From the archives.
By Derek Penwell
Why Is This Happening to Us?
Church transformation. It’s a big deal right now. Denominations that used to think almost exclusively about new church starts are having to think long and hard about churches withering on the vine.
“We’re getting older.”
“We need more young families.”
“I believe the children are the future; teach them well, and … ” Um, sorry.
We get a lot of news about fancy-pants mega churches with their new “family life centers,” complete with climbing walls and dedicated space for “Christian Aerobics.” It can get pretty disheartening in a declining church to see these successes so widely celebrated, touted as the embodiment of modern Christian faithfulness.
It’s tough. What are declining churches to do?
“Yeah, well that’s easy to say. If that were all it took, don’t you think we would have done it by now?”
No. I don’t think that. I think that most declining churches would rather die than change.
“Well, that’s just crazy talk. We don’t want to die. In fact, we’re desperate not to die.”
Well, if what you’re doing isn’t working, do something different. And by doing something different I don’t mean getting new flyers, or hiring a young minister with a family, or even biting the bullet and upgrading (getting?) a church website. You may have to do those things; I don’t know. But those aren’t systemic changes. If you’re body is dying because you’re diabetic, buying a new outfit may help you feel better for a bit, but it certainly doesn’t address the fact that your body is killing you. Starting a new diet, buying an elliptical machine, while good first steps, won’t do it either. You’ve got to be ready to completely change your life.
“Ok. I get that.”
(Here comes the “but.” Wait for it …)
“But, I’ve always eaten dessert after every meal. My grandmother gave that tradition to my mother, who passed it on to me, and if I stop, it’d be like passing judgment on the people who made me who I am.”
Crack Addiction and Declining Churches
Let me shift tracks. If you walk up to a crack addict and say, “If you continue to smoke crack, you will die. Do you want to die?”
“Will you quit smoking crack?”
“Well … I mean, I want to quit. It’s just really hard.”
“But if you want to live, you’ll have to start living in healthy ways–one of which will require you to stop engaging in damaging behavior.”
And maybe after a pause, the crack addict will mumble, “Yes. I want to quit.”
But how many actually do quit? I heard a social worker who works in the recovery field say that only about 1 in every 35 crack addicts ever reach sustained sobriety. Now, I’m not going to stake my mortgage on the veracity of that statistic, but I imagine that it’s instructive (even if proven to be hyperbolic) about the number of people who say they want to quit, but ever really do.
So, when it comes down to it, all protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, most people choose death over change when it comes to crack. (Please understand, in the case of crack addicts, I’m merely being descriptive—not evaluative. I’m not passing judgment, just reporting what appears to happen. I’m aware of the profound difficulties associated with facing down a crack addiction. I’m not arguing that they’re bad people; I’m only telling you, given the statistics, what generally happens.)
Declining churches, I want to suggest, are very much like crack addicts.
“If you continue to do the things you’re doing, without some fundamental changes, you will most likely die. Do you want to die?”
“Are you willing to change? Radically change? Tear-out-the-walls, dig-up-the-foundation, draw-up-new-blueprints kind of change?”
“Well … I mean, we want to change. It’s just really hard.”
Though they say they don’t want to die, and though they say they’re willing to change in order to live, declining churches more often than not can’t quite walk away from the habits that have brought them to this point–even though clinging to those habits hastens dying.
Now, I suspect I’m going to offend some people with this comparison between crack addicts and declining churches.
”It’s over the top.”
“It doesn’t take into consideration the difficult circumstances people and churches have to face.”
“It’s insensitive to the feelings of churches that really don’t want to die.”
I’m going to restate what I said a moment ago. I do have evaluative judgments about declining churches, but I’ve been fairly careful in trying not to express them yet. My point so far has been to set down what I view to be a way of looking at the problem in a manner that expresses the similarities between crack addicts and declining churches. I hope to do this in such a way as to illuminate a problem we seem to believe has easy fixes–ones we don’t at present possess, but that we’re certain exist (somewhere, with somebody really smart, who writes a lot of books, and always looks freshly manicured and blow-dried–sorry, that was a value judgment).
Church transformation, like recovery from addiction, is difficult–so difficult, in fact, that it’s very rarely entirely successful. Here is at least one place where the analogy breaks down between addiction recovery and church transformation: while both are continuing processes, it’s easier to identify sobriety–either you’re sober or you’re not. There is no similar incontestable marker for telling whether a church is transformed.1
But let me just wade into this analogy, leading with my chin. The problem with recovery from addiction, and by analogy with church transformation, is that it takes more than good intentions.
