It’s 10:00 o’clock Sunday morning. Preacher, do you know where the people are?
For the umpteenth time the preacher steps into the pulpit with that awful knot in the pit of the stomach. The feeling is not the feeling of inadequate preparation — although some Sundays the sermon tastes more like it was nuked too briefly in the microwave than seasoned in the crockpot. The feeling is the sinking acknowledgement that fewer people are in attendance this week than last week, and this month than last month, and this year than last year.
There are tell-tale signs. On a “good Sunday” the choir takes up a fourth of the space it needed thirty-five years ago. Fewer worshippers translate into less money to replace the stained glass window with the B-B hole or the carpet now thread-bare with age. The preacher’s voice echoes off the walls of the sparsely populated sanctuary as one more unpleasant reminder that the “good old days” are gone.
Like the Psalmist, the preacher ponders, “How do I sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” The sanctuary that once was uncomfortably empty is nearing desperately empty. Almost every month, the church board wrestles with the question, “Should we relocate in another part of town?” Some are even wondering whether the congregation ought to close.
One report estimates that 80% of the congregations of the old main-line denominations are either on a plateau or in decline.1 Another report indicates that of the 350,000 churches in the United States, 100,000 will not survive the next decade. According to Lyle Schaller, “An average of fifty to sixty congregations in American Protestantism choose to dissolve every week compared to perhaps five to ten that are able to and willing to redefine their role.”2 Little wonder pastors ask how to proclaim the good news when so many in congregations (often including the pastor) are discouraged, even despairing.
In this article, we first identify leading characteristics of the declining congregation. We then posit some realistic goals for preaching in this situation. Finally, we offer some possible strategies the preacher can undertake in the sermon to help it have a positive effect in a situation of decline.
Dynamics at Work in Situations of Decline
Congregations in decline often feel a sense of discouragement, helplessness, and despair. They see themselves as the remnants of a once-vibrant fellowship that used to enjoy full pews, full classrooms, and the respect of the neighborhood and the community. The tone of their worship is somber, even funereal.
The declining congregation frequently experiences a general loss of self-esteem. Rather than celebrating those who are present, members mourn those who are absent. The church is nostalgic, languishing on memories of days gone by. In reference to their diminished situation, members sometimes ask, “What is wrong with us?” If other congregations in the community are growing, people may ask in anguish, “Why are these other churches growing while we shrink?”
Congregations in decline often feel helpless. Sometimes these feelings are based upon real circumstances beyond the church’s immediate control. A local employer goes out of business or moves away, forcing unemployed parishioners to relocate. A troubled center-city school district strikes sufficient fear into families with school-age children that they take flight to the suburbs, making the long drive to the church building undesirable or unrealistic. An irony for many declining churches is that they may have been the beneficiaries of similar flight during the 1950s or 1960s.
Some congregations in decline develop the mindset of a righteous remnant. They feel besieged by an uncontrollable society that they dismiss as immoral and idolatrous. With a death grip, they hold on to the one thing left to them: their pride. They assert that their congregation is at least proclaiming the truth of the gospel and is not selling out to the sinful culture in the manner of other, more prosperous, congregations (whom the decliners may secretly envy). The unstated emotional tone of the declining congregation is often that of a martyr, standing firm in the face of hostility to the church’s witness.
Such defensiveness is a coping mechanism for dealing with painful loss of prestige and power. Huddling together as a righteous remnant makes the agony of decline more tolerable. Members comfort one another. “It’s you and me against the world.”
When the anxiety level over the viability of the congregation’s survival becomes strong enough, the congregation often experiences a rising intensity and frequency of conflict. Disputes arise between factions within the congregation. Some of the conflicts overtly focus on the immediate situation of the congregation. However, many disagreements which focus on other issues turn out to be displaced anxiety about the survival of the community. The pew may turn into a bunker from which the parishioners take pot-shots at the pastor’s ineffective leadership. The preacher will sometimes excoriate the congregation for not living up to the preacher’s expectations. Frequently, both pastor and congregation will think of themselves as failures. This reinforces the congregation’s negative self-image and paralysis.
