Looking Outward: Declining Congregations Need to Start Asking a Different Set of Questions

I have often thought, and sometimes said, that when I’m writing regularly, everything seems worth writing about. But when I’m writing only when I get the “urge,” nothing seems worth writing about.

When I’ve reoriented my schedule around writing, I find it odd how often things present themselves to me as inspiration for a post or an article, almost like tiny little gifts from the muse. Something one of my kids says. An odd choice of words by a newscaster. An infuriating bit of logic by a politician. Some craziness on Facebook or Twitter. Virtually anything can get the gears spinning.

On the other hand, when I’m not remaining diligent about managing my writing life, it seems that events have to hit me square between the eyes before I notice them as as things upon which it is worth remarking. Of course, this kind of “stuck” is its own disincentive to writing; it’s an appeal to the distractions to “please come take my attention, since I can’t seem to get it to focus on what I’m supposed to be doing.” I’m convinced that what we call “writer’s block” is simply getting out of the habit of writing regularly, which means that the ideas dry up, which means that you can’t write (because you have no ideas), which means that ideas have almost no chance at penetrating the thickening shell of non-writing, which means … It’s its own kind of literary vortex, from which escape seems almost impossible.

Why is that? I think it has something to do with awareness. Have you ever watched Jeopardy, and the librarian from Altoona says, “I’ll take literary terms for $1,000, Alex?”

Then Alex says, “The answer is “synecdoche.”

And our librarian friend pipes in with “What is a figure of speech in which a part is made to represent the whole or vice versa?”

Ding! Ding! Ding!

And you say to yourself, “You know, I’ve never heard that term before in my life.”

But next morning, as you’re poring over the New York Times book review, you see synecdoche in two different articles.

And when you come home from work, you’re fifteen year-old is sprawled out on the couch with five books, two empty cans of Dr. Pepper, and a pile of shredded candy wrappers. You say, “What you doing?”

The mumbled reply comes back, “English.”

“What are you studying in English?”

The fifteen year-old looks up casually and says, “Synecdoche,” like what else would he be studying?

And your spouse says, “Yeah, I hated synecdoche. I always got it confused with metonymy.”

The fifteen year-old nods sagely and says, “Oh man, I know what you mean. I hate that!”

And you look at your family like they’re pod people, alien replacements for the (mostly) normal folks whose stuff you’re always tripping over on the way to your Captain of the Universe Chair in the family room.

That ever happen to you?

I know. It’s kind of freaky. Not just the pod people thing—the sudden multiple appearances in your life of a word you’d never heard of before.

The thing is, “synecdoche” didn’t just spring up from nowhere to wreak havoc on your self-confidence; it’s always been there. You just didn’t notice it. Your attention gets refocused, and all of a sudden you start seeing things you never saw before, hearing things you are certain have never crossed your path before.

That sort of awareness adjustment happens to churches too.

Declining congregations have a tendency to be inward-focused.1 I don’t know of any research to support such a claim, but based on observation, I don’t think that’s a controversial assertion. Congregations are made up of people who, when things seems to be falling apart, naturally focus their attention on themselves.

“Why is this happening, and how can we stop it?”

The temptation when the downward pressure mounts is to start asking questions about how to fix the situation, generally coming up with all the wrong answers:

  • Maybe we just need a younger minister.
  • If we could only get some young families in.
  • We need a praise band.
  • We haven’t had a new evangelism program for years. Maybe that’s the answer.
  • The Baptists have a basketball league.
  • I noticed the narthex needs a paint job.
  • We ought to be careful not to spend money on somebody else that we might need for ourselves.
  • The youth need more trips to Six Flags. That’s guaranteed to get folks back.

What’s the common theme in the usual answers to the problem of decline?

They’re all focused on “us,” on “our congregation,” saving “our community” from extinction.

Someone might argue that “evangelism” isn’t inward focused; it’s about reaching out, right? And I might be inclined to agree if the purpose of evangelizing had something to do with anything other than just re-stocking the membership pond. Unfortunately, and all protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, the primary motivation for evangelism in declining congregations has little to do with the people being evangelized and everything to do with the shrinking size of the faith community doing the evangelizing.

Healthy congregations always seem to find something outside themselves on which to focus their attention. They start out by asking a whole different set of questions from “What’s in it for us?”

  • How can we do more for the neighborhood in which we live?
  • Who from outside our congregation could use the extra space we have in our building?
  • Is there a way to help other people’s children?
  • What kinds of harmful issues plague those people outside our walls, and how can we be a part of the solution?
  • Who has needs we are uniquely able to meet?
  • Can we partner with other congregations, social service agencies, non-profits, our city to do something meaningful on a big scale?

I’m not saying don’t paint the narthex or re-stripe the parking lot. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be good stewards of the resources God has given us. I’m saying don’t always make “our stuff” the most important thing, offering up the leftovers to others only after taking care of our own interests.

Here’s the interesting question: How do we find these new things to do for others? We’ve been looking after our stuff for so long that we don’t have a whole lot of contacts in our community.

Answer: Start looking. I mean actively looking for opportunities to help, to give yourself away. Ask around. Keep your ears open and your eyes peeled for a chance to do something meaningful for someone else.

And here’s the thing: Once you start getting in the habit of looking for ways to help, they start to materialize out of nowhere. When you’re actively seeking ways to be compassionate, just, peaceable, you start to notice new ways you can be a part of things that you never even knew existed. New organizations. New partnerships. New programs. New relationships. New opportunities.

When you turn outwards, the congregational radar gets recalibrated. What looked before like an empty field or, perhaps worse, a field of noise, becomes a field of possibilities. You notice patterns and relationships that were previously hidden to you. The world doesn’t change; you do.

In Christianity we call that kind of movement from death to life good news.

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  1. One might be able to say the same thing of declining denominations—although at that level, you’re supposed to have people who know better. Perhaps the pressure to engage in obsessive introspection is too great to overcome even for the best among us. ↩