Saturday, July 10, 2010

Is there such a thing as a "healthy" congregation?

Is there such a thing as a healthy congregation? The short answer, I think, is no. There may be moments in time when a snapshot might capture group traits and behaviors suggestive of a strong, relatively stable system for nurturing spiritual growth and ministry. But there can no more be healthy congregations than there can be perfect marriages.

So what? Isn't the point to try, to work on developing and maintaining group dynamics that approach the ideal? And after all, isn't one of the cardinal points in a systems theory such as Peter Steinke's that "wholeness is not attainable"? What's wrong with using systems theory and other psychological and sociological models to help people get along better and learn to work better together?

Nothing really, at least not when sensitive, thoughtful people use them in situations that cry out for help. If systems theory or anything else can get people to step back from conflicts that are strangling a community and learn better ways to manage differences in the future, so much the better.

The same is true for many tools widely available and touted as essential parts of a Human Resources tool kit (or, if you will, medicine bag) for congregations, clergy, and dioceses -- survey forms, focus group studies, long-range planning programs, etc. Used sparingly, appropriately, by those who are not only trained in how to use them but also gifted in their ability to relate to people, to listen, understand, and assist, rather than diagnose, direct, or control, these may be helpful. The problem, however, is when everyone is using them, all of the time, regardless of whether the congregation is suffering from a condition or situation that the tools might help remedy or whether they are being applied by those who know how to use them effectively.

It is like taking anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications or even going to counseling to try to achieve the perfect balance in mood, mind, attention or energy. While it is good to seek help when we need it and learn what we can and should change about ourselves and our circumstances, it also is important to recognize the limitations of medicine, technology, and self-help in general, to make sure that we do not blind ourselves, with a flurry of self-improvement activities, to the pain and suffering of others, the stark reality of our flawed natures, and the urgent need to be in right relation with God before we can even begin to hope of peace and the joy of knowing God's saving grace.

To put it more simply, when we put so much of our time and energy in employing assessment tools and trying to implement social engineering, we run the great risk of our methods becoming the message. I think that is really the point of Ed's sermon (see below). Do we want to be seen and known as those who construct and maintain "healthy congregations" or those who go forth into the world living the Good News, imitating Christ rather than checking off items on a congregational assessment checklist?

Of course the proponents of these methods will argue that they are, in fact, serving the greater goal by helping us live in communities that will better nurture our spiritual growth and provide encouragement and support for serving others. I understand that is the goal, indeed the hope, of their efforts, and I mean no disrespect for those who have thought deeply, listened carefully, and worked diligently and faithfully towards that goal.

Yet I still must ask the questions. I have seen time and time again groups of laypeople and clergy who have attended countless hours of meetings, seminars, and workshops, who have heard truly inspirational speakers, read books and articles about what the church should be doing and how it might best weather the storm of sweeping changes in our culture, economy, social groups and interactions. We listen, become more hopeful, and sometimes we feel we have learned a lot. Other times we share these ideas with those in our parish and brainstorm as to how we might implement them. Yet, truthfully, what becomes of most of it? Even when we think we see some small positive results, have we really gained much other than the pleasure of a few moments of wistful hope that things are not as bad as they seem to be?

As far as professional assessment tools are concerned, their benefits in terms of efficiency may be outweighed by the mixed messages they send. No matter how expertly constructed, their structure and content imply certain expectations and ideas about what makes a healthy congregation. Even the best designed and administered surveys have a slant, suggesting which characteristics are negative and which are positive. For example, satisfaction with things they way they are or doing them the same way is seen as negative, while greater willingness to change and experiment with new ways is seen as positive. Likewise, ranking the extent to which congregational life sparks "energy" and "enthusiasm" implies that the failure to produce that kind of response indicates either that the congregation is not spiritually alive or that it is not lively enough to attract outsiders.

More tellingly, significant parts of these surveys assess levels of satisfaction with certain aspects of congregational life. While it may be useful to find out what people are really unhappy about, discovering it with this kind of exercise gives the message that the congregation is comprised of customers to be satisfied, and that by scientifically cataloguing their likes and dislikes, they will have a better chance of being matched with the pastor of their dreams (shades of E-Harmony).

It is debatable whether professional surveys, consultants, and the data and reports they produce give enough benefit for the dollar over the old ways of open-ended survey questions distributed by mail or in church, lay people puzzling over what they receive in return, and group meetings and flip chart data. They certainly have the advantage of having others do the hard work of collecting and digesting information and presenting it in a format that is attractive and easy-to-read for both the congregation and, in the context of a search process, candidates for clergy positions. But the point here is not which survey methods are best or even how often or how they should be done, but rather to suggest that these assessment rituals have become increasingly important for not only the ways in which the data is used to direct and shape congregational life, but also the way it makes us think that the "health" of our congregations is a matter of vital and ongoing concern, which can be measured according to scientifically informed criteria and measurement tools.

