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

Thursday, December 26, 2013

That's What They All Say (Decline & Renewal X)

Our series on church decline & renewal based on the longer series of postings on Jason Locke's Blog has thus far focused on the decline side of the equation.  Locke's series is made up of a guest editorialists who are all connected with Churches of Christ congregations on the West Coast, and collectively they have looked at the serious, long-term decline of those churches from a variety of perspectives. In a posting entitled, "Decline & Renewal, 19: Renewal Starts with Unknowing," Locke pivots to the theme of renewal.

It is a painful pivot.  According to Locke "almost all" of West Coast Churches of Christ congregations, "suffer from decline, fatigue, infighting and/or a general lack of leadership."  They are trapped in the past and most of their efforts at renewal are backward looking. In order to move beyond the past, he argues that the churches have to begin to act counterintuitively.  Locke speculates that only ten or fewer West Coast Churches of Christ congregations have "have maintained at least the appearance of vibrancy."  A few more are "are experiencing renewal out of the ashes of decay."  By my rough count from a directory of churches, there are 400 CofC congregations in California, Oregon, and Washington (source: church-of-christ.orghttp://church-of-christ.org).  Less than 5% of their churches, thus, show even minimal evidence of a vibrant life.

 The only way they can experience renewal, according to Locke, is to accept decline and "to relinquish the old days and old ways of high performance." They have to stop trying to recreate what they once had. All of this means that the churches have to be willing to "embrace the crisis of confusion, uncertainty and struggle." If the local congregations can do this, then they will be able to experience a renewal of the Spirit and a renewal of mission. This will require "the right leadership," and given that leadership they can "eventually experience healthy transition and renewal. New systems and structures will eventually emerge, but those will come out of a reemergent leadership and a renewed church that live into fresh ways of doing things."

There isn't anything new here.  The massive literature on church renewal is filled with similar visions and advice, all well-meaning, all well-and-good, and all likely to be ignored or rejected at the local level—mostly.  The great majority of churches are not inclined to engage in renewal seriously.  Many are fearful.  Others are convinced that if they just do a better job of what they're doing they will reverse the decline.  And others are just plain dysfunctional organizations.  To call on them to think and act counter-intuitively is hardly likely to result in their doing so.  And, besides, what does it mean to break with the past?  How does a church mired in the past and lacking creative leadership even begin to complicate such a task?  These are hard questions, not easily answered.  Most mainline churches, thus, are just as locked into the past as W. Coast Churches of Christ congregations, carrying year after year the burdens of their buildings and inherited programs and structures.  Many of them are not willing to even have the conversations about decline that they need to have if anything else is to happen.  Most pastors find it difficult to cope with decline because most of what they have learned through training and experience doesn't work very well anymore.

In sum, while there is a good deal happening that gives cause for hope, Locke's analysis here is not particularly helpful and expecting churches to make a break with their past is in-and-of-itself a low percentage strategy.  While dealing with decline does require acknowledging its reality and actually talking about it,  the way out of decline requires much more than expecting churches to break with their past.