Friday, September 25, 2009

Competing with ourselves

Last spring our bishop announced a new plan to reverse the decline of congregations in our synod, roughly two-thirds of which are losing members. It was never clear what methods were supposedly going to affect this change, given that churches around the country and in most denominations have been declining for decades. Frankly, I can’t imagine how the “Turnaround Synod Initiative” (as it’s called) has any chance of succeeding or even coming close to its goal of reversing the decline of half of our shrinking congregations.

At this past week’s clergy conference, TSI was again plugged and brochures distributed. During one session, the synod staff member responsible for evangelism told of statistical research he had done on the minority of congregations in the synod that were growing. By far the single largest source of their new members is people transferring from other Lutheran churches. In other words, our congregations are competing with each other and the synod is cannibalizing itself. From other reports, this seems to be very typical.

Successful congregations are often lifted up as examples for others to follow but obviously that can’t work here. The picture this presents is of a limited pool of Lutheran church members (and other denominations are experiencing the same) who are gradually moving to the congregations they find most appealing. It’s survival of the fittest. The Chicago area has a dense network of Lutheran congregations, many in close proximity to each other. When one has problems or begins to decline for demographic reasons, it’s easy for members to relocate to a new church more to their liking.

The challenge is not to find methods to get congregations to grow. In the current situation, some will adopt these but many more will simply be unable to. The real issue is the much larger question of how to increase the size of the pool. By focusing on the micro level of congregations we are ignoring the crucial and more difficult macro problem of how to make church more appealing to the population at large. In other words, we would have to ask the more fundamental question: Why don’t people want to be Christians, or at least church members, anymore? Right now, it seems, that’s not a rock we want to pick up and look underneath.


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