The larger implication is that there are, in fact, objective ways to identify and "treat" unhealthy conditions, and that we must be ever diligent in seeking out congregational "disease" and doing all we can to rid ourselves of it. This adds a whole new layer of meaning to the need for any organization to listen to its members, face problems, and deal with them before they get out of hand. Instead of taking us away from the notion that our clergy are merely hospice workers caring for an old and dying institution, it merely reinforces that idea. It also supports the view that unless we do something quickly and effectively, in terms of dramatic life-saving efforts, with the best tools that science can provide, mainline Christianity will die out entirely.  Finally, it suggests that what the church is most concerned about maintaining is the congregation as a functional social unit rather than nurturing the faith of the people who are its members, wherever they may go.

I'd like to suggest a metaphor that may be more realistic and helpful than the medical one -- a forest, rather than a corporate body plagued with disease or mental or emotional dysfunction. For a long time forests have been viewed either as a natural feature of the landscape or as something to be managed for a particular human use, such as hunting grounds, parks, or a crop that produces timber for fuel, building, or commerce. However, it was only in the 19th and 20th centuries that people began to think seriously about applying scientific knowledge and management techniques to preserve and protect large areas of forested land from rapacious harvesting and expanding areas of human habitation and agriculture, and to maintain others to provide a controlled but steady supply of timber and other wood products for human use.

Managing forests and forestland, however, turned out to be more difficult than some first imagined. It required more than just limiting the destructive effects of human activities. Fire, disease, variable weather conditions, soil composition, and other factors could impact forest growth and health, and human interventions sometimes worsened rather than improved the situation. As the science of ecology developed, forests began to be viewed as part of larger ecosystems and life cycles. Even the timber industry began to replace clear cutting with more sophisticated planning, selective cutting, and planting that promoted diversity and better conditions for the soil and the other flora and fauna that inhabited the forest's ecosystem.

A critical turning point came with the understanding that the so-called "climax" forest -- the stage with maximum maturity-- was only one stage in a larger cycle of growth and death, one which might produce variable results depending changing conditions, and one which, in any event, was not static. So while one might find a mature stand of trees and want to preserve it, for aesthetic or commercial reasons, as is, it was only one stage that could not be extended indefinitely. Without fire, decay or wind damage, the forest canopy would become so thick that it would stifle or prevent all undergrowth, including young trees needed to someday replace the mature ones when they die. Therefore, using human means to protect the mature trees from decay, disease, and fire might, in the end, do more harm than allowing them to die naturally to allow new plant and tree growth on the forest floor.  So while the results might seem better than clear-cutting or other thoughtless means of seeking short-term human ends, even well-intentioned human meddling can sometimes cause great harm as well.

I like to think of congregations in much the same way, although the life cycles are less regular and predictable. It is, I think, impossible to create and sustain indefinitely what many would consider a mature, spiritually "healthy" congregation. Yes, a good measure of intention is needed to make a religious community spiritually alive, hospitable, nurturing, growing, and relatively conflict-free (or whatever characteristics make one "healthy" and "mature"). But I think if people were really honest, there's a good deal of luck involved, as well. How often do any of us experience -- if we ever do -- a time in a congregation where most of these supposedly necessary elements fall into place? Once in a lifetime, I'd say, and then for maybe at most two to five years.

The reality that many have to face is that the stars are not always going to be aligned to produce the results we want, no matter how hard we try, no matter how diligently we study, tinker, and maneuver to try to create them. More important in today's world is that the ecosystem, if you will, has changed dramatically. With greater geographic mobility and displacement from family members, weaker ethnic and social ties to religious institutions (with the exception of some minority and new immigrant groups), less support and involvement from the moneyed upper classes, and overall less social pressure to be affiliated with and participate in a particular religious community (with some regional variations), we are bound to have fewer numbers, more frequent losses, less stability and continuity overall in terms of the identity of the members, their ages, family and social connections, and the extent to which they can provide steady financial support. With an ever-changing group of people, less financial resources, more reasons not to attend and less pressure to stay, if conflict arises or simply if something changes that is not to one's liking, little or no denominational loyalty, it's no wonder that congregational life is ever more fragile and precarious, without there necessarily being something seriously wrong or defective about the people involved, their goals, or their individual spiritual health.

In fact, it could be argued that the more passionate and serious people are about religion, the greater the possibilities of conflict and instability than back in the days when church was just "a Sunday habit or a social club." Filling the pews with fairly happy, comfortable people who enjoyed the social life perhaps more than hearing a challenging sermon or having a stimulating leader or group for Bible study, may have once acted as a kind of buffer -- or perhaps simply played the role of a steady Martha who minded the teas, took care of the kitchen, baked and gathered old clothing for the poor, as compared to the sometimes unsettling behavior of the seeking Mary. At the same time, the law of averages might have meant that the larger numbers and the social pressure that kept the successful business people and others with better skills at management and social relations coming to church regularly meant that it was easier to get a ready supply of people who might excel at the more practical aspects of church governance.

This, admittedly, is idle speculation. The demographic trends, however suggest that the decline in numbers and influence among the mainline churches is not so much because of any declining religiosity in the general population but rather because of dramatic changes in the social environment that have largely removed the non-religious reasons for joining and attending church regularly. It may be that the "spiritual but not religious" types were always around in larger numbers than we might imagine, but they once had compelling reasons to warm the pews on a regular basis, as well as a more positive view of religious institutions and religious people.

