Monday, May 23, 2005

Whiney Pastor Comes to Visit

Every so often, I run out for coffee and return to discover that Whiney Pastor has dropped by in my absence. Sometimes she even turns on my computer and starts blogging. . . . .

My little church is running out of money. We've gained members in the six years I've been there, but not quite enough members and mostly folks with limited means-- single moms, retirees, etc. Our century old building is a veritable cash vacuum; the sewers are old, the wiring is antique, there are oddly positioned stairs and landings all over the place making handicapped accessibility an astoundingly expensive prospect. The denomination keeps upping dues for participation in medical benefits. I understand they don't have much choice on this, with the cost of healthcare blazing out of control as it is, but it's still a huge burden on small churches. The upshot is that, despite the fact that we do, in my humble opinion, amazingly strong and creative ministry for a church as small as we are, we are probably facing closure in the near future.

There's more tragedy to this than injustice. The truth is that most of our creativity and energies are inward focused. Sunday School, liturgical arts, wonderful fellowship events, music. The passion for outreach and deep change that would need to be present for dramtic growth just aren't there. And we are living in times when, for tiny struggling churches, nothing but dramtic growth really helps. Modest growth, or simply replacing members who die or move away can't keep up with the bills and the cultural pressures working against you. There is a great deal of optimistic church literature out there saying that any church can transform itself if certain principles are applied--but you know, I'm just not sure that's true. I do believe in the power of the Holy Spirit--but somehow the Spirit does not make command performances.

Most of the little neighborhood churches in Portland were founded just before the rise of the automobile. The assumption was that everyone needed a church they could walk to. The error of this assumption was masked for a few decades at mid century by the great flowering of post-war church attendance. There were still enough active church goers and kids hanging around to mostly fill all the neighborhood churches and Sunday schools. And churches in good locations with a decent percentage of affluent members and the good fortune to avoid any major pastoral leadership debacles did really well. But somewhere around the late 70's folks began to realize there was a problem. Not as many folks were coming to church and the ones who were could hop in their car and go to any church they wanted. There was no compelling reason for them to go to the little church in their neighborhood with their limited programs and turn of the century buildings that were beginning to show their wear.

Maybe at this point someone should have shouted, "Hey! Strategy change, everybody! We have to rethink this whole business of trying to run a traditional church in each and every neighborhood. The world has changed, big time!"' Maybe someone did. I was too young to be paying attention, and anyway my family was busy hopping in the car every Sunday to leave our neighborhood amd drive the bigger church five miles down the road.

Instead, we started publishing these books promising every small church that it could grow if it just tried hard enough; that if they weren't growing there was something wrong with them. So now we have hundreds of tenacious, faithful folks in struggling churches feeling guilty as all get out. And of course they were not as adaptive, innovative, passionate and bold as they should have been. But you know what? Most churches aren't. Most Christians aren't. It's just that in small, urban churches this is a more immediate disaster than in larger congregations.

Can you say "Canary in the Coal Mine?"


LutheranChik said...

Purechristianithink: My pastor is of the opinion that institutional Christianity is devolving...but in what he thinks is a good way. (Our congregation seems to be an anomaly...which is typical for our congregation.;-)) What my pastor has envisioned are networks of house churches/congregations meeting in non-traditional places, being served on a day-to-day basis by lay leadership with help from mentoring pastors working in regional hubs. Very New Testament.;-)

Purechristianithink said...

I'm with your pastor. I think maybe one in ten or twenty of the small churches teetering on the edge today will manage to endure in something like their current form. The rest will die or morph into something totally different.