You’d think it would be easy to spot an elephant, but not if you’re looking in the wrong direction.
Years ago, I led a mission team to South Africa. On the last day we were there; we took the team to Pilanesburg National Park. We had pulled over to train our binoculars on some giraffes that were up against the tree line about a hundred yards in front of us. What we weren’t doing was looking behind us, that is until one of our group put down her binoculars to reach for her water bottle, and that is when she said, “OH MY GOSH, LOOK!” There they were, a small herd of elephants behind us on the road, almost close enough to touch. You wouldn’t think that an elephant could sneak up on you, but in places like Pilanesburg, there’s always something else to look at.
I think of those elephants almost every time I lead a congregation through a visioning process. One of the tools that we use in that process is an exercise called “Is There an Elephant in the Room?” It’s fairly simple. Everyone is given a chance to answer the question, “is there an elephant in the room?” If they answer yes, then we ask a metaphorical question “what does it look like?” Most of the time, the “shape” of the elephant is directly related to why they’ve asked us to come to help them with a visioning process, maybe it’s conflict, and the elephant looks like a divisive issue. Maybe the congregation is considering its future, and the elephant looks like an outdated way of doing things that need to change.
These days, however, the biggest elephant in the room is oftentimes declining attendance. Various surveys and studies estimate that the average congregation is experiencing a nearly 20% decline in attendance since the pandemic’s beginning. There was a slow increase in attendance that begin in 2021, but now that increase seems to have leveled off. Moreover, nine out of ten American congregations were already amid a slow, decades-long decline that started in the final decades of the 20th Century.
What’s fascinating about this phenomenon, however, is how few congregations are actively discussing what all this means for the way they’re doing Church. Don’t get me wrong; ministers are talking about it. I’m rarely in a gathering of ministers where this topic isn’t coming up, but there’s an important difference between the understandable venting/commiserating that ministers are quietly doing with each other and organizing proactive, strategic conversations in your congregation.
So why aren’t we talking about it? There are some obvious answers to that. First, we don’t have easy solutions, and no one likes to be reminded that there’s a problem if there isn’t a straightforward way to solve it. Second, there’s already so much negativity in this challenging moment in American life that why would you want to run the risk of opening that can of worms in your congregation. Furthermore, many of us are afraid that if we start talking about declining numbers, that will start the comparison game. It is at least ironic and perhaps even corelative that the decline in American Christianity coincides with the growth of the mega Church phenomenon. Regardless, it invites comparisons, even if those comparisons are overly simplistic.
And yet, with all that understandable reluctance, the decline in congregational engagement (and in a different but related way, the shift in American congregational attendance patterns) is so significant that to NOT talk about it in our congregations represents an increasingly unacceptable failure of nerve. The reasons for naming the elephant far outweigh the reasons for avoiding the conversation, as challenging as it just might be. Here are a few:
- It’s Not Just How Many, It’s Who’s Missing – One of the most important aspects of the current decline of American congregational life is the question of “who,” as in who is it that has walked away from the Church. If your church is like mine, then you think that issues like justice and poverty aren’t just political issues. They’re Kingdom issues. What, then, should it be telling us that the people who are no longer attending church are more likely to experience poverty, less likely to have a college degree, more likely to experience food insecurity, and less likely to have adequate health care? You get the picture. The data indicates that congregations (particularly predominantly white Protestant congregations) are increasingly made up of those of greater wealth and influence than the average population. So, if we’re ignoring the elephant that’s in the room, we’re also ignoring that the people who are most likely to be missing are the people with whom Jesus most identified (whatever you do for these…).
- Our Church Members are Thinking About it – Ministers are not the only ones who are anxious about declining attendance. People who love their church worry about it when the numbers are down. Unlike vocational ministers, however, many of them lack a broader context for understanding what’s going on, how widespread the phenomenon is, and some of what’s causing it. Anxiety is always higher amid the unknown; intentional conversations lead to informed church members, and the data indicates that informed church members are more likely to stay positive and engaged.
- More Heads are Better – Webster defines a vicious cycle as “a chain of events in which the response to one difficulty creates a new problem that aggravates the original difficulty.” We are doing church at a moment when people give less priority to organized religion than at any point in the last two centuries. Forty years ago, highly committed church members attended three times a week. Today highly committed church members attend three times a month. So, fewer people are engaged when the Church needs all hands on deck to pray, dream, and problem-solve. However, avoiding the elephant in the room will only exacerbate that cycle. Your smartest, most capable church members will always be in demand. They’re helping lead organizations, serving on boards, raising highly capable children, etc. And while none of them need something else to do, they’re even less likely to lend consistent energy in the absence of intentionality. Naming the elephant in the room sends a signal of intentionality.
- Acknowledging Difficulty Can Foster Creativity – One of the most helpful and hopeful moments in our visioning work with congregations comes when leadership teams realize that weary frustration at declining effectiveness isn’t accomplishing very much. They’ve been working hard to try and maintain something they’ve been doing for decades but with little to show for it. But sometimes, the moment that a group of leaders recognizes that they can’t keep doing things the same is the moment that they don’t have to keep doing things the same way. Recognizing what you can’t do is often a meaningful step toward a creative future just as long as you maintain a sense of hope and possibility about what might be possible.
Here’s the hard but good news. It is doubtful that if you’re reading this article, you’re going to see an American Church in the years ahead that’s as big or influential in the future as it was in the years you’ve already been alive. And if that doesn’t sound like good news, well then remember this–of all the big, meaningful moments in the comprehensive history of the people of God, name me just one of them that came about when everything was comfortable, easy, and certain. Can you think of one? Yeah, neither can I. On the other hand, that history is full of moments when meaningful things happened when, in the midst of challenging circumstances, people trusted God even as they walked into an uncertain future. Let’s name the elephant; it’s nothing to fear.