The mainline churches may still harbor hopes of reversing those trends or, at very least, preventing any further losses. But at some point they are going to have to choose. One option is to keep pursuing efforts at marketing, trying to find and ride the waves of consumer demand and satisfaction, against decades of evidence that what sells is the certainty of fundamentalism combined with the enthusiasm and zeal of evangelical fervor and the money and facilities that go with greater numbers and passion. The other option is to stay the course, tighten our belts, and work with what we have, and focus on nurturing strong, intentional faith communities, whether we lose numbers and buildings and, in some places, meet in small groups and at odd locations.

I think what we have now, at least in the Episcopal Church, is a schizophrenic course that tries to have it both ways. On the one hand, we talk a lot about innovation, new ways of doing things, and now and then check our consumer satisfaction thermometers. On the other hand, we say we want to improve the quality of the communities we have, make them deeper and richer. But what we do is try to measure how far they fall short of the climax forest ideal, with its towering hardwoods and lush undergrowth and sun-drenched floors -- a warm and welcoming place with wise, benevolent preachers and teachers, little or no conflict, and the absence of troubled, contentious people, doubters, and depressives. And instead of patiently waiting for congregations to grow deeper roots and stronger limbs, with the time-tested means of worship, prayer, and mutual love and support, we tell them that what they need most is more energy, more flexibility, different arrangements of furniture, and more lively and contemporary music. So we want our congregations to be spiritually and socially "healthy" and "mature," and, at the same we distract them with assessment tools, fast-talking consultants, systems theory, and innovative liturgies, and constantly remind them that they are not drawing in greater numbers or enough young people.

I think it is time to step back and do less in the way of measuring and engineering and just let the trees grow.  We cannot keep obsessing about the right soil conditions, acidity, temperature, and the like and frantically applying more and more fertilizer and pesticides.  If we keep doing this, we will have no trees at all, let alone the occasional climax forest when the trees reach their full maturity, before they decay and fall or are taken down by wind or fire.

One of the most memorable moments I ever had in an adult Christian education class was a film series on the Epistles of St. Paul.  The narrator traveled to the places where the cities once stood that held the congregations to which Paul wrote.  With a deserted hillside behind him, the narrator explained that not only were the Roman cities gone from those locations, but Christianity was gone as well, and Islam had taken its place.

There was something remarkably calm and matter-of-fact about what he said.  It was not some great tragedy or a waste of time and effort on Paul's part.  Times change and the faith takes root wherever it can, for awhile, at least, and then starts over.  All we can do is keep planting the trees and tend them with care and love.  God alone will decide when we are done.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Jesus as a Congregational Development Specialist?

Listen to Fr. Ed Hunt's sermon of June 27, 2010 here  (or from here)

THE GOSPEL Luke 9:51-62

The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ According to Luke

Glory to you, Lord Christ.

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, "Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?" But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village. As they were going along the road, someone said to him, "I will follow you wherever you go." And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." To another he said, "Follow me." But he said, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father." But Jesus said to him, "Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God." Another said, "I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home." Jesus said to him, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Congregational Vitality By The Numbers

Elizabeth Kaeton and Lisa Fox have begun an important conversation about assessing "congregational vitality" by the numbers. Elizabeth quotes a recent article in Progressive Christian by Rev. Dan R. Dick, a Methodist minister, "Measuring Faith: Metrics are no way to assess spiritual vitality." He writes:
Mainline denominations are in a panic. They're losing members and resources, and they're responding to the crisis with the best models that business schools can buy. The trouble is, the church of Jesus Christ isn't a business, and to run it like a business may be one of major reasons that Protestant churches are in trouble numerically, and have so little moral influence on society today.
This is, I am afraid, nothing short of heresy -- that all the efforts to make over, rebrand, cut costs, and tightly manage the Good Ship Mainline may have caused it to sink even faster than anything Post-Modern Western culture has ever done to it.

Part of the problem with the business model is that it relies on quantifiable goals and assessment tools. As Elizabeth observes, one point the article makes is "that we confuse 'indicators of vitality' with 'activity' and they are not the same."  In the Methodist Church, like many others, the first "indicator of vitality" is "Average worship attendance as a percentage of membership" -- or, as Lisa translates: 
… the number of people who plop their butts in the pew on any given Sunday and how much they drop into the offering plate. That is to say, we worship at the Golden Calf known as ASA [average Sunday attendance] and finance.
As Rev. Dick knows, however, ASA

...will not tell you anything more than how many people attend worship. True measures of spiritual growth and development must measure how a person is progressing in his or her relationship with God and Jesus Christ. This requires a set of standards, of which, worship attendance should certainly be one. But this should also include some measurement of prayer, study of scripture, service to others, relationship to the covenant community, etc.
The obsession with growth and numbers reflects much more than the latest wave of anxiety over the Great Decline (in churches X, Y, and Z; in mainline Protestantism; in Western Christianity -- take your pick).  It goes back nearly fifty years to the Church Growth movement, which spawned many of the consultants who have been advising, training, and leading clergy and church officials for decades. Their quasi-business-sociological model of church, (modeling both what church is supposed be and how it should be "done"), has gripped our imaginations and absorbed our attention for so long that few question anymore its underlying premises, let alone its hopes of success in reviving Christianity in the Post-Modern West.

