Pastor and Christian Leadership Resources

Reinvigorating Mainline Churches: Getting Out of Our Own Way

  • Tom Ehrich Religion News Service
  • 2010 13 Oct
Reinvigorating Mainline Churches: Getting Out of Our Own Way

(RNS) -- Turning around the sagging fortunes of mainline Protestant churches isn't rocket science. It isn't like finding a cure for breast cancer, or undoing the damage done by greed and politicians.

The way forward is clear. We just can't find the will to do what needs to be done.

The tragic decline of progressive Christianity in America is a self-inflicted wound. We haven't been abandoned by God, undermined by demonic forces or saddled with a generation that rejects faith. Like an addict in full downward spiral, we have done this to ourselves.

The good news is we can stop the self-defeating spiral anytime. The way forward is well within our capabilities.

Here are four signs of the way forward and four aspects of the will to move on.

  • First way forward: Apply best practices. Learn from churches that are growing. Stop treating ineffective habits as sacred. Pay attention to what actually contributes to wellness. Measure outcomes.
  • Second way forward: Focus on people, not institutions. Be "customer-driven," not "provider-driven."
    Listen to the marketplace. Stop doing whatever we want to do, and ask what people actually need.
  • Third way forward: Stop relying so much on Sunday morning worship.
    It hasn't been enough for 45 years, no matter how much we have tinkered with it. Pouring more resources into perfecting Sunday worship is, literally, insane.
  • Fourth way forward: Let go of "magical thinking" -- easy solutions, master-strokes, grandiose plans -- and buckle down to the hard work of nurturing a healthy congregation.

This way is clearly marked. The harder challenge is finding the will to move on. I see four features of the will we need:

First, a generous spirit. Yes, I know that church members perceive themselves as generous. But many simply aren't. They ignore visitors, project their own needs onto others and are truly baffled when prospective constituents see things differently. In subtle and overt ways, they freeze out diversity. Generosity of spirit doesn't mean symbolic acts like national goals. It means forming community with the needy.

Second, a willingness to take instruction. Knowing how to cook corn doesn't mean I know how to raise corn. Knowing how to attend church doesn't mean I know how to manage a church. We're the only institution I know where the recipients of a service automatically assume they know how to manage and provide that service.

Third, letting go of control. If, as Scott Peck wrote, our original sin is laziness, then our primary addiction is to control. Right opinion, winning the argument, getting my way, staying in power, preserving privilege, buying my way in, bullying staff, demanding respect -- we want it all, and as with whiskey to an alcoholic, we can never get enough.

Our churches will grow and blossom when we stop greeting initiatives and opportunities with self-serving questions like these: Will it change what I value? Will it cost money that I don't want to give? And what's in it for me?

Fourth, stop fighting old battles. Every time we return to an argument we lost or a change we weren't successful in resisting, we stifle growth, we frustrate those trying to move ahead, and we drive away the new.

All of this is possible. We just need to get outside ourselves and out of our own way.

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of Just Wondering, Jesus and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.
c. 2010 Religion News Service. Used with permission.

Publication date: October 13, 2010