Many congregations have never assessed their situation in a realistic way. Once happy recipients of new members during the middle decades of this century when United States society was more of a “church culture,” these congregations took it for granted that people would always show up. The congregation has never asked what it means to be the church in a society in which the church has lost its protected place. As a result, many declining congregations have never learned to claim a mission for the present other than to continue with what they have always done.
Many in our society have become indifferent (and even hostile) to all institutions, including the institutional church. A congregation’s patterns of institutional life that were well suited to the 1950s may actually thwart the parish’s ability to attract and maintain members. Yet the congregation may refuse to acknowledge a change in the social climate. The members (particularly those in the generation that fought World War II) cling to the old ways of organization, expectation, and behavior. They become weary and bitter as they wonder why the younger generation does not take up the ecclesial tasks they consider essential.
Many declining congregations have difficulty articulating the reason their congregation exists. If asked whom their parish serves, many of the members would be hard pressed to name anyone but themselves. Some members see the mission of the congregation as the institutional survival of their particular congregation. This contrasts markedly with growing congregations. In growing churches, the members tend to perceive that the church is called to mission in the local community. The members are aware that their church is actively responding to community needs.
Consequently, declining congregations often manifest turfism and passivism in respect to program and outreach. The people are often protective of the physical facilities. They regard the pastor as a caretaker of the established members rather than as a missionary or equipper of the saints for ministry. Some pastors willingly accept this description.
These trends combine for a loss of hope. The funereal tone of worship, the recurrent conflict, the sense of helplessness, the siege mentality, the caretaking spirit can lead not just to loss of face but to loss of faith. The congregation may begin to question the validity of the promises of God. Confidence in a living, resurrecting God may give way to hopelessness and even cynicism.
As these factors become more prominent in the life of the congregation, the spiral of decline speeds. More and more persons leave (or die). Those who remain burn out. Financial resources diminish. The facilities deteriorate. What is the mission of preaching in such a community?
Purposes of Preaching in Situations of Decline
The general purpose of preaching in a situation of decline is the same as preaching in any situation: to help the congregation become aware of the unconditional love of God for each and all and the unfailing call of God for justice for each and all. The preacher hopes to bring the good news of God’s presence and purposes to bear on the particular circumstances of decline.
A preacher can take the view that the situation of decline challenges the preacher to be creative. This setting is an opportunity for ministry that calls upon the pastor’s most thoughtful, fresh homiletical powers. Preachers who continually lament the situation, either in the backroom of their minds or in sermons, will likely soon find their energy flagging and will notice lethargy pervading the congregation.
The preacher may need to lead the congregation to face its situation squarely. Denial is a powerful force in human life. But like the terminally-ill patient, the congregation will not be able to make long-term plans appropriate to its situation until it moves through denial into acceptance.
The preacher can help the congregation name and process its feelings. When feelings go unexplored, they often operate like treacherous undercurrents beneath the surface of consciousness. They can disrupt clear thinking and positive action in the community of faith. The feelings of a congregation in decline can run the gamut from sadness, discouragement, and depression, through abandonment, resentment, and anger, to relief that someone is finally facing the situation and getting it on the table for discussion. When named, the community can begin to deal with these feelings and their effects.
The pastor can encourage the congregation to understand why it has declined. This can be painful for it sometimes means leading the people to recognize their own pathologies. In some neighborhoods, phenomena such as racism have played a prominent role. In others, sick patterns of relationship within the congregation have gradually driven away members who were once loyal and enthusiastic but who became weary of constant infighting and power struggles.
In a related move, the minister may want to help the congregation verbalize and reframe its myths, especially if a myth no longer corresponds to reality. In this respect, the minister may need to encourage the congregation to see that some things need to die. A congregation which lived under an illusion for the past twenty years is better off if the illusion fades and it comes into a realistic assessment of its situation. The transition may be painful even if it is necessary for health.