In recounting the history of these developments, Professor David A. Roozen suggests that the measure-by-the-numbers (i.e. Church Growth) proponents have now prevailed to the point that "mainliners" have largely capitulated to adopting their methods, if not all of their goals: 
One of the more helpful consequences of all the attention given in the late 1970s to the original research and commentary on the oldline membership declines was a questioning of whether or not membership trends were an appropriate gauge of the/a church's faithfulness.  Although the debates were often clouded in obtuse abstractions and subtlety overlaid with the typical, academic deconstructive strategy of caricaturing one's opponent, two issues dominated.  One was whether evangelism (pro-membership growth) or social justice (highlighting the costliness of discipleship) was the primary purpose of the church.  A second was whether or not God would provide the blessing of growth to faithful congregations.  The pro-growth position within the latter was that while membership growth per se was not the primary purpose of the church, God surely intended for faithful congregations to grow.  Two generations (and two generations of continual membership declines) later the debates continue with two major differences.  One is that they seem less intense and less direct, perhaps because after forty years of losses few mainliners are against recruitment and/or development efforts that can be, correctly or incorrectly, passed off as evangelism, and social justice has lost its edge as denominational identities have become more diffuse and contested.  Perhaps more importantly, the last decade or so has witnessed an increasing emphasis on multi-dimensional notions of congregational vitality, with an especially strong surge of interest and prominence being given to "spiritual vitality."

Hopefully other[s] ... will vigorously and dialogically explore the variety of possible normative definitions of vitality, including my own personal preference for the affinity between multi-dimensional approaches and post-modernity.  The latter notwithstanding, the major thrust of my analysis will focus on membership growth for three reasons.  Most importantly and comforting, all empirical studies including multi-dimensional measures of congregational vitality of which I am aware show that membership growth is significantly related to other possible indicators of vitality.  That is, congregations that show high levels of mission outreach, spiritual vitality, financial health, lay involvement, etc also tend to be growing. More pragmatically, membership growth is the most concrete and statically robust measure of vitality available in the largest national sample survey of congregations (over seven times larger than the next largest) available for multivariate analysis.  Finally, there is a much more substantial body of social scientifically informed literature on membership growth than for any other of the currently debated measures of congregational vitality. 
Choosing a measure of congregational vitality is a debatable enough decision in itself, but it begs an equally vexing and even more foundational question.  When dealing with theological, spiritual or religious matters, why bother with measurement and human statistics at all?  It is a question that has haunted religious research since its outset: and as Smilie has reminded church growth researchers, Barth presented as far back as 1948 a particularly clear and passionate argument against confusing membership trends with questions of faithfulness.  It is beyond this paper to argue the case for the value, much less necessity, of using human agency in general, much less a social scientifically informed rationality in particular, as a vehicle for God's purposes.  Therefore let it suffice to note but two major dimensions of such an argument.  One would build on the simple fact that the dismissal of human agency occupies an extremely minimal space in both the long history and contemporary currency of Protestant theology, especially that of liberal Protestant theology.  A second, more defensively deconstructionist tact, and one more specifically in regard to the statistical measurement of changes in growth, would use Smilie's rejoinder to Barth as a point of departure:  "Some observers, unable to relieve themselves of 'all quantitative thinking,' might observe that Barthians in Europe have succeeded in lowering membership and participation without necessarily lifting the quality of life of the body of Christ." 
David A. Roozen, Oldline Protestantism: Pockets of Vitality Within a Continuing Stream of Decline.

While Roozen acknowledges that other "normative definitions of vitality" are worth exploring, saying in effect that numbers are not everything, nevertheless he maintains that they are the best indicator of "vitality," in part because there is the most data and research on them.  No doubt most people involved in mainline churches would agree, both for the pragmatic reasons he cites and the fact that such measures have long been fundamental to the way clergy, congregations, and hierarchies operate.  On a local, regional, and national level, ASA drives just about everything and is the one measure that has been slavishly (if not always accurately) recorded for generations in virtually every congregation.  It has also driven successful non-denominational movements, such as Rick Warren's Purpose-Driven Church.

One can hardly dispute that ASA is a rough and telling measure of the prospects for survival, as there is an inevitable correlation between the numbers in the pews and the money in the plate available to pay staff and maintain buildings, not to mention support various ministries and outreach.  As ASA figures continue to decline across the board, they are no longer merely the canaries in the coal mines but rather a rough and ready indicator of when doors will close, properties will become vacant, and local financial resources will be lost for supporting higher levels of church administration and ministries. 

