Lessons learned when the church is in decline
For years, the congregation I currently serve enjoyed relatively easy growth. The main reason was the explosive growth of our community. We were in the fastest growing county (percentage-wise) in the country. New homes being built everywhere, new families moving to town, new people seeking churches, Lutherans seeking Lutheran churches. With 3-4 visiting families at each and every worship service, the challenge was to keep up with follow-up phone calls and visits.
We added a third Sunday morning worship service. We began a Wednesday night education for youth and adults. We designed and built a new sanctuary. We had a vicar for three consecutive years. I learned a lot in those years as our modest congregation pretty much doubled in size.
Growth doesn’t last forever, though, and the housing bust of 2008 hit hard. Those who could no longer afford their homes just walked away from them. Those who lost jobs in construction left to find them somewhere else. Those who couldn’t afford preschool for their children kept them home. We could no longer afford to sponsor a vicar. In subsequent years we cut staff hours to part-time, trimmed the budget every possible way we could, refinanced our mortgage, closed our preschool, and watched our numbers decline. Most churches and businesses shared that experience.
So what did we learn in those years of decline?
- Faithfulness doesn’t insure growth nor does it stave off decline. Not even in the church. We learned that she will ride the inevitable waves of life, which include both ups and downs, laughter and tears, successes and failures.
- Sometimes you are preparing people to leave your church. To serve somewhere else. To bless another congregation. To move on to a new challenge. Or a new stage of life. To leave this world for the next. We learned that we will all leave, one way or the other.
- Numbers — attendance or finances — only tell part of the story. Sometimes it’s not about how many come or how much comes in. Sometimes, the story is who goes and what goes out. In the years of decline, we actually became more involved in the community, from housing homeless families to helping women and children maintain their cars to staffing Good News Clubs in a local elementary school to supporting a church and school in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. We learned to count what happened outside our walls, not just who was within them.
- We learned about resurrection, too. It comes after the darkness of Friday and the quiet unknown of Saturday. Houses were purchased and renovated, babies have been born, newly retired families have discovered our little corner of the world, and we have become aware of new ministry needs in the community. While the numbers who come may still be flat, there are many new places for us to go.
Maybe my diagnosis is incorrect. Maybe we haven’t declined at all. Maybe we’ve grown. A good lesson to learn.