That numbers matter is obvious to me as a former banker and consultant: There is always room to rationalize about the true meaning of numbers. However, one can hardly deny the negative effects of declining membership on churches across the spectrum of American denominations. Today, numerous churches are unable to afford full-time ministers and staff. Budgets for missionary work, community outreach, and discipleship are dangerously shrinking. Buildings are crumbling, and basic services are lacking. Consequently, congregations are not equipped to make the required strategic, tactical and operational decisions to survive and thrive.
Congregational leaders often act as if the church is impervious to such issues. Pastors, who are not generally trained in organizational development, and trustees, who are mostly volunteers, are not always best positioned to address the problems that arise when membership declines. Temporary solutions are often adopted in order to fix large-scale elemental issues. For example, a church may decide to install shinier carpet in an attempt to increase attendance.
To a large extent, American Christianity is in the early stages of an existential crisis. Failure to come up with disruptive innovation in our ecclesiastical culture will likely lead to further decrease in attendance, more church and seminary closings, fewer professionals in ministry-related careers, less missionary work, more diminishing influence over public opinion and policies, and, more importantly, an increasing inability to witness for Christ in this world. Ignoring the multiple warning signs we have today might end up being one of the most tragic failures of Christianity in the 21st century.
There is no silver bullet for this existential crisis. Only through a range of decisions implemented with effectiveness over multiple years will we be able to overturn the current trends. Ideally, global Christianity would organize a truly ecumenical council that could generate a joint strategy for addressing changes in church membership in various parts of the world. Since such a large-scale project is very unlikely today, denominations must each find ways to address this crisis. To its credit, American Baptist Churches USA has tried to deal with the overall decline in attendance through various means including the promotion of diversity. However, what we need today is a radical reengineering of the church. There is a growing need to go back to the drawing board and devise new ways of “doing church.”
Admittedly, each congregation or denomination has its own positioning and unique set of characteristics in the current religious landscape. For this reason, all remedies should be tailored to each church body’s strengths and weaknesses in order to lead to organizational expansion. In a world of drone-powered delivery systems and digital wallets, the one-size-fits-all way of doing church increasingly looks like an item that should belong to a museum dedicated to ancient Christian values. Re-crafting how church is done may require a drastic reorganization of our religious services and our congregations’ flowcharts, as well as a reorganization of the in-state and national structures of our denominational leadership.
Creating clusters of religious activities tailored to the different personalities, needs and wants of congregants may be one way to reengineer our ecclesiastical processes. For example, some of the attendees of a traditional worship service may desire to spend more time in meditation while others may want their church to set aside more time for preaching, music, entertainment or family-related activities. One way for a church to discover options that fit its congregation is to conduct surveys to determine which clusters of activities will best address its membership needs. As a result, congregations may cut the time of their customary service and allow attendees to go to separate rooms or other spaces based on preferences. For example, a worship service may start with announcements, a song, a prayer and a 20-minute sermon after which attendees would be invited to go to different venues. Some may go to a prayer room or a Christian video games room; others may attend a play or a session on sign language ministry, before everyone reconvenes for coffee hour.
Reengineering ecclesiastical processes may also mean that we have to imagine virtual gatherings, with or without the presence of trained clergy, as a legitimate way to “do church.” Congregations should fully embrace new technologies, pool resources with peers, and contract professionals who can develop innovative tools such as 24-hour virtual church apps, interactive Bible study apps or online continuous education. American Baptists should not be afraid of putting significant pooled resources into market research to determine the habits and worldview of potential attendees in order to personalize evangelism programs without compromising Christian values.
There are countless other things that can be done. For example, financial resources may be pooled to create tools such as multiple-congregation endowments. Also, small groups, whether “brick and mortar” or virtual, may become one of the most important ecclesiastical tools for new members’ recruitment, Christian education, and edification. All church members and regular attendees would be asked to integrate into a small group; all small group members would be evangelism-ready, and leaders would be trained to lead Bible studies, provide first-level pastoral care, and so forth. Because of small groups’ higher potential to reach more people, corporate activities such as prayer meetings or Bible studies would be eliminated. Pastors would then play a vital role in small groups’ management and curriculum content. Furthermore, the roles of clergy and lay leadership could be redefined, and the formal education of ministers should be reviewed in light of current and expected challenges and opportunities.
No one will have all the right ideas to fix all the issues of our churches. Therefore, our denomination should invite our pastors, lay leaders, our brightest minds and even outsiders to an unprecedented gathering to redesign our churches. All congregations must be invited, and all propositions must receive a vote from church representatives. Fundraising and communication campaigns should be held for such a gathering, and follow-up trainings for smooth implementation should be planned. This project will certainly be costly. However, maintaining the status quo has the potential to be costlier.
Rev. Jean-Fritz Guerrier is pastor of First Baptist Church of West Haven, Conn., and a member of the Department of Business and Finance, American Baptist Churches of Connecticut.