Consequently, it is practically impossible to do anything but keep an anxious eye on ASA and to employ all the resources available to mitigate potential losses.  It also is tempting to seek radical life-saving measures, even if they risk further alienation and loss, because they promise to abandon all the ways of doing and being church that apparently have done little or nothing to reverse the demographic and cultural trends that have taken away the power, influence, and presence the mainline churches formerly enjoyed.  While once there was some patience and willingness to listen to those who warn of the danger of throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater, many now believe that it is far better to act quickly and decisively on the best that "social scientifically informed rationality" can offer.

So far it seems that the best such rationality has to offer is a data-driven sociological model that is often blind to local circumstances and the spiritual, psychological, and emotional health of the people involved.  Lisa Fox presents a compelling case for allowing laity considerable freedom to explore and evaluate their own needs, without undue influence from the so-called experts, and to instead be guided by non-anxious clergy and lay leaders, with love and patience and confidence that they can find their own way with their own rationality and more than a little help from prayer, reflection, and the occasional gusts of the Holy Spirit.

For all the talk of the "Listening Process" with regard to issues of human sexuality and theology that divide Anglicans worldwide, true listening is something that is often neglected on the local and diocesan levels.  Like their counterparts on the national and international scene, parish and diocesan leaders are sometimes dead set in their own convictions of what must change and who must effect those changes -- come hell or high water -- and anything but change is simply unthinkable.  Even, or perhaps especially, in times of transition, when vast amounts of time and money are spent in employing consultants to conduct surveys, focus group meetings, and planning sessions, the Listening Process is nothing more than a masque, artfully designed and acted to call forth private agendas (however informed by social science and expert advice), with the results often well known ahead of time.

The problem, however, is not so much the process as determining whose needs and concerns are going to be heard.  Church officials inflamed with the desire to evangelize (albeit in its narrowest and crudest sense) often want to focus only on those who are absent -- youth ages 15-35 and those who have grown up with little knowledge of or experience in living as part of a religious community.   Consideration of the needs of those outside the established church no doubt is necessary to countermand insular and parochial thinking among those lost in delusions of what the church once was and always should be. On the other hand, ignoring the needs of those already active and desirous of spiritual growth, and focusing almost exclusively on those who may never cross the threshold, can seriously undermine the health and confidence of the existing community and make it even less attractive to outsiders.

Too often the anxiety-driven agenda of the so-called experts -- and all those with a stake in it, employed by the church, research institutes, and consultants -- engages in overkill when it confronts the local church culture.  In order to make sweeping changes based on what the research says is required for numerical growth, the ideas and experience of those already present are often ignored or dismissed out of hand. The prevailing assumption is that most congregations or parishes are in some kind of diseased state that must be restored to health and vitality (why else would their numbers be static or declining?).  So any excuse for doctoring is welcomed and, despite lean times, often well funded. ["The task of church leadership is to discover and remove growth-restricting diseases and barriers so that natural, normal growth can occur.” - Rick Warren.]

The disease model really takes over full force whenever a church loses its pastor, when the very first thing the congregation is supposed to do is create as much distance as possible from not only the person who is gone, but just about everything and everyone associated with his or her ministry.  This is supposed to be a "healing" period because loss of any kind is presumptively traumatic and life-threatening.  The subsequent period of "self-study" is one in which the focus is on what was lacking or misdirected before and hardly ever on what was valued and working well for the community. Suddenly, everything is up for grabs, with only lip service given to the past (often in the form of a reimagined history, which conveniently foreshadows the new goals of the appointed change agents).  Thus, rather than attempting a smooth transition and proceeding as if one staff person were to be replaced with another, the congregation is intentionally led through a period of great upheaval, during which it is supposed to wholly divest itself of its immediate past and welcome the opportunity to take off in a totally different direction -- in other words, "healing" by amputation.  [See the process described in CDO - Interim Ministries - Book 1 and The Fundamentals of Interim Ministry, which prescribes constant change as the hallmark of transition periods: "There is a time when innovations become routine, then they become the new orthodoxy and then they become a barrier to the future. In many cases, the questions remain the same but the answers are different because circumstances are different. The art in the successful management of transitions is to develop a system that works when change is the only constant."]

I am acutely aware that some may question my objectivity on at least this aspect of the process (knowing that my current parish is undergoing transition as a result of the untimely death last year of its rector, my husband).  However, this has been a passionate concern of mine for a long time (in fact, long before I even met my husband).  I have seen this kind of forced upheaval happen time and time again, first and foremost when I was a member of a congregation and its Search Committee in another denomination (Lutheran), which, even in the 1990's, was guided by the same Church Growth principles that continue to direct the attention and operations of most mainline churches today, including the Episcopal Church.

