Addressing church decline is about confronting a shifting reality.
By Amy Butler
I had a spirited conversation with some friends the other day about church revitalization. The topic came up because, in my circles, some version of this question is on everyone’s mind these days: “How can we revitalize the institutional church?”
My friends and I realized pretty early in our conversation that we weren’t really talking about programmatic or operational shifts when we thought about how to address decline in the institutional church as we know it. Instead, we were talking about something much bigger: a shifting reality.
It can’t be easy to lead a cultural shift, but with that challenge in mind, here are three critical and easy-to-implement leadership strategies we discussed, that every pastor and congregational leader should take on.
First, as congregational leaders — those who give voice to the ethos of a community — we should make it our priority to perpetually reframe the narrative from scarcity to abundance. In the Bible we read stories of faith every Sunday in worship, so we of all people should know that the stories we tell about our shared life are powerful; words and narrative shape internal understanding and influence our ability to imagine a future we cannot see. When congregations speak in narratives of decline and death, desperation and fear, we are crippling our ability to think in new ways and take action toward the next expression of our lives together.
This kind of reframing could be as simple as using different language (instead of: “Well, this alternative worship service is our last hope to attract young adults,” we could say something like: “We’re making space for a worship experience that will function as a ministry incubator; we’re so excited to see who will join us!”) or as substantive as rewriting our budgets to dismantle the bifurcation of program costs and administrative costs as we begin to understand our buildings and staff as important and integral tools to effective ministry.
A second essential strategy is perpetually highlighting health. This seems so obvious, but sometimes rote patterns cause us to overlook this important leadership tool. In the struggle of trying to maintain what we’re scared to lose, we may not be thinking strategically about inviting new and enthusiastic members to provide leadership, or welcoming our children to worship to remind us of the future, or highlighting neighborhood partnerships on the church website. As we work to shift a culture of decline toward a culture of abundance, these small and regular expressions of possibility and hope can allay our collective fears enough to help us take bold and unanticipated risks, to value our community so much that we’re able to think outside the box and embrace with hope a future we cannot see.
Innovation as standard practice is a third leadership strategy that will help us effectively shift our church cultures from desperation to hope. Whenever a decision is made — from purchasing cleaning supplies to revamping worship — church leaders should always take a careful look at potential innovation. There might be a way to solve little problems or accomplish small tasks that we may not have considered before — and those new ways may even work more effectively than the way we’ve always done things.
For example, facing the challenge of rising costs for janitorial supplies, a church I know of recently teamed up with other local institutions to order supplies in bulk. This innovative way to address the problem resulted in even unintended benefits: decreased costs for supplies; the ability to purchase eco-friendly products in line with a shared priority of creation care; and relationships with other leaders and communities that resulted in collaboration in mission and programming. When innovation becomes the standard, when congregation leaders and members regularly challenge and even expect each other to solve problems with creative solutions, we gradually lessen our anxiety about change.
Answering the question of how we revitalize a church in decline is a considerable challenge, because we all know that there is no formulaic or prescriptive answer to that question. Instead, we have to pay attention to the task of shifting the culture of our communities.
Ultimately, it is not we who will determine the future of the institutional church; this work is God’s work. We can be assured that God has been at work in the world long before we arrived and God will continue to work in the world long after we’re gone.
In the meantime, we’re invited to celebrate the considerable gifts we have in the communities in which we serve, to understand these expressions of God’s work in the world as bastions of potential — not scarcity and fear, but abundance and hope.
When we move from a framework of scarcity to a culture in which we habitually celebrate the abundance we have, we begin to realize the question we’ve been asking about church revitalization may in fact be the fundamentally wrong question. We speak with the assurance of God’s abundance when we ask instead: “To what is God calling us now?”
Amy Butler is senior pastor of The Riverside Church in New York City. This article first appeared in Baptist News Global.