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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

They Got It All--Now What?

I think it likely that at this point, my anonymous comments on an unnamed church will not cause any trouble. Only a handful of souls read this blog anymore, anyway.


I'll try to keep it brief.  No one likes long blogposts.

I belong to a church that is in decline.  It was declining when I joined, probably about six years ago now.  The ministry team then consisted of one semi-retired pastor with a background in sales and self-publishing who was serving on an  interim basis, the music minister, who'd apparently been there since the dawn of time, and the youth/education minister.

Within a month or two of me visiting, they'd called a youngish former missionary to the pastorate.  He did, in my opinion, well, but like any other man, he wasn't perfect, and the church continued to decline.  I think there was a definite turning point when he called a series of meetings for Sunday School teachers so that we could, once again, go over his self-authored booklet outlining what the church was all about and what was expected of the membership.  I distinctly recall looking at another Sunday School teacher and saying, "So, I guess the problem is that the membership and teachers haven't been through this booklet enough times?"

Not too long after that, he apparently felt called to go into politics.  I will say no more save to note that it may have been a mistake.

When he left, the church--or, rather, a handful of committee members--invited one preacher after another to preach in our pulpit.  One or two of them I thought might have a chance, particularly one young fellow who, it seemed to me, actually demonstrated an attitude toward outreach and evangelism that might stand a chance of success in our neighborhood, which has changed dramatically since the church's heyday.

And then, they decided that the best thing to do was call back the interim preacher who'd been there when I first started visiting, five years earlier.

I found out later that this man and the music minister had worked together at another church before this.

And then, REMARKABLY, the next step in the plan toward reversing the decline was to call back the youth/education minister who'd been there when I started visiting, even though the man had been let go, oh, three years earlier, as the church had already declined to the point where we couldn't afford to pay him.

And just like THAT, the ministry team that had been there when I started visiting was reconstituted.  Was it intentional?  Was it planned to be like that from the moment our pastor left?  I do not know.  Maybe.

But whether it was planned or not, I couldn't help but think, "Wasn't the church declining under these people?  Why is rehiring them now considered a solution?"

But I know how these things typically go in church life.  I didn't say much, for I knew I'd be accused of divisiveness simply for asking reasonable questions.

Within, I think, six or eight months of this staff's return, attendance dropped from about 150 or so to about 80.  We do have some new members, but we have lost enough "old" members (for lack of a better term) to keep attendance at about that level (or so they say.  I never see more than about sixty.)

That is not a sustainable level for us to keep paying the kind of staff we have, pay the bills on a building the size of ours, and keep running the kinds of programs we always have.  We are either going to go to a totally bivocational staff and shut off parts of the  building and quit doing some things, or we are going to go bankrupt.  Or we are going to grow.

Naturally, NO BAPTIST CHURCH will EVER admit that they are not going to try to grow, so our new/old interim--now permanent, if part-time--pastor announced that the plan to grow was to become a "metro" church, by which he meant that it was time to quit worrying so much about the local population and let people know that we were "worth the drive."  I found this so much hubris--after all, we have a huge number of churches in our city, and saying that OURS was worth the drive necessarily involved saying that OTHERS were worth only driving PAST--and, without naming names or naming churches, said something to that effect on Facebook.

I was shortly told by the preacher that this was a Matthew 18 situation and advised that part of the plan was to do things in a spirit of unity and harmony.

He wouldn't have even seen my comment had he not been looking over the shoulder of a Facebook friend who was helping out in the church office.  He wasn't on my "friends" list and I have long had all my settings to "friends only," so make what you will out of his statement that he was in the habit of reading all the things I say on Facebook.

I agreed to keep any further comments off Facebook whilst noting that I disagreed with his proposed approach and, while I hoped to be proven wrong, I thought it likely that the church would be closing its doors within three years.  He agreed that we certainly had a challenge ahead of us.

Since then--several months now--"the plan" has come together.  It consisted of:

1) Removing the pews from our largish sanctuary and spending thousands of dollars on new chairs, and taking up much less space, so as to create a more intimate worship atmosphere.  I spoke in favor of that, actually; anything to get the members to do something DIFFERENT.

2) Focusing mainly on the Sunday morning worship service, de-emphasizing, to a degree, Sunday School, Sunday evenings, and Wednesday evenings--even going to the point of not having Sunday nights at all during the Summer and not having Wednesday evenings consistently.

3) Making sure that all our friends knew that we were worth the drive.

4) Reaching out to the neighborhood businesses.  Exactly why the local businesses were worth reaching out to when the local people were (at least initially) NOT is as unclear to me as it likely is to you.  In practice, all this has meant is that the local Wendy's has given us coupons for free Frosties to use as prizes for a few of our events.

5) Creating a "Welcome Center" for our guests.  In practice that has meant putting two airpots full of coffee, some donuts, and cups into what used to be the foyer and is now the welcome center.

6) Doing everything in a spirit of unity and harmony.  Since, as far as I know--actually, to my certain knowledge, in some cases--the staff has routinely but politely dismissed input from church members, and those members are now FORMER members, having voted with their feet, and I agreed not to put comments on Facebook and to keep my thoughts on these policies out of the church arena (remember: I blog anonymously, and I am naming neither people nor church here, and the odds are very good that only one of my readers even knows where I go to church), the staff may well not really know what it is to experience disunity and unharmoniousness. It seems to me that the staff may not be able to distinguish the silence of the silenced, disinterested, and tired from a spirit of unity and harmony.  It may be that they think a lack of open criticism constitutes having approval.  It may be that they don't realize our near-halved attendance, despite leaving only the non-critical in place, is indicative of anything but harmony and unity.

And maybe there really is unity.  Certainly they've gotten everything they wanted.  They got their old team back.  They got the Welcome Center.  They got the changes in the sanctuary.  They got the focus on the morning worship service.  They got "unity and harmony," or at least an absence of criticism and a series of near-unanimous votes.

So, my question: what now, guys?  The decline hasn't been halted, at least as far as I can tell.  I see nothing--zero, zip, zilch, nada--being either pursued or proposed that is in the smallest iota different from exactly what has failed for a quarter-century now.  We pretty much run the same programs in the same way.  We do nothing different in terms of outreach.  I don't even think we HAVE outreach, unless you want to pretend that doing VBS is outreach (which most churches do; they say that VBS is the church's greatest outreach effort of the year, which, if true, is pathetic, because it is, judging by the numbers I've seen for the last decade, a failure, year after year after year).

You got everything you said you wanted.  What now?  I'll give you credit for wanting to get something done.  But to tell the truth, you three--four, if you count the former pastor--have been instrumental in convincing me of something I had suspected for a long time: most professional ministry staff go to seminary and come away with no more idea what to do, no more real knowledge, no greater grasp of the Word, than the average old lady in the pews.  I suspect that the three of you, and probably certain committee members, thought that if only you were in place as a team again, people who'd left would come roaring back. That the church was declining under you, too, when you were together before, was overlooked.

You all read the same books and the same magazines and go to the same conferences and you all think the same officially approved groupthink.  You just don't THINK.  You just parrot the same stuff everyone else parrots,  and I really do think that if the decline of the North American church in general, and the Southern Baptist Convention specifically, is ever halted, it will be in spite of ministers like you instead of because of ministers like you.

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