Our Illinois Great Rivers Conference is asking every church to participate in a process that helps us get "Unstuck" as a church. In the past 20 years, the majority of churches in every mainline protestant denomination has faced precipitous decline. This has happened for many reasons. Church members don't share the Good News of Jesus with members of the community, and only rarely invite people to their church. Pastors are ineffective as preachers and their sermons and leadership aren't relevant to the needs of the unchurched (or often their own congregations). Church programs are designed for people who already come to church, and don't open doorways to new people. In rural locations, community populations are in decline; younger family members of church attenders are moving away to urban and suburban areas. In almost every generation, average attendance is down, even for committed members (we simply go to church less often than we used to).
These are just a few reasons, but they reflect a slow decline that has long been in the making. Now, the accelerated nature of decline is causing panic among church leaders and denominations. We should have seen it coming, but didn't. We should have seen that while things were going well, and our churches were reaching peak attendance levels, that what we were doing wasn't creating long term success. We weren't creating a sticky church that could overcome infighting, losing a pastor everyone loved, losing a few key leaders who passed away or moved away, losing staff positions as finances dried up, or simply watching our congregation get older, less able and less capable of carrying a torch to give to the next generation. We had a "golden age", but that golden age wasn't built on sustainable success.
What do we do while facing this reality? How do we get unstuck? Is it too late to turn the tide of our own church, or even mainline Christianity at large? I believe the answers, while complicated, can be directed by hope, but also must be met with urgency. Our Staff-Parish Relations Committee met this past week and did an assessment of where we are right now in our church. Using Tony Morgan's "Unstuck Assessment Tool", we determined that we are in something called "maintenance" mode. In maintenance mode, most of our church ministries and missions are focused inward, on our members needs. Most of our focus and activity is built around Sunday mornings. We aren't losing people rapidly but we aren't bringing in new people either. We can, for the most part, reach our budgetary needs, but finances are tight and we have very little wiggle room to take many risks. We have fewer and fewer volunteers to carry the load, but we still get a lot of people to participate in our ministries and programs. We are not doing many new things, but our old things are still effective and people are still drawn to them.
According to Tony Morgan, author of "Unstuck Church" A church can keep itself in maintenance mode for a long time. But it can also quickly slip into preservation mode and eventually life support, if it continues doing nothing different about its reality. At the same time, churches can reverse course, they can launch something new or become something new that creates momentum, picks up speed, and eventually revitalizes itself in a new direction. This is happening in some churches, even those in the same position we are at Henry UMC.
So what is our new direction? What should we launch to move out of maintenance mode and into a new future? Should it be led by Pastor Will, or by volunteers? Should it be focused on growing our own congregation in deeper, more vital ways, or should it be focused on newcomers, people outside the church who've never attended one before? Should it be focused very narrowly, on a specific niche need in the community like addiction, grief, parenting, poverty, finances, children/youth, or something else? The truth is, these possible directions could be among the ones that moves us forward. But that can only happen if we all are willing to commit the time and energy necessary to build momentum on something new. In many ways, and for many reasons, we cannot stay in the same place we are and not slip into life-support mode. What we must determine, is what God is calling us to do next as a church in this community. Are we willing to step into that new thing? And are we willing to make a commitment to it, and do what it takes to get out of maintenance mode? I encourage you to pray for this process. Pray for our leaders. But i also encourage you to consider how God might be calling to you to participate as a leader, as a person who builds this momentum, and uses your gifts for good. Amen.