Looking backwards is occasionally necessary to understanding the present or future.  My first experience in working as a congregational consultant was in 1971.  I was a young seminary assistant professor teaching Church and Community invited to meet with a small church in inner city Louisville.  Before the meetings, I scoured census data and drove through the neighborhood.  It was a predominantly poor, African American community while the church was an all-white, aging, middle-class group, all of whom commuted into the neighborhood.  My response was to tell them what they should do to reach the community and concluded, “Your church will not exist in five years if you do not change.”  No appreciative inquiry, no listening conversations as to why they were still there.  Just judgment from an inexperienced “know it all.”  That is the way a lot of consultants function even today!

Well, twenty years later the church was still worshiping and serving a small gathering of older families who drove into the city to keep the doors of their church open because they were family and they needed what it offered. I learned from that experience, “A Baptist church is difficult to kill, even when you try.”  Some things just do not change!  Why?

  1. Because the church is a collection of humans, “treasure in earthen vessels,” (II Corinthians 4:7) who often forget the uniqueness of a church is the power of God’s Spirit within it. Living in a community of people requires order, organization, and stability for people to negotiate their relationships in positive ways.  Change has a way of threatening the “ties that bind” as the expert congregational observers who understand Family Systems Theory readily note. It is only natural to depend on the same format of worship, the same style of preaching, the same set of respected leaders, the same agendas for education, and the same ways of ministering.  But sameness ensures boredom and loss of vitality.
  2. Because inertia stifles vision. Past success is a barrier to future change.  Every congregation with which I have worked had a significant portion of people who viewed a significant past set of events as the most important time in the life of the church.  The best they can imagine for tomorrow is a re-creation of an era in the past.  But seldom do the same approaches of the past fit today’s contexts and needs for ministry.
  3. Because a divisive conflict has immobilized the members who remain. Conflict is a part of every congregation’s life.  There is the “good,” “healthy” conflict that is a part of growth and energy. There can also be the “destructive,” “ego-assaulting,” “mean” conflict which divides people and inevitably “splits” a congregation with departing members.  When those kinds of conflict happen, the focus of the remaining congregation turns inward.  We write rules and regulations to guide behavior so such an event will never happen again.  Trust is lost.  Risk is too costly.  Stagnation is the consequence.  And in these settings, change is slow and difficult. If you want to see Exhibit A for stability read the by-laws of your church.  They are usually written to protect against new voices, new ideas, and risky ventures from occurring. Their language often addresses a past conflict that no longer exists.
  4. Because tunnel vision blinds people to the changes in the environment. Every congregation has a founding story that shapes it identity, core values, and future hopes.  But the context in which that story was first written tends to change radically every twelve to twenty years.  So the settings in which churches live change faster than the changes in the people within the congregation.  The people within become increasingly different from their neighbors because the people within seldom change.
  5. Because the generational differences favor the folks who have been around the longest. The healthiest churches I know are churches that have been able to adapt to the values of their children and grandchildren in ways that keep those generations in the same church.  Stability favors the long-term, older, more affluent of the congregation who love their church so much they are going to keep it just like it has always been.  The result is a declining, aging, congregation of people who like each other but want their clergy to recreate a church that will look like it did when they were younger adults.

 

However, even when the congregation seems to be set in concrete, the Spirit of God can breathe new insights and understandings for a new future that is dynamic and attractive to new people who change even the most entrenched of congregations.

Larry McSwain
Larry L. McSwain is a long-time educator at McAfee School of Theology, Shorter College, and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He specializes in congregational research and training others in strategy planning processes and conflict ministry. He is a coach and consultant for CHC.