There we lost our pastor of sixteen years, when he left to take care of his wife stricken with cancer.  And the first thing we did was sit through an excrutiating public "exit interview" with him and the bishop's assistant, who explained all that our pastor had failed to accomplish during his ministry that we would have to undertake in the future.  Then we went through the usual self-study.  Although we found enough positives to present to the candidates, it was clear from all our resources and advisors that we were supposed to reinvent ourselves and somehow do much "better" - never mind our healthy ASA, continued influx of new members even during the interim, the use of our building by numerous community groups, including AA and Al-Anon, the Boy Scouts, and a non-church community organization serving young moms and their children - not to mention our on-going three large adult study and prayer groups that met on Sunday mornings,  a Sunday School full of children, various women's groups, and week-day prayer groups.  Yet we must have been doing something wrong because we had not appreciably increased our active membership beyond 250, and we were made to feel we were selfish and not sufficiently  concerned and focused on the unchurched and evangelism.  So, of course, the only solution was to make radical changes in our liturgy, get rid of the sung Eucharist and the kneeling rails, shorten the service, and get people in and out quickly - as all the focus group studies said that was what the unchurched hungered after.

Then and now radical change seems to be the mantra because church never is good enough, and no one dares to say their congregation is anything but defective, if only because they have had the same leadership for awhile and have not gone through the kind of churchspeak colon cleanse required during times of "transitional ministry."  If you did it before and you liked it, it's time for something else.  Unless people are being drawn in like flies, there must be a new and better trap out there to attract those unfortunate enough not to have found Jesus in the person of our particular congregation.  

There is nothing wrong with aspiring to do more and better - indeed that is what we all strive to do.  However, even the best of those who work tirelessly and faithfully to improve and grow the Church, unwittingly get caught up in unexamined assumptions and beliefs about not only what the future must bring but what must be sacrificed now to bring that supposed future into being.

What I find most heartbreaking is the attitude many of our leaders have towards the "graying" population in the pews.  Instead of drawing upon their knowledge and experience, and whatever wisdom they may have gained in their life-long spiritual journeys, they are at best relegated to what some have called the Old Church Chapels, their piety and practice being dismissed as something that inevitably must die out, as something that is no longer valued or needed by Post-Modern culture.  For many it is simply inconceivable that such people could evangelize or nurture faith and witness among others without radically transforming themselves and their communities into something more marketable and, presumably, more easily understood by those not yet conversant in their ways.  Of course their financial contributions are still welcome, but not much more -- unless they, too have, drunk the Church Growth kool-aid.

This attitude, fortunately, is not shared by all.  There are some, like Diana Butler-Bass, who still find merit in at least some elements of tradition and have some hope that they may be used to help build and nurture intentional communities of faith.  But even among those who express compassion for those who follow the "old ways," there is a growing conviction that those ways must and will be cast aside in favor of whatever will emerge from their ashes.

Take for example, William Floyd Dopp's The Tale of Two Churches. He writes of 80-year old Earl and his "beloved old chapel church [OCC]," where he was married a hoped to be buried. Dopp acknowledges that "to tell Earl that the world has changed and that there is no place for his beloved chapel would be too cruel."  While the emerging mission church [EMC] has a "moral obligation" to treat Earl with "love and compassion," and to meet the needs of those like him, there is no doubt that the OCC has "come to the end of its days" and it will be replaced by the EMC.

Similarly, Thomas Brackett has no doubt that the old ways must be abandoned.  Taking the view of the unchurched, he writes:
Now to my point on vending machine meals. There is nothing more dull than going forward to receive “a crisp and a shot” from robed holy people, in my humble opinion, though we have made it desirable and “holy” through many years of tradition and back-pedaled theology. Those of you Insiders who love the Eucharistic celebration as it is, please block your ears and bear with me! The Liturgical Lifeboat is still a means of grace for you and I honor that.
Yet, he sees that
Many of our church leaders are realizing that, for most of their careers, they have been offering a kind of hospice ministry to their congregations and dioceses. It is not just the flagging attendance and the graying of our denomination’s membership that push them to acknowledge the ennui of our beloved institutions. It is also the noted absence of fresh visions and dreams that would normally bubble up from our younger members. There seems to be a fresh hunger for the Spirit’s promise to give above and beyond anything that we can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20-21).
(From Midwifing the Movement of the Spirit - Part 3.)

There may be some truth in what Brackett says.  But too many have taken the consequences of that truth to the extreme of being ready and willing to sacrifice existing churches and their members to the altar of the new emerging ones.  Instead of investing church resources into "planting" new communities in new places or even abandoned buildings, existing congregations and parishes are targeted for makeovers that not only fail to attend to the spiritual needs of their current members and make use of their time and talents, but sometimes actively drive them out. [See Leading Congregational Change: A Practical Guide for the Transformational Journey, by Jim Herrington, Mike Bonem, James H. Furr, a guide recommended by most mainline churches as well as Rick Warren, which explains how resisters to change are to be identified and purged, if necessary.  Summary here.]  And oddly enough, sometimes declining numbers and unhappy congregants are viewed as sure signs of progress. [See, Dan Hotchkiss, Don't Underestimate System Delays, quoted in The Lead, who writes: "Whatever patterns of behavior were preventing growth before need to be changed, and in the short run that is likely to repel more members than it attracts." "Remember that in general, the most frequent first sign of success in planning is that people get less happy."]

