When we came to Nativity it was a church with declining numbers. And it was declining in a way that has become quite typical of churches of every style and denomination across the country (and elsewhere in the world). The kind of decline I am referring to is the slow and steady kind.
Our parish hit its high water mark, with about 1500 a weekend, in the year 1970 when they opened the new church building. That was about the time the building boom in this part of the county dried up. After that the record clearly shows a yearly decline of 20-50 people. And this parish was doing absolutely nothing about it. Why? Same reasons in many places.
1. No one wants to admit that we’ve got a problem. That would mean that the church or the pastor is doing something wrong, that we have to change something that we’re doing, that we have to be different. And nobody wants that.
2. The pastor takes the decline personally. Pastors everywhere take attendance as a vote of confidence and when it is in decline it is hard not to take it personally. So everyone, including the pastor, pretends to not notice, or worse, to lie about the real numbers. The actual decline in church attendance is probably dramatically more advanced than anyone knows, because people lie about their attendance numbers.
3. The church has sufficient numbers to sustain itself. They can keep themselves going indefinitely, so why not proceed with business as usual.
4. The congregation confuses activities for life and health. Healthy churches aren’t just in perpetual motion hosting activities, running fundraisers and having more services. To be healthy you’ve got to be growing in discipleship and evangelization.
5. Ministries are siloed. This is a problem in itself in many, many churches, but it is a certain problem in declining churches. The choir has their Thursday night rehearsal in the church basement and does their thing on Sunday morning; over in the school library the Ladies Club has their monthly dessert and coffee klatch with their guest speaker to talk about flower arranging (or whatever); the Knights of Columbus meet in the parish hall for their secret ceremonies and beer and cards afterward; St. Vincent de Paul does its collections in its closet in the old convent; or the Sodality says the Rosary on Saturday mornings. It’s all comfortable and cozy and automatic and it all stands alone and nobody is really paying any attention to the big picture.
In my experience by the time many churches start talking about decline, it is already too late. Humility, honesty, attentiveness, and a willingness to try new things and go where we haven’t gone before are what’s required.
For another take on this see:www.TomRainer.com.