The preacher must articulate a realistic hope. A worshipping congregation that was over 1,000 in the 1950s but numbers 75 today may be unable to pay the bills on the building built for the former number. The congregation may be unlikely to recover its numerical strength even with a new pastor and a nifty membership recruitment program. But the minister can help the congregation ask, “What is realistically possible in the short and long runs?”
The preacher faces a special challenge if the call in a particular situation is to prepare the corpse of a congregation for burial. How does the community prepare to say goodbye in a way that is as healthy as possible and that honors God? Toward this end, the pastor may need to guide a congregation to understand that institutional survival is not the goal of a congregation. A congregation may give witness to the gospel by giving up its own life and turning its building over to another congregation that has a better chance to bring the gospel message to life in a particular neighborhood.
If the congregation has a potentially viable future, the preacher can help the community articulate a vision that can lead it forward. The sermon cannot bear this responsibility alone. The congregation needs to work together to come to a common vision for its future. But the sermon can be a significant part of a systemic approach to helping the congregation envision a hopeful but realistic future. The congregation needs to have a sense of immediate, short-term projects and what is possible over the long haul as it begins to implement plans to bring about a revitalized future.
The preacher can encourage the congregation to become proactive in its life. What does the community want to happen in its life and ministry in its setting? What power does the community have to help that take place? What steps can be taken to move towards it? Insofar as possible, the preacher wants to discourage the congregation from a reactive lifestyle in which the congregation simply responds to events and circumstances within and around it. The question is less, “What do we need to protect?” and more “What witness can we project?”
Just as the preacher can view the sermon as an opportunity for ministry, the preacher can guide the congregation to view their situation as containing challenges. The troubles of the congregation need not be interpreted as death rattles in its throat. They may be opportunities for new modes of ministry and witness. Indeed, the new situation may be filled with adventurous risks that were not possible before.
The minister in a declining situation often has an unexpected compatriot. The congregation is often in a mood for change. They recognize that something needs to be done and they are prepared to entertain serious possibilities. It can give the preacher a spark to know that the community is not going to resist every suggestion for change. Some congregational consultants suggest that new pastors ought to begin leading their congregations through change immediately after their arrival. That is a time when congregations are often most open to the ideas brought by the new pastor.
The situation of decline can awaken the congregation’s sense of its need of God. Scholars of the Old Testament sometimes point out that the people of Israel got into the most trouble with idolatry and injustice when they were settled in the land and secure. They became complacent towards the divine presence with its offer of love and its call for justice. Likewise, during periods of prosperity, the congregation can let its relative success buffer it against the awareness of the Transcendent. Persons in decline may be existentially aware of their need to be in touch with the Living God. This can create a remarkable climate of hunger and receptivity for preaching.
Strategies for Preaching in Decline
The most important thing a preacher can do in a situation of decline is to encourage the congregation to become aware of the divine presence with them. They are not alone. The benevolent, transcendent power keeps company with them moment by moment. This theme needs to be repeated regularly in different modes of expression. It is the church’s most potent antidote to depression and the source of its power for life and ministry. It is the only reality adequate to overcome the ambiguities, idolatries, and other relativities of situations of decline. Consciousness of the embrace of divine grace provides the secure context within which the congregation can name and deal with the demoralizing and frightening dimensions of its present and future.
The sermons should have a tone of hope and good news appropriate to the gospel and the situation. Of course, the preacher may need to lead the congregation to acknowledge and deal with painful realities. But the Christian gospel is ultimately good news. Week by week, the preacher needs to ask, “What is the realistic hope in the message for my congregation?”
