Addressing Failure in the Church

We learn from mistakes, right?

Not if we don’t admit them.

I thought about this a few days ago when I heard a pastor open his talk with “We belong to a denomination in decline.” I thought about this a few months ago when Thrivent, a fraternal financial savings arm of the Lutheran church, decided that they should reach beyond the Lutheran community to insure the foundation of their members’ savings. That’s a great spin for their aren’t enough Lutherans to keep us going!

I actually found both statements refreshing because they admit failure. That’s really hard.

Every congregation is proud — even if it might be suffering from low self-esteem. There is something in human nature that celebrates just being.

Sometimes our pride is merited. Sometimes, if we stop to analyze, we are proud of being pretty much the same as everyone else. Same play. Different actors. Different setting.

Regardless, it is great to share. The Church should do more of it. But we often start our boasting before the results are in. This is dangerous as there is also a tendency in the Church for congregations to jump on the wagon. We read of some initiative and we want to try it.

Sometimes church leaders are bragging before they learn that the initiative flopped.

I looked over some of the church “brag” sites. Our regional body has one—

It averages just a couple of entries a month. Most of the ideas are posted by pastors. Some of the ideas aren’t particularly new. Very few give any results.

  • How many people showed up for that first program?
  • How many people came back?
  • How remained involved after six months?
  • Were there measurable results of any kind?
  • Was it still in existence a year later?
  • Was it just something to boast about?

An example we found in our church visits was our visit to Spirit and Truth Worship Center in Yeadon, Pa. The bishop had boasted about this initiative to the point that she suggested it be a model for our church. We saw no comparison to the conditions she described that led to the regional body closing the existing church, transferring the property ownership, and reopening a few weeks later under “new” synodical administration.

The church was empty except for a praise band rehearsal on the day we visited. We double checked. We had the right time. We’ll assume there was some good reason. Our visit alone would prove nothing and can lead to really wrong ideas.

The published statistics were more revealing. The ELCA Trend reports reveal a much different picture than that presented to us by SEPA leadership. See the screen shot of the Yeadon statistics below. SEPA was using this experiement as a prototype for success before the statistics were in.

We discovered that while the early statistics for this ministry were impressive, within ten years, the numbers were in serious retreat! That part hadn’t been shared with us! As it ends up, there were good reasons beyond instinct to refuse to consider following this course.

This experiment may have been well worth the try. It may have worth boasting about. But using it as a model for other congregations has proved to be short-sighted.

Knowing what doesn’t work is just as important as what does work—and it takes years to determine the cause and longevity of success.

Periodically, 2×2 posts its statistics. Periodically we shift gears.

This summer, we are overhauling our entire website, using statistics to guide our way. In the end, we’ll share so that all small churches can learn from our experience — all of it — the good and the bad.


SEPA Synod recommended Redeemer, East Falls, follow this prototype in 2006. Yeadon was a new experiment at the time. It looked promising! However, Redeemer recognized that the situation in East Falls was very different from that in Yeadon. Redeemer’s leaders rejected the idea, which upset SEPA leaders. But sometimes congregations are right. Statistics prove the prototype doesn’t work!