“Ok, smart guy, so what do we have to do to change?”
Usually, churches that ask this question believe the answer will involve a program, a staff position, a magic bullet. Something.
Unfortunately, the answer to that question sounds like part of a Zen koan–one that popular culture talks about all the time when it comes to addiction recovery–but that average church folks rarely think to apply to their congregations. The answer is painfully simple, but impossible to manufacture.
In the church where I work, we have a great deal of experience with recovering addicts. One in particular we’ve worked with for years. Things get bad. He goes through rehab. Every time, after he gets out, he’ll say, “This is the time. I have to do it this time.” And, frankly, I think he means it.
We got an in-take person at a long-term treatment facility to come down to the church to meet with our guy. They talked for about a half hour. The staff sat in our offices, expectant. Finally, the counselor came into my office, shaking his head, “He’s not ready.”
“Because he’s making excuses about why he can’t enter long-term treatment–why he doesn’t need it–why he can recover on his own. I tried. I told him, I said, ‘Man, nothing’s going to be different until you realize that what you’ve been doing isn’t working. You’re going to have to wake up one day and make a decision: Do I want to change or do I want to die? Until you’re ready, there’s nothing I can do for you.’”
No matter how badly I want the addict to change, I can’t make it happen. In fact, continuing to try to fix the person before she or he is ready can serve to make matters worse. Until the person finally owns the addiction, embraces the choice between death and life, all the interventions in the world won’t help.
That’s it. That’s the secret to church transformation. Do you want to change or do you want to die? Sometimes in popular culture we call it “hitting bottom.” You have to realize that, whatever the world may have thrown at you, where you are today is largely the product of your own choices … and that continuing to make those same choices is tantamount to making a choice to die.
“Wow! That sounds really atheist–that is, it doesn’t sound like there’s any room for God in your description of declining churches.”
Let me see if I can remedy that. I’m not suggesting that God isn’t at work in the life of declining churches–far from it. Some of the greatest people I know find their homes in congregations in decline. What I am saying, though, is that making decisions based solely on a limited model of what the church can be–which comes as an inheritance of the way the church has been for the last seventy-five years–is itself a fairly atheistic response to ministry.
Here's What It Looks Like When It Happens to You
Try this one on.
I'm sitting in a board meeting. The church is facing some tough decisions about whether it will be possible to keep the doors open under current conditions. There is, needless to say, a lot of hand-wringing.
A group of young people have asked to bring a proposal to the meeting (you know, the young people that everyone in the congregation has said over and over again are “the future of the church”). They're nervous. One young woman bites her lip. These young people haven't really been included in leadership, so the board meeting is intimidating. A bespectacled young man says, “Thanks for having us here. Let me get right to it. We have an opportunity to start a church service that will put us in contact with a sizable number of young people who are our friends.”
The board hears “young people” and their interest is pricked.
“The deal is, though, this church service will take place in a bar. Allen knows the manager, who said they have a community room she’ll let us have for two hours a week, every Tuesday night. She’s willing to reserve it for us for $50 bucks a week.”
Hmmm. Bar? Nervous.
Did they say $2,600 dollars a year?
People start shifting in their seats.
A young mother of two, who works as a network administrator, senses the level of anxiety rising and jumps in: “We know that the church is getting older, but we love this place, and we think that other people our age would love it too if they could be exposed to the church in a less threatening way. We’re certainly not going to pressure them. We just want them to see that it’s possible for Christian people to get together and have a good time, enjoy interesting conversations, and think about God. We’re really excited! We’ve got 15 people who’ve committed to coming until after Christmas–then we’ll reevaluate.”
How does the board respond?
The church treasurer, who manages the bank that sits on the property next to the church is the first to weigh in:
“You're talking about over $2,000 dollars to rent bar space. We're already working with a deficit budget. We don’t have enough money to do something like that. Can’t you find someplace cheaper?”
Another woman clears her throat, and says:
“We have to be careful. There are people who might leave the church if we did something like this.”
Things unravel quickly. I look in people's faces and I can see that they're torn. They know they need to do something, but this sounds so radical. They don't want to disappoint the young people, but they just can't see how they can give approval to something like this.
Pretty soon, the reasons for not going ahead with the proposal pick up a head of steam.