Since the Bible is the normal starting point for the sermon, the pastor can identify resources of scripture that correlate with situations of decline. Many passages and themes from the Bible came to expression in situations similar to the situation of decline. Several quickly come to mind. The psalms of lament (both communal and individual) often lead a community to voice their despair and to encounter the living presence of God. Much of the literature of the Old Testament was given its present shape in anticipation of, during or within the memory of the exile. These were times of uncertainty, fear, abandonment, chaos. Such themes are obvious in the writings of the prophets — especially Isaiah. And they are also a part of the Priestly theologians’ shaping of the Pentateuch. The ancestral stories are told, in no small part, for people who are discouraged. The story of Abraham and Sarah, for instance, encouraged an exilic or post-exilic community which felt barren and without a future.
The narratives of Jesus contain repeated stories of Jesus in conflict with people of His day concerning the future of Israel. Such texts might serve as paradigms by which the preacher can frame the congregation’s conversations about its future. (In these cases, the preacher must take care to avoid anti-Judaism.) The eschatology of the early Christians contained the vivid reminder that suffering preceded hope. Not only is the crucifixion of Jesus at the center of the early Christian kerygma, but the early church believed that a time of tribulation, suffering and groaning would be a part of their experience as history moved towards its eschatological climax.
If the community has a problem with nostalgia, the preacher may want to reconstruct some of the problems of the good old days. The good old days were seldom as good as the congregation remembers. In this vein, psychologists speak of “selective inattention,” the mind’s capacity for sublimating or discarding negative memories. A reality check can help the people want to move toward a renewed future by sifting the wheat and the chaff of the past. Of course, the preacher wants always to respect persons of the past (and present) who were a part of the not-so-good old days.
At the same time, a congregation normally has genuine successes in its past in which it can take pride. Frequently, these successes reveal traits of character and potential which are still a part of the congregation’s life. The minister might encourage the community to think about how these traits can be expressed to help revitalize the present and future of the congregation. The preacher may discover that in the past the congregation adopted strategies for ministry that were daring and adventurous in their own day and that can serve as models for the present.
The Sunday School, for instance, was considered a radical development at the time of its inception in the early nineteenth century. But today, congregations without Sunday School are nearly unthinkable, regardless of how much the Sunday School has declined. A starting point for recalling the best of a congregation’s memory is for the pastor to study its history.
The pastor can tell stories about similar congregations in other places and situations. How have other congregations dealt helpfully (and non-helpfully) with their situations? What can the preacher’s community learn from such stories that helps them make sense of their own present and envision possibilities for themselves?
In particular, a minister may want to tell stories of Christians and churches who have taken risks for improving their futures and who have found God to be faithful and their risks to result in fresh, significant ministries. The preacher might also draw from the rapidly growing body of literature on turnaround churches, congregations that once were declining and dying but that now are coming to life.
Adults are most willing to try on new ideas, even ideas that are initially threatening to them, if they have role models who have taken similar risks. Further, preachers may be able to draw effectively on their own experiences. “I used to be that way … but I took a risk … and now I have come to be this way.”
A key to preaching in the situation of decline is to name reasons for hope. Perhaps the congregation has specific resources upon which it can draw. Perhaps there are particular points or programs at which the congregation experiences success. The community might be able to build on these. Success in one area suggests the possibility of success in another area. The people will be encouraged and empowered if they can recognize concrete bases for optimism.
Pastors in situations of decline are not just stirring the air with their preaching. Their preaching counts. It makes a difference, often immediately, to the future of the congregation. This calls for the preacher’s best homiletical efforts.
It may strengthen the preacher to remember that, as God is always present with the congregation in nurturing love, so God is ever with the minister. The task may be great, but the preacher is joined in the study and in the pulpit by a Great Companion who has previously been through situations of decline and who has led many communities through barren wastes to pools of fresh water.
1. Win Arn, The Pastor’s Manual for Effective Ministry (Monrovia, CA: Church Growth, Inc., 1988), p. 16.
2. Lyle E. Schaller, Create Your Own Future! (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1991), p. 111.

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