Although I've witnessed a series of aggressive attempts to make over a vibrant but numerically static congregation in the Lutheran church (ELCA), based on these principles and strategies, the real danger is not so much what I hope are rare instances of planned demolition, but rather the way the ideas behind the Church Growth and some of the Emergent Church movements feed a larger misconception of the current state of Christianity as both a faith and a social institution in the U.S. 

An example of how many perceive our churches can be seen in this sermon from Reverend Hillary Crute Johnson of Bernardsville United Methodist Church, Bernardsville, NJ.
However, over the last 40 years, the Methodist church has been in decline. Congregational development experts are finding that people aren’t leaving their faith, but they are leaving our church and many of the main line denominations. I have been told in seminars that on any given Sunday only 30% of Christians are actually in church. There are many reasons for this, but it should suffice to say, open your newspaper, look at the lifestyles of your family and your neighbors, think about your own feelings about church and you get the picture of why the church is failing to attract people today. If I could get most people of the people who have shown interest in our church here on any given Sunday, we would have about 30-35 people, which is the average attendance for churches in our area. But, other events and obligations or distractions keep most people from coming to church.
. . . .

This past year, I have been on a mission trying to discover what has happened to the Methodist church: a church that has roots in visible, life changing ministry that has begun to dry up and decline; and how can we recover our spiritual center and reform ourselves so that our dry bones live once again and have the impact in the world that we once did?
This is, in many respects, an excellent, thoughtful, soul-searching sermon.  Rev. Johnson, like many others I have quoted here, has some great insights into what is going on in the world around us and is dedicated to doing all she can to bring life and hope to her church and her community.  However, some of those ideas and dreams are tinged with not only understandable anxiety about the Great Decline but  assumptions about how and why mainline churches are suffering this decline.  Most telling is the nostalgic view of the past in which the church once had "impact in the world."

The irony is that the views of Congregational Development and Church Growth experts, and those that they educate and train, are based on sociological research and an understanding of history that now appear distorted and outmoded in light of recent work by leading sociologists and historians of religion.  In the past, their fields were dominated by those who studied religion within the confines of particular religious movements and institutions rather than from the larger perspective of society as a whole.  Also lacking was a cross-cultural understanding of what "religion" is, or rather how Western ideas of a division between the secular and the religious aspects of human life and culture have led to an ethno-centric notion of what, in fact, religion is in all times and places - one that has long shaped the way religion has been conceptualized and studied.  [See generally, authors and essays at The Immanent Frame: Secularism, Religion, and the Public Sphere.]

Of particular relevance to the Great Decline of the mainline churches in the U.S. is the work of Jon Butler, Howard R. Lamar Professor of American Studies, History, and Religious Studies and Dean, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Yale University.  Professor Butler views religious culture and institutions in the U.S. in the late 20th and early 21st centuries against the backdrop of what he has learned of them from his research into the 18th and 19th centuries, most notably detailed in Awash in a Sea of Faith - The Christianizing of the American People (Harvard U. Press 1992).  In a 2004 interview with the History News Network he points out that we, as a nation, are much more religious than we were at our founding:
If we went back to the religion of the Founding Fathers we would go back to deism. If we picked up modern religion, it's not the religion of the Founding Fathers. Indeed, we are probably more religious than the society that created the American Revolution. There are a number of ways to think about that. Sixty percent of Americans belong to churches today , 20 percent belonged in 1776. And if we count slaves, for example, it probably reduces the figure to 10 percent of the society that belonged to any kind of religious organization.

Modern Americans probably know more about religious doctrine in general, Christianity, Protestantism, Catholicism, Judaism, than most Americans did in 1776. I would argue that America in the 1990s is a far more deeply religious society, whose politics is more driven by religion, than it was in 1776. So those who want to go back would be going back to a much more profoundly secular society.
Also, the role of religion in the U.S. today is vastly different than it is in England and other European countries.  [Listen to his excellent lecture on "The Surprise of Religion in 20th Century America," available as a Yale University Netcast audio recording here.]  Consequently, the dichotomy many, such as William Floyd Dopp, have drawn between the nearly empty churches and cathedrals in Europe and the brimming stadiums of Christians gathering in various African countries, does not necessarily inform the present or predict the future of Christianity in the U.S.  Yet we, especially us Episcopalians, see ourselves in the shadow of the Church of England and other European churches, which we take as the ghosts of our Future Church.

Most important, those pesky numbers may not mean at all what we think they mean -- the Great Decline of the role of religion in general and Christianity in particular in the U.S.   While the mainline churches may have been diminished in numbers, social prestige, and political influence,  Christianity appears to be very much alive.  As Butler recounts in his lecture, he once advised a visiting European who was interested in learning about the role of religion in U.S. culture to rent an auto and drive cross country from New York to the Midwest.  The visitor took his advice and was amazed at what he saw, all the churches of all sizes and shapes, that dotted the countryside, in rural, suburban, and urban areas, in virtually every nook and cranny of the places where he traveled.

This is not to say that everything is rosy or not much changed.  Butler recognizes that enormous changes have occurred.  Nevertheless, he puts them into the perspective of early American religious life and demonstrates how the halcyon days of American churches in the 1950's and 1960's represent a level of membership and participation that was unrivalled in history and arguably artificially high because of the various historical circumstances and events that produced them.

