We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Friday, December 20, 2013

Always Local (Decline & Renewal VII)

The series of guest postings coming out of the Churches of Christ tradition on Jason Locke's Blog, raises important points concerning church decline and renewal.  The seventh article in the series is written by Brian Sandine, pastor of the San Leandro Church of Christ, a church in the San Francisco Bay Area,  and is entitled, "The View from Brian Sandine."

Sandine's posting reflects the specific experience of the San Leandro congregation and thus provides a good picture of the ways in which decline is always local, however much one congregation's decline reflects national and international trends.  In this case the church has declined for a number of reasons including: (1) the local economic and demographic situation of the church has changed over the years; (2) changes in lay leadership; and (3) conflicts within the church have damaged relationships and driven some people away.  Sandine feels that this third factor has been a crucial issue and writes, "In reflection, I would say that poor responses from our people to the challenges the congregation has encountered over time has been one of the most important factors in our decline. Our unchristian and unchristlike behavior has been damaging."  The consequence of decline has been to shift the focus of the church inward to its own concerns.  At the same time, there has been a growing laxity of seriousness within the church, which has led to a motivational problem.

What is perhaps most significant about Sandine's posting is the way it comes to a limp conclusion.  He says of all of this, " In response, I would say that we have the potential to turn the corner if we are willing to invest ourselves in God, and at the same time invest in people in order to bring them to God. Doing so may give us a chance to tell a new story in the San Leandro Church."  His posting is relatively brief, and there may be cause for hope that the church can "turn the corner," but nothing that he writes here points to that hope.  Rather, it summarizes a decades long declining trajectory that shows no signs of anything but continuing downward.  The factors of decline have all left their marks.

Herein lies the difficulty with church decline.  It is local, which means that it is hard to find some national program or national pill that will undo what has been done.  And it is cumulative.  If decline is not arrested relatively quickly it becomes reflexive  that is it bends back on itself and becomes both cause and effect.  Thus, for example, once a church loses its youth program for whatever reason it becomes all but impossible to attract younger families and young people in order to build a new one.  In special circumstances, yes, it can be done.  But generally the lack of a youth program becomes a continuing cause of the lack of a youth program.

 All of this sounds grim and hopeless.  And it is, so long as decline is not addressed and in a sense embraced.  If the factors of decline, however, are essentially local however much they reflect larger trends, then the factors of new life are also local.  And somewhere in the mix of renewal is a change of heart, whether it comes in one small group or in some larger segment of the church.  Such renewal does not necessarily mean that statistical decline is suddenly halted.  It does mean that it is transformed.  Easy to say.  Not easy to do.  But renewal can only happen when there is a spiritual rebirth among a few or many.  Amen.