What's Tony Thinking

Beware Self-FulFilling Prophecies

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I began ordained ministry in the mid-1970’s. I know . . . a long time ago. It soon became apparent to me that my part of church world — liberal or mainline Protestantism — faced big challenges. So much so that a better word for us than “mainline” was “sideline.” We had the problem of all established groups, that is, we thought we had no problems and that our future was secure.

In the 1980’s and 90’s, I began my own modest campaign to suggest otherwise — that liberal Protestantism’s prospects were anything but secure and serious efforts at renewal needed to be undertaken right away.

I did this not only through my own pastoral ministry, but by writing articles and books, and then peripatetic speaking and teaching. With the success of some of my books, I increased the traveling and speaking/ teaching to the point that I was soon doing that work full time, which I continued until several years ago.

Over those years I noticed a change in the mind-set of my audiences. During the 80’s and 90’s I mostly ran into denial. “No, decline won’t happen to us.” “Yes, some weird mega-church thing is getting a foothold, but it’s a fad and will fade.” “We’re indispensable, what would this town or that city be without us?” Often denominational leaders were the cheerleaders for this mindset.

Meanwhile, the numbers were telling a different story. Decline was happening apace.

Then sometime in the 00’s and the 2010’s, denial was replaced by despair. Gradually, the stories of decline had filtered from media down to the grassroots where empirical observation provided further confirmation. But instead of saying, “Oh yeah, something is indeed happening, maybe we’d better pay attention,” what I began to hear was, “Gee, I guess our decline is inevitable.” “Our church will probably close.” “Just the way things seem to be going.” Now some denominational leaders sang a new tune. “Let go of the past . . . (even) decline is good . . . now we’re getting down to the real Christians.”

Neither denial nor despair were, as you’d imagine, particularly helpful.

Where do things stand now? Well, the big picture remains one of decline for perhaps 75% of these churches. But there are a curious number of exceptions to the general trend. That is, there are 20 to 25% of these churches that are vital, even flourishing. The questions you’d think we might be asking are, “What are these flourishing churches doing? What can we learn from them?” But not so much. Sometimes they are dismissed as outliers, not team players.

What is happening instead? We are still being told decline is inevitable, that the church is dying (even “must die”), so adjust. Future predictions of decline are presented as inevitable, ignoring both the counter-indicators and the way we become victims of self-fulfilling prophecies.

These knowing projections have now been turned into strategies in the world of declining mainline Protestant denominations. One such, there will no longer be full-time clergy in the future. It will be part-time gig at best, with more and more tiny congregations being led by modestly trained lay people.

Another that is popular now is called “leveraging your building.” You have a large facility but a small congregation. You need to figure out ways to house or start new not-for-profits that will fill the space and bring in revenue. In these instances, clergy are told “be entrepreneurial.” “Start a business.” “Be creative.” (even though you’re only part-time!)

A third is a combination hospice for churches with an estate planning operation attached. This usually goes under some variation of the name “legacy.” What it amounts to is the denomination trying to capture what funds or assets will be left when a church closes.

To be sure, there is enough decline that all three make a certain amount of sense. But to the extent that they become the “taken-for-granted” future reality to which adjust we must, they risk becoming (already are, I’d say) self-fulfilling prophecies. As regards the first, for example, there is actually a shortage of full-time clergy for churches that need and want them, especially if you want someone who has a track record of success.

But let’s return to the vital 20 to 25% that are defying the odds and mostly doing so beneath the radar. What is going on there? I’m painting in very broad strokes here, but there seem to be a couple of common themes. One, they have healthy, capable ministers who actually believe what they preach. Two, these aren’t civic or social clubs with stained glass — or to put that positively, they are places where people experience something transcendent, a gracious and active God. When you put one and two together, then you get, third, a church where there is a certain buoyancy, a confidence in the power of faith — even joy.

A necessary caveat lest struggling clergy friends feel I gaslight them: is this easy work? No, it’s hard, tough work. And, yes, there are some congregations have such a high percentage of difficult people that it can be impossible work.

That said, these exceptions to the rule of decline are not right-wing, “Christian nationalist,” ┬ánor even mega wannabes. They continue to be liberal in the broad meanings of that word, as in, “thoughtful, generous and engaged” — to borrow the key self-descriptive words of the seminary where I have worked the last three years. Moreover, they do actually believe that Jesus is the Christ (Messiah), treat the Bible as God’s message, and believe in the power of faith to provide meaning and belonging for human lives in the midst of challenging and changing times.

Beware the danger of turning projections of an unknown future into self-fulfilling prophecies; and be the church — it is still needed.

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