Churches in decline, like any other institution facing the potential of a slow fade and eventual death, get stuck. Any entity focused primarily on survival is not likely to thrive. Yes, survival may take place – for a while – but eventually the survival mentality kills you. For churches, this mentality translates to a self-centeredness that is contrary to the gospel and the mission of Christ’s church. The apostles, Bishops, and Fathers of the early church did not sit around asking, “How do we survive?” or “How can we get more money?” or “How can we get more people?”
They especially did not ask that unholiest of church questions: “How do we get more people so we can get more money and survive?”
The gospel is not an invitation to mere survival, but a call to new life. Thus the message and focus of the Body of Christ cannot be an anxious struggle for survival. Instead, it should be related to discerning the aid and call of the Holy Spirit to reach, welcome, equip, and send disciples in Christ’s name.
No ministry of consequence will come from merely a desire to survive. In the excellent, theologically-grounded and accessible You Only Have To Die, James Harnish’s words to this effect hit me like a ton of bricks:
When a congregation becomes aware that it is in or on the edge of decline, the primary question can easily become, “What can we do to help our church survive? How do we keep the doors open? How will we pay the bills?” But when survival becomes the primary motivation for change, the congregation will inevitably turn in on itself and become so centered in its survival needs that it will be ineffective in responding to the real needs of real people in the world around it.
New people who come in contact with the congregation immediately sense that the church is not so much interested in using its resources to meet their need as it is interested in using them for its own survival. In the end, the focus on survival easily becomes self-defeating. (99)
I wish I had these words at a recent meeting of church leadership. He hits the nail on the head. You Only Have To Die is a wonderful resource that I heartily recommend to any pastor or concerned layperson. The only question I have – and this applies to the vast majority of ‘church growth’/congregational health books – is how does this model apply to a small church? My sense is that in a small church, the survival instinct will only be more keen and finding leaders who can see beyond survival considerably more difficult. Any thoughts? Where do we go for resources on turning around, re-missioning, and enlivening small churches?