A couple of years ago, my wife decided what she would give up for Lent was complaining about being tired and overworked. Amazingly, she discovered that once she stopped telling herself how tired and overworked she was, she felt a lot less tired and overworked! Changing how she talked actually changed her reality.
We can say things often enough that they start to actually determine reality rather than just describe it. They might be factually true, but they are unhelpful because of what they reinforce.
Well, of course. Most mainline churches are aging. The problem with this statement is it is often used to justify inaction. It means, “Don’t ask us to do anything different, we’re too old and tired.” Repeated often enough, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Contrary to the popular adage, old dogs can learn lots of new tricks, but not if they keep telling themselves it’s impossible.
This statement is not necessarily unhelpful. It can remind churches that they need to pay attention to more than the older, long-term members. It can be unhelpful, though, if it makes people think that Christian education is only for kids. The odds that the children in your current Sunday School will grow up to be the core of your congregation are so long, they are barely measurable. Your children are not just the potential givers and volunteers of tomorrow, they are a vital part of your church today.
Positive response: Begin to develop a process for helping people of all ages become more faithful disciples of Jesus.
Music has power to touch our souls and inspire us to great things. But if a significant number of people say they attend your church mainly because of the music, prepare yourself for a major exodus if that ever changes. High quality music programs usually depend on a handful of skilled individuals – an outstanding director, or a few strong singers. That can change in a heartbeat. If the only thing that is keeping many folks in your church is the current state of your music program, the departure of a couple of people could have a devastating effect on the congregation. This leads to a second and related problem statement ….
Choirs can be a centre of health and vitality in a church. But if people’s first allegiance is to the choir, rather than the larger mission of the church, they can become a quasi-independent power group with their own executives and money disconnected from the decision-making structure of the church. Also, choirs are often the only remaining group that meets weekly, making them fertile ground for gossip and dissent. Choirs can become the tail that wags the dog.
Positive response: Work with your choir to help them locate themselves within the overall ministry and mission of the church.
Those who say this usually have little solid empirical evidence to back up their statement. Every church has some members who really can’t give anymore, and they should never feel put down because of it. But most United Churches are nowhere near to maximizing their stewardship potential. People don’t stop going to Tim Hortons when the price of a large double-double goes up. Even those of limited means will increase their support if they believe in what the church is doing.
Positive response: Intentionally build a culture of vision, enthusiasm and generosity. Create opportunities for people to celebrate what their church is doing, and invite them to be a part of it through the gifts with which God has blessed them. Don’t continually harp on financial deficits but accentuate the positives.
Your minister may help to create a good first impression that will attract people initially. But it’s the culture of the congregation – hospitality, energy, involvement – that determines whether they will become part of the family. A church that places the burden of growth solely on the minister’s shoulders is setting that minister up for painful failure.
Positive response: Constantly remind people that ministry belongs to the whole church, not just to the person who gets the pay check. Encourage people to find ministries that match their gifts and give them joy.
I respond to that question with another question: Have you ever asked them? No one should be allowed to ask this question until they have had at least five extended conversations about faith and church with people their children’s or grandchildren’s age – conversations in which they do more listening than talking. (See my blog post “Why Don’t Our Kids Come to Church?”)
Positive response: Create opportunities for significant conversations with youth and younger adults about why the church may not be significant for them. Such conversations require a level of trust in which people can feel safe to express themselves honestly. That trust might need to be built over a long time.
Everyone’s entitled to their opinion. And not everyone’s the same. But if your church’s mission is driven by the tastes and preferences of your current members, it will decline and eventually die. Doing what is effective in reaching people for the Gospel is what matters, not the likes and dislikes of certain vocal, long-term members.
Positive response: Constantly call the congregation to reflect on their mission, vision and values. Why are we here? Whom do we hope to reach? What do we need to do? Shift the focus from people’s likes and dislikes to what will help the church be true to its own calling.
Most of us don’t like change. Some people will try to influence decisions by threatening to withdraw their money or their attendance. If your congregation is serious about renewal, inevitably some people will be unhappy and might well decide to go elsewhere. But this threat should not be allowed to control the agenda of the church. Related to this is the statement that “’Many people’ are not happy.” Boards, ministers and congregations should have an unwavering policy that no complaint will be heard that does not have a name attached to it.
Positive response: Communicate, communicate, communicate. When something new is tried, make sure it is clear why it is being done. Provide opportunities for people’s concerns to be heard. Make adjustments when they are warranted. But stay the course. Don’t allow a few disgruntled voices to shut down new ideas before they take root.
Two things. We aren’t likely to return to the 1950s when 6 out of every 10 Canadians were in church on Sunday morning. And numbers aren’t the only thing that matters. But when a church loses 5 to 7 per cent of its members every year and does not replace them; and when there is no one in the congregation under the age of 70, it’s time to pay attention to numbers! Christianity has always thrived where new people are being brought into the community of faith. We need to recover that sense of missional urgency – and fast!
Positive response: Set realistic targets and develop a concrete plan for connecting with new people.
Can you think of anymore?
-Paul Miller. Paul Miller is the Support Minister for Waterloo Presbytery of the United Church of Canada. This blog post was originally published on Waterloo Presbytery's blog, "Mission Health Vitality."