From this perspective, it is not clear that we are in the great crisis of faith and disdain for religion that many would have us believe.  What we see passing are those social and historical forces that were the tides that left us awash in "a sea of faith."   Churches, especially immigrant churches, were critical to the settlement and social organization of American communities from the 19th century through the explosive growth in population in general and of suburban communities in the 1940's, 1950's, and early 1960's.  Religion was for most people not simply a matter of faith, belief, or commitment to its tenets, but rather a critical part of personal and familial identity to an extent unparalleled in other Western countries during the same time period.  In the U.S. there was no state church or, for the most part, any parish boundaries that encompassed all (whether participants or not), which served as the larger context in which people lived their daily lives but often did not play much of a role in forming their social identities as family, class, ethnicity, and geography.  Instead, in the U.S., churches were an important part of people's identity -- for many, the center of their social lives, and for recent immigrants, the source of important ties with their distant homelands.

So what do all these numbers really mean?   Well, for those of us in parishes that struggle to pay utility bills, repair and maintain buildings, and keep professional clergy and musicians employed, the numbers do represent critical losses and real threats to our continued existence as the organized bodies and institutions that we have been.  For others, they mean less influence in local politics and other community affairs, less visibility overall, and fewer resources and networks for assisting the hungry and poor and others in need.

But one must seriously and earnestly ask what does any of this have to do with the spiritual life and "vitality" of our congregations and parishes?  And why do we even posit the notion of a "healthy" church?  Back when the pews were overflowing and social pressures brought in both adults and youth, as largely captive audiences, did our numbers contribute in any significant way to the spiritual growth and development of either individuals or the corporate body of our churches?  Yes, they gave us more breathing room, a more diverse group of people, more complex and regular social interactions, but at the same time, we had more than our share of dysfunctional leaders and communities, probably more resistance to change, more abuse by tyrannical clergy, cliquish and exclusive lay leaders, and more social snobbery and emphasis on appearance largely for appearances sake.  If we are truly honest with ourselves, the good old days were not as good as we would like to remember.

More important, the current climate of hyper-consciousness of the respective "health" of our parishes - whether measured from the standpoint of numbers, mission work, orthodoxy, or Bible study - may be causing more anxiety and ultimately depression than the demographic and financial changes.  Although hope, salvation, and transformation is at the heart of the Gospel message, the reality has always been that we, both as individuals and as groups, do not develop, grow, or progress in straight lines or all together at the same time.  It is bad enough that families are breaking up more often because they cannot tolerate differences or stages of maturity or lapses in care or fidelity, rough spots that once had to be weathered through no matter what.  While some of those families are no doubt better off being no longer yoked together in mutual destruction and infliction of emotional and sometimes physical pain, just as some parishes may be better off dying rather than staying within the stranglehold of petty tyrants and obstructionists, church families should not be looking for ways to split or purge themselves of inconvenient persons or ideas. 

There is enough to divide us nowadays in terms of the culture wars and the theological differences that some tie to them.  Yet time and time again we put ourselves under the microscope searching for flaws, calling in experts to fret and fuss over them, study and implement "systems theories" to engineer different social structures, and impose the latest trends in liturgical innovations, programs, and even schedules in an effort to market our hyper-conscious over-anxious groups and leaders to those on the outside, in hopes of not only replacing those we have lost due to death, disaffection, or relocation, but filling our pews and our parish halls with greater numbers of people, expecting somehow that an influx of newcomers will mean an escape from our old bad habits, a shot of adrenalin and enthusiasm, and some dollars and hard work besides.

Let me suggest a radical alternative. Why don't we stop treating our parishes like lab experiments in social engineering or business start-ups, stop trying to remodel and reinvent them, and just try to do our best to follow Christ in our hearts, minds and deeds?  Why don't we start focusing on acts of kindness, compassion, and understanding, strengthening our bonds of friendship, spending more time in corporate worship, mission, fellowship, prayer, and study? Why don't we stop constantly beating the drums for change, change, change, and simply be mindful of new things we might try and new kinds of communities that we can sponsor and help grow, without dynamiting and discarding the communities we already have to make way for those imperfectly visioned by hypothetical constructs of who seekers are and what is needed to reach and serve them?  Let us make the best use we can of the new ideas and out-of-the-box thinking of those active in Emergent Church and other new movements, be willing to sponsor their experiments, even when the numbers do not show worldly or immediate success, and at the same time ask them to be more open to what we have to offer, to learn from our experience, and the acquired wisdom of the gray-haired persons who have been so faithful for so many years. 

And, finally, let us remember that while not everyone will want to seek us out or join our numbers, nevertheless, we have - without doing some new or different thing - reached some who have never been baptized or attended a church before, who nevertheless wandered in one day and were moved by what they saw us do and be together, gathering for Holy Eucharist, not in assembly line dispensation of wafers and wine, but in reverent and grateful joy in receiving the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, so as to grant us strength and courage to love and serve God with gladness and singleness of heart.