As a news editor, I’ve been attending many neighborhood meetings. There are rarely any pastors present. Pity! Had there been pastors at neighborhood civic meetings for the past few decades, the Church might have avoided serious strategic mistakes.
They might have had a better understanding of societal change. They might have seen new opportunities. They might have been able to adjust their mission. They might have been able to influence society.
Instead, the Church abandoned changing neighborhoods in droves.
Church planters and their more dangerous counterparts, re-planters, talk about statistics when measuring congregational viability. But they often are relying on dated statistics and impressions. Statistics show what happened—not what what could happen.
Change happens quickly today. Neighborhoods once took decades to change. Now major population shifts can happen in a few years.
The Church looks for easy places to create mission. Places that feel familiar. Places where they won’t have trouble placing the pastors who were trained to serve neighborhoods the way things were 30 years ago.
The Bible is about finding the harder places.
The Perils of Mission by Demographics
The demographic citers visited our congregation in the 1990s. There was no hope, they concluded. The demographics indicated that our neighborhood was not demographically viable for the type of church they envisioned.
They envisioned a church of the past.
Bishop Roy Almquist’s last words to us in 2000 before totally ignoring our congregation during his second six-year term were “In ten years you will die a natural death.”
He and his staff were unaware that during those ten years that he spent waiting for our demise our congregation continued mission with little hope of ever having much in the way of professional leadership. We didn’t die a natural death. We grew five-fold—attracting a demographic our regional body never envisioned and that their demographic experts missed. Transformation happened without them. In the meantime, they were relying on failure in mission to keep their offices afloat.
The relationship of regional bodies with congregations is problematic.
- Regional bodies want to place existing pastors—many of whom are graying or seeking only part-time calls.
- Congregations seek pastors who can lead into the future as opposed to preserving the past.
We are stuck with one another. The result is often toxic.
Putting the Eggs of the Future in One Fragile Basket
The problems might be eased except for a second factor. Regional bodies don’t trust lay leadership. It is easier for them to place pastors when they guarantee the pastors administrative control — despite the fact that Lutheran constitutions give administrative control to congregation councils.
When lay leaders succeed against administrative projections, the success is seen as “adversarial” to the denomination’s agenda. Lay leaders share stories of how we are asked to step back, even renege on promises made to congregations who elect us to serve. Hide it under a bushel—yes!
Our congregation experienced this to a most horrific degree. The agenda was to allow our congregation to die in a way that our property would become available to the regional body to sell to support their interests. They actually amended their bylaws with wording overriding their founding promises to the congregations, which forbids this. (Creating bylaws in opposition to founding articles is illegal in the corporate world, but churches are immune from corporate law—even though they are corporations.)
Ours is only one story. This approach plays out across the country in several mainline denominations. Success is measured by how easily abandoning churches and mission is accomplished. Ideally, the congregation will fold. No fuss. No muss. Sad.
Dooming the Church with Policy
The management “wisdom” of the 1990s is dooming the Church. The short-sightedness becomes clear in civic meetings, where the focus is not on the past, but on how what is happening will shape the community moving forward.
Our area of Philadelphia is dotted with abandoned churches—many of them Lutheran. Typically, they are vacant for years before developers pick them up for a fraction of their worth at the time the regional bodies claimed them.
Creating living space in the city is profitable to developers. Squeeze the most apartments possible into abandoned church sites.
The suburbs, once filled with what the experts consider desirable church demographics, are no longer as attractive. Young, professionals of the social classes that fled the city in the 1970s and 1980s are returning to the cities. They are interested in creating community. Young people want to be in the cities. Even neighborhoods considered slums are undergoing a rebirth.
Now they are doing it without sacred space.
The land provided for sacred and community use by the earlier residents is gone, squandered. People are sleeping in on Sunday morning and cooking breakfast where our altars stood.
Short-term gain. Long-term loss.
The Church shot itself in the foot. Guns are kept loaded. They don’t know any other way. They don’t have better answers. They don’t trust the wisdom of their members today any more than they did decades ago. They still care more about placing professional leaders in communities that will not challenge them.
But now there are far fewer places to place them.