An “Indispensable Churches” Post


At our recent District Convention I proposed a resolution that suggested we (the church at large) need more vigorous definitions of the descriptors we use of local congregations.

We seem to want to determine whether a congregation is “growing”, and the only criteria we use for that is to compare worship attendance numbers from year to year.  We haven’t made up our minds whether “growing” is a good thing (like an economy) or a bad thing (like a malignant tumor).  To compound the problem, we have tended to label churches that are not “growing” (their worship attendance is not increasing from year to year) as either “plateaued” (their worship attendance is the same as last year’s) or “declining” (their worship attendance is less than last year’s).  Finally, we use these three words as sort of diagnoses when we talk about congregations – this one is “growing”; that one is “plateaued”; the one over there is “declining” – so let’s figure out a way to turn it around!

I see several problems with this methodology:

  1. The diagnoses are each based on only one criterion – weekend worship attendance.  Nothing else in the life of the congregation is taken into account – mission consciousness, outreach, care for one another, Word-based preaching, frequency of Sacraments, or others.  The result is that based on this one criterion we presume to tell a congregation whether it’s healthy or dying.
  2. We assume that congregations that are “growing” are healthy, while those that are “plateaued” or “declining” are dying.  Since our set of diagnostic criteria is so flimsy, we really have no way of telling why and how a “growing” congregation is growing, or whether that growth is healthy or malignant.  We also have no way of telling by these criteria alone whether a “declining” congregation is declining because of its own ill health or for some other reason.
  3. Denominations and judicatories put such an emphasis on “growth” that when they see a congregation that is not “growing” they are quick to inject consultants, district executives, or other elixirs without thoroughly understanding the congregation and its situation.  Many times these individuals come in with the equivalent of patent medicines to “fix the problems” without taking the time to listen to the congregation and the people in the first place.  The result is that so often congregations say “we paid all this money for a consultant and not much has changed.”

There are other problems with this methodology; let these suffice for the time being.  By the way, the resolution did not pass, but was referred back to the District Board of Directors for further study and definition before sending it to our Missouri Synod.  But I was content with that decision.  What I was asking for was the beginning of a discussion of these issues and questions that might result in more vigorous definitions of these diagnostic criteria and, who knows, maybe a whole different and more workable set of criteria than these.