In a nutshell, Metcalf points to two consequences of decline that promote continued decline. They are a distrust of new members and a disinclination to ask difficult questions. It is this second consequence that I would like to zero in on here. Metcalf explains,
Declining membership can also stop us from asking risky questions or engaging in risky dialogue. We become consumed with finding stability for the purposes of retention and therefore stay on the safe side, lest we rock the near-empty boat. Sadly and ironically, one of the major reasons young people leave churches is because of a lack in risky, authentic dialogue. They desire an integrated faith that addresses our complex contexts. It’s hard to find our way forward when we are too afraid to ask the hard questions.He goes on to note that asking hard questions can lead to new understandings that in turn can lead to new directions.
The real question posed here is this: how do we overcome the disinclination to ask hard questions? This may be another way of asking, how do we overcome the fear, discomfort, and even embarrassment that are a part of decline? How do we look at it with a balanced dispassion that allows us to treat it critically (and self-critically)? There are no easy answers to these questions, but in denominations such as the Presbyterian Church (USA) perhaps one place to begin is in the higher councils of the church. If the councils can model and promote critical reflection, they may well be able to plant the same questioning spirit in churches.
It is not wise to leave this task solely to pastors. Some themselves are afraid of the questions. Some don't know how to raise them. Some encounter serious push-back from the churches they serve. It is not easy to find that combination of receptive congregation, supportive lay leadership, and willing pastor when it comes to the asking of these difficult questions. It generally is still more difficult to find lay leaders who are in a position and able to address the issues of decline. This may well be one of the key roles that districts, classes, presbyteries, synods, and other higher councils can play in finding the way into the future.