to call center, for instance—other community dynamics are important to understand. In Hallowell, where Old South is located, the median age has risen from 32 in 1980 to 50 in 2013. Central Maine, as it is right now, is a not a good place for many young adults to thrive. Well-paying jobs, with upward mobility, are not widely available in a variety of professions. Two-career couples especially, often find this area difficult for both partners to find meaningful employment.
Part of the calling of each and every church is to share the good news of Christ, to offer the love of God, and to practice radical welcome and hospitality. No matter the reality of the community in which we live, we must be about the work of evangelism. But, the local church ought never tie its “success” to how many cars are in their parking lot on a Sunday morning, or how many people gather for worship each week. “Coming back from the dead” should not simply be equated with numbers of people, or the health of the church bank account.
Church vitality, measured by reflecting on faithfulness to the Gospel instead of through numbers—whether people or bank account—should be the focus of every church. We cannot control, or orchestrate, our own resurrection. But, we can focus on what really matters: the good news. Whether we live, or whether we die, we belong to Christ.