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Ron Keener

HEAL THYSELF:The sickness is real enough, the cure elusive.

Two years ago on this page (May 2006) I tried to find the truth of what I then called an urban legend in church land, namely that each year some 3,500 churches, on average, close their doors permanently.

Clay Price of the Baptist General Convention of Texas at that time said it seemed reasonable to him, in his calculations, however unscientific, that 3,500 churches close their doors nationally every year. He called it “a probable figure.” (See related story, page 10.)

It turns out that his assumption was pretty much the case, borne out of more scientific study. Mark Chaves, professor of sociology, religion and divinity at Duke University, along with four graduate students at the University of Arizona, where Chaves began his work, says that “10 of every 1,000 congregations in the U.S. disband each year.” If there are some 330,000 (one estimate) to 350,000 congregations in the U.S., that would be 1 percent of the total.

Moreover, he concludes that “congregations’ average annual mortality rate of 1 percent is among the lowest annual mortality rates ever observed for any type of organization.” But Chaves says that while “congregations’ especially low mortality rate could mean that there are fewer weak congregations than there are weak units in other organizational populations [he cites child care centers, social service organizations, even the California wine industry], or it could mean that weak congregations limp along rather than die.”

He says it is likely the latter — churches are “minimalist organizations” and it costs little to start and maintain a congregation. “Congregations also are normatively flexible and adaptive in the sense that, during times of decline, it is relatively easy to reduce congregational activities and goals to a bare minimum — mounting a weekly worship service — and still be considered a legitimate congregation.” Some precipitating event can push them over the edge into merger or dissolution, but they are more likely to survive “even after they become shadows of their former selves.” They continue in a low-performance state (his term).

The study by Chaves and his students, “Dearly Departed: How Often Do Congregations Close?” can be found in the June 2008 issue of Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion [sssrweb.org] The minimalist mode demonstrates itself, says Chaves and other researchers, in churches living on permanently as failing organizations.

When community change brings decline, churches can scale back on programs and live off reserves and the skills of members, while reducing operating costs. Members take on chores that before they may have paid to have done.

The study says that “the main difference between congregations doomed to disband and congregations destined for revival is a willingness to adapt, to alter their congregational identity in response to change in the communities in which they are located.” A willingness to adapt, says the report, “depends largely on the outcome of conflict between advocates of the status quo and advocates of change.”

What is being said for declining congregations might also be said of entire denominations, even the second largest one at more than 16 million members, the Southern Baptist Convention. Within days of the Chaves study came an earlier news report of the Associated Baptist Press quoting former president of the Convention, Frank Page.

When Page says something, people tend to pay attention. The SBC is rapidly dying and resistance to change could kill more than half of the denomination’s churches by 2030, wrote the ABP on Page’s comments to a group May 1. That would be a loss of 22,000 congregations from the denomination’s 44,000 churches in 22 years, Page said. (See page 24 for another perspective.) Baptisms have dropped to the lowest level since 1987.

Page believes the problem resides in the churches and not the denomination, those churches choosing to die rather than change. “Many Southern Baptist churches are small groups of white people who are holding on (until) the end. Not only have we not reached out to younger generations, but we have failed to reach out to other ethnic minorities who are all around us,” he says.

Page has authored The Incredible Shrinking Church (Crossway, 2008) where he discusses the declining status of America’s churches. He says churches must plant a vision and build trust in the pastor’s leadership.

Ah, there’s the rub. Pastors with a vision who lead. Parishioners who catch the vision and have the wherewithal to move forward. Instead, the church largely is unhealthy and lethargic. Right now we might settle for a good physician if not the Great Physician. Church, heal thyself. Quickly.

Comments: ron@churchexecutive.com

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