In economic jargon, sunk costs are resources that are spent and cannot be recovered. Far too often, unsuccessful initiatives are continued due to the significant money already invested in them. Overpaid and underperforming athletes who are given playing time ahead of more talented teammates because of bloated, poorly conceived contracts are obvious examples. Instead of throwing good money after the bad, the best path is absorbing one’s losses (the sunk costs) and expending future resources in a different, more effective way. Little effort is needed to find a spiritual growth guru or church planting book asserting traditional/mainline/institutional churches are sunk costs. These congregations are aging, their financial resources are shrinking, they have become culturally irrelevant, and their unhealthy habits are hard to change. All these statements are factually correct but the conclusion is wrong. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and other denominations with many congregations fitting these descriptions need to radically rethink their approach to dying churches and double down on their commitment to partnering with God in reviving them.
There is nothing religiously sexy about such congregations. The worship service has often gone stale. The youth group is non-existent because the youth have vacated the building. Yet, inside the walls of these churches are faithful Christians tirelessly working to love God and neighbor. They suffer pain, grieve loss, and need hope. The spiritual needs and Christian formation of the members in these “remnant congregations” are real and equally deserving of pastoral attention.
The ministry challenges these congregations present are astoundingly large. A pastor in this setting has to care for the dying while working for resurrection. Some might claim that cutting losses and focusing resources in other places is the responsible and realistic thing to do. Such an argument is neither compelling nor faithful. It admits of defeat before energy has even been expended, while placing artificial limitations on what God can do when humans are willing to take risks and think imaginatively. It makes the theological mistake of assuming what is represents what will always be.
Many of these churches hold misguided priorities (spending money on a building while cutting outreach budgets, for example), but they are earnestly trying to live into their identity as Church. What they need are passionate, intelligent, and dedicated shepherds to guide, nurture, and challenge them. Developing and equipping the leaders for a time such as this is imperative.
The work of New Church Ministries is impressive and the potential of the Hope Partnership is promising. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has much to be excited about but more is needed in terms of attention and resources. Our existence and witness hinges on the revitalization and transformation of struggling congregations. The compassion of the cross and the promise of the resurrection testify that God’s People can never be sunk costs.