Nine-eleven is the universal number used in the United States when someone is in serious trouble, or in danger of dying. Sometimes people wait too long and try to solve the problem themselves only to later frantically call 911. The excuses for waiting are usually that people do not realize how close the person was to death. The lament is sometimes, if only we had called sooner.
Many churches today, including my own, are in danger of dying and no one is calling 911. Perhaps they do not realize how close to death they are since they have never seen a church die before. Diane Zemke in Being SMART about Congregational Change states, “People are familiar with the idea of a lifecycle, both for living things and for organizations. Yet what people often don’t consider is that congregations have lifecycles as well” (Zemke 2014, Loc. 640, Kindle edition). If a church does not realize that it is at the end of their lifecycle, it has no way to reach out for help. Aging congregations that are not growing and attracting new members to carry the torch become inwardly focused and resemble clubs more than churches. Sadly, as the older members die, the church/club begins to diminish.
Another reason the dying church does not get help is that it remembers its glory days when it was in great health and does not see themselves as they really are. Zemke states that the power of a narrative can prevent a church from living in reality or entering into what God would have for them in the future (Zemke 2014, Loc. 594). Just as many people do not take care of their health when it is fairly good becoming surprised by the rapid decline of their health, so the church which has ignored their decline rapidly finds they are in bad shape health-wise with the end quickly approaching.
My church is having its 125th anniversary this year, and a grand affair is being planned. Our church is still surviving because our Pastor has been creative in finding ways for money to come into the church and he is a man of prayer. Our church has been paid a monthly stipend because cell phone towers are in our steeple. Also, we have a rain garden on our property which gives us a rebate on our water bill. In addition to those things, we have two renters in our building, an elementary school which uses the building during the week and another church with member primarily from Guatemala which rents the chapel.
I do not have a crystal ball to tell the future, but if I was going by the books I have read about church growth and church death, I would believe our church is on the verge of death. However, somehow our church survives. Our church is fiscally conservative and does not believe in carrying debt; this long-held narrative has helped our church. The school that rents our church has remodeled the educational wing paying for over $65,000.00 worth of improvements. At the end of this year, our previous renovation loan should be paid off, although tithes and offerings are at an all-time low. Many of the older members are bringing their grandchildren or grandnieces and grandnephews. Perhaps the difference is prayer.
Our church has a 7 AM prayer conference call Monday through Friday and around 20 people are on the call daily. This is about 20 percent of the active congregation since attendance is around 100 most Sundays. It may get discouraging at times in our church with all of the in-fighting, but maybe God wants this church on a hill to stay around a few more years. We may still need to call 911, but maybe we should continue to pray first.
Zemke, Diane. Being Smart About Congregational Change. CreateSpace Publishing, 2014.