“We tried that before. It didn’t work.”
“We like to think of ourselves as a family. We don’t want to do something that everyone can’t do together. If it becomes successful, we might have two churches that don’t even know each other.”
After the meeting, the board feels badly about saying no . . . but really, what were they supposed to do? They did the only thing they could think to do in a situation like this, because they can't recall any precedent for launching into something as risky as this.
The young people gather out in the parking lot, shaking their heads, unsure what kind of golden low-risk, high-reward opportunity the leadership is waiting for. Nobody's angry enough to leave, but as they lean against their cars doing the post-mortem on the meeting, they can't, for the life of them, understand what just happened.
It’s Not the Goal; It’s the Process
Am I suggesting that your church can avoid death by meeting in a bar? Of course not. In fact, that misses the point entirely. If that were the case, I’d just be offering a new program, a new gimmick to get people into church, so that we could save it from dying. The point is to be found in the decision making process. Instead of beginning with the assumption that God might be doing something through these young people, and then trying to see if that lines up with the vision of the congregation, the initial response assumes that anything that sounds that different must violate something important–and the board’s job is to identify what that something important is and how it will be violated by something new … then, put a stop to it.
Do you see the difference? One approach assumes that God might be working in a new way; the other approach assumes that since it’s different it must be a threat–without ever taking the time to discern whether God’s behind it or not. Operating as if something other than God ought to determine the way forward is a form of practical atheism.
In fact, though, the way forward for congregations undergoing transformation can’t but be about God. Let’s return to the recovery model, for a moment. What’s at the heart of most addiction recovery models? The twelve steps. I want to suggest that church transformation requires something like (at least) the first seven steps.
- We admitted we were powerless over [decline] — that our lives had become unmanageable.
- Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
- Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood [God].
- Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
- Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
- Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
- Humbly asked [God] to remove our shortcomings.
Until a congregation lets go of its belief that it can somehow engineer its own recovery by launching a flashy new program, or hiring a young minister, or buying a new web page, or squashing every threat of failure before it has a chance to make anybody mad, and begin to understand that the church belongs to God–and, therefore, God retains ultimate responsibility for it–the congregation will never experience the freedom of following God on a wild new adventure.
“Yeah, but I thought you said that congregations were responsible for their own deaths by continually making bad decisions. Then, just now you said that God is responsible for the success or failure of the church. Which is it?”
Let me try to clear up this apparent discrepancy. The church, the body of Christ, which is a gift to the world, belongs ultimately to God. Individual congregations, over which people are appointed stewards, are given the responsibility of faithfully living out the calling of the gospel in whatever place they find themselves. That faithfulness requires that congregations seek to discern how best to live–through prayer, reading scripture, rehearsing the narrative of faithfulness they’ve inherited, and then, interpreting all of this within each congregation's particular context. Then, having done all that work, congregations are called to embrace this adventure by living faithfully. So, the church, which belongs to God, will endure; individual congregations, which are a partnership between God and local communities of faith, and are entrusted by God to make faithful decisions, are free to make faithless decisions that lead to death.
Through the recovery process, addicts are encouraged to come to a similar understanding of their responsibility for their lives. Life, which is a gift from God to the world, will endure. Individual addicts, however, regularly make bad decisions that threaten that gift for themselves and those whom they love. Recovery comes through the process of realizing that one is inadequate to the task of securing and controlling one’s life. The great paradox of recovery is that one takes responsibility for one’s life by relinquishing one’s responsibility for one’s life to God–recognizing that only God is equal to the task. Recovery, and to my mind, church transformation, is that deliciously mysterious process whereby control of one’s life is regained by ceding control of that life over to God.
“That sounds like a bunch of contradictory nonsense.”
Boy, ain’t that the truth? But the church claims to follow a contradictory, often nonsensical ancient Near Eastern vagrant who said all kinds of crazy things like that.
“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 16:25).
- It might be argued that being dry and being sober aren’t the same thing–that sobriety is a process that encompasses the systemic problems for which the addiction is merely a symptom. However, that argument actually strengthens my contention that declining churches are symptomatic of a more systemic reluctance to change; it’s just that clear and unambiguous signposts are more difficult to come by with church transformation, since a successful program here or there can be mistaken for a change in congregational culture. Therefore, because church transformation is so difficult to identify definitively, and because it’s a process rather than an end product, it’s difficult ever to say that church transformation is entirely successful–which is to say, finished. ↩