Friday, June 14, 2013

Reversing the Decline

The Progressive Church in Comeback Mode

The Decline

For years we've been in decline. The mainstream churches are a sorry lot. For the entire span of my professional ministry which now spans over 40 years, the numbers are not encouraging for those of the "standard brands" churches.

In the meantime the Evangelical Right Wing seems to be growing by leaps and bounds. The "Progressive Church" as I like to call ourselves, are mystified by the phenomenon. The "Conservatives" renounce science, liberals, and the LGBT community and at times sounds like a bastion of bigotry and judgmentalism. The more exclusive they become, the more people seem to be attracted to the far right. Amazing! Conversely, the more inclusive we become, the fewer folk seem to be attracted to us.

The Right Wing has command of the airwaves and make outrageous statements regularly that make those of us in the mainstream recoil in incredulity. How can intelligent people buy into such a vision of America? It is a puzzle.

In the meantime we close churches. When I was first ordained, my diocese hired somebody to study how many congregations we should plan on closing. The study came back with a number of 65 out of 188 congregations which teetered on the brink of viability and sustainability. 

To me, it seemed almost as if we were committed to our own decline. We seemed to be planning on it.

Hitting Bottom

This I instinctively renounce. In fact, I have served in smaller congregations most of my life but while I served them, they all experienced modest growth. I feel like I've been swimming against the current all my professional life.

New Member Ministry

Years ago I stumbled across a model for New Member Ministry which I have used in four different congregations. Because of the effort leadership teams and I put into place, we did see modest gains in each congregation. In very brief and succinct terms a New Member Ministry model consists of a five step process which is managed by a congregation. Those steps are as follows; 
     Visibility: What can we do to raise the visibility of our congregation? Web sites, blogs, Every Door Direct Mailings, creative use of newspapers and so on...all of this will raise the visibility of the church.
     Greet: Sharpen the skills of your congregation in greeting newcomers. Make sure you get the names addresses, emails, and phone numbers of those visitors who seem to have some interest in the congregation and contact them as soon as possible; the same day as the visit if at all possible. 
     Orientation: Establish a Membership Committee whose responsibility it is to follow up on each new family and individual and figure out together what the best and most appropriate follow up would be.
     Incorporation: At some point within six months of the first visit, someone should probably "pop the question"; "do you want to be a member?".
     Apostolic Call: Your work is not done until you commission everyone in the church; new and long standing member alike for mission and ministry in the world.
Remember that the church exists to organize its life around the needs of the people in the world.

A Membership Drive!

Last summer it occurred to me that perhaps we should have a Membership Drive! Much in the same manner of public radio and TV, I wondered if the Progressive Church could actually hold a membership drive. We developed a model for such a drive in my most recent congregation (St. Gabriel's, Douglassville, PA), and we did in fact enjoy significant growth. At the end of a six month drive, we netted 27 new families and individuals and also saw significant growth in pledging.

For years, we've been calling this effort our annual "Stewardship Drive". I submit to you, when we use the word "stewardship", a certain instinctive resistance raises the hair on our necks, because we know the subject of money is the inevitable bottom line.

But when we use the word "membership", we understand that it includes more than giving. We explained it this way. 
Membership is comprised of three main dimensions: Work, Pray and Give.
     Work: To do the work of God requires us to organize our lives around the needs of people; young, old, rich, poor, gay, straight, and so forth. The work of God is to provide a healing touch to those who are sick. It is to seek justice for those who are oppressed. It is to provide hope for those who are near the edge of despair. 
     Pray: The prayer of the Church is to gather week by week and share in the sacred meal of Jesus with his friends. It is to practice the presence of God in daily prayer and meditation and share with friend and stranger alike the Good News of God in Christ.
     Give: To make provision for God's Church we are invited to give in proportion to what we have received from God. Some give 10% in response to the biblical mandate to tithe. Some give 5% and call it a modern tithe. Some give more. Some give less. In any case, we give in proportion to what God gives us. 


The church is in decline. But it needn't be that way. There is no reason why we in the Progressive Church cannot reverse the decline and commend the faith that is in us. It will take imagination, courage and just plain hard work. But we need to stop the hemorrhaging. We have too many jewels in the inner cities of our world and within the near suburban ring. These precious church buildings need to be gathering places of those with human needs.

The human needs have not gone away. Justice is still far, far away. The poor are very much at our doorsteps. The time is short. Let's get our mojo back. Reverse the decline! Grow! Hold a Membership Drive!

This summer I plan to write up a fuller elaboration of this idea. I shared it with the clergy of the Diocese of Montana in April of this year. I have been invited back to share the idea further by touring the Diocese and sharing this model with vestries there. But for now, thought I'd share this much.

God save the Church!
Fr. Paul

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