by Richard Bass

I’m sure you’ve heard the rumblings: like the U.S. economy, congregations in the United States are heading for their own fiscal cliff. A couple of recent high-profile books—Diana Butler Bass’s Christianity after Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening and Ross Douthat’sBad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics—chronicle the decline of religious adherence and propose, like our political parties in Congress facing choices about taxes and spending, radically different solutions.

It’s not my goal here to judge these solutions, although the fact that I am married to Diana Butler Bass will no doubt signal where my sympathies lie. Rather, these two books and the data that lies behind them indicate how widespread the conviction that religious communities are in trouble has become. As I write this, yet another report of decline has arrived in my inbox, this one from the United Methodist Church, which reports losing 71,000 constituents in the past year.

The report includes the following quote from the bishop of one conference: “You don’t grow an annual conference by trying to revitalize existing churches,” he said. “I think some [congregations] can be revitalized. But I don’t think we’ll ever revitalize enough churches to reverse the attendance and membership trends that we’ve seen over the last several decades.” The solution, and the reason why the conference he leads bucked the trend by adding members, he thinks, is new church starts; the conference allocates $1 million each year to church plants and has started fifteen new churches in the past four years.

I applaud their efforts and wish them continued success. I do think that the neglect of church starts by the historic mainline has negatively impacted its size and growth. But there is an assumption in the statement that I find troubling because it is counter to the work we do here at Alban, and to the transformation we do think is possible for existing congregations. The assumption implies that most existing congregations will not be able to find new life, that we are better off letting them dwindle away, putting our resources instead toward the new, the shiny.

Much of our work is in helping existing congregations find the new life that many think is not possible for them. I agree that it is not easy, and too often congregations are not able to muster the will to make the changes necessary to grow and flourish. They want things to be the same, just bigger, with more money, or at least less worry. They want people to want to be what they are. Oh well, some say, it’s easier to start a new church than to turn around an old one (ever heard that one?)

Should we really decide what to do based on how easy it is do? If, as so many who bemoan the decline of religious participation say, the call is to develop disciples, since when is that done by taking the “easier” route? Sometimes, we are called to work with what God has given us, and to work with it to help it reflect a bit of God’s reign on earth.

I frequently speak with pastors and others who are part of efforts to help their congregations live again. This is often scary, risky work, and they are often met with resistance by those who want things to change, but not really. It usually means that some long-time members will leave, that the congregation will be unsure at some point about its future, and that it will need to connect with people who would never think of stepping through the doorway of the church as it once was. Some pastors don’t make it through the change process—they are run off when the going gets tough. Others find that they’ve managed to reach and build a new congregation in the place of the old, but one that isn’t as able to support the work of the church as well as the congregation it replaced, probably because the newcomers are younger and less formed in the ways of the church. Still others find themselves and the congregation on the other side of the river, with a wonderful mix of old and new, revitalized for a new time.

This issue includes articles that can help us think about how to get to the other side of the river: Kerra Becker English revisits the lost art of following; Bruce Epperly helps us see how spiritual practices ground us for the difficult work that needs doing; Donna Schaper invites us to rethink our space (and what we put in it) so that we can better serve those around us; and Kathy Smith ponders what denominational churches can learn from emergent communities. And don’t miss Tim Shapiro’s thoughts on the true call of congregations: to build trust.

We are in a time of great change. This change is being felt in our congregations. Will you help them cross the river of change or just let the flood waters wash them away, expecting that somehow they will be replaced by new ones on the other side?


Richard Bass
Director of Publishing




Congregations magazine, 2012-09-11
2012 Issue 3, Number 3