Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
A significant part of my work and call is learning. I attend conferences, workshops, take online courses, belong to an executive cohort group, receive coaching, and read books (lots of books!). We are living in a time of change that requires learning new things and doing different things in order to find our way into the future. It is a time of experimentation and risk.
I am currently reading the book, The Mainstream Protestant Decline, which focuses on the decline of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in the 20th century. This decline goes beyond membership. It is a decline in budgets, congregations, pastors, and social and cultural influence. The decline, which began in the 1960s, is defined as the third disestablishment. One of the conclusions the authors reach is that the cause of the decline was more external factors than internal. It was more about the changes in American society and culture, than what was going on inside of the Presbyterian denomination.
Although we are living in the 21st century, we are experiencing the momentum of the 20th century decline. Over 80% of the congregations in the Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy are either stagnant or in decline. The same can be said for the PC(USA) and mainline denominations as a whole. Many pastors and sessions look around their congregations each month and just feel stuck.
There are many possible responses to where the church is today. One response is to continue doing what we have been doing. In this way we see ourselves as preserving the tradition. Perhaps if we do the same thing in better ways, things will change. Another response is to try and do things differently. This includes changes in liturgy, music, design of the worship space, and preaching styles. Some change and rotate like a Rubik’s cube, hoping to find the right combination.
I believe the answer is between learning and doing. The challenge of the current and future church must be answered with education and programs to address the issues we’ve discovered.
This year the presbytery has offered four programs to help congregations assess their situation, possibilities, and opportunities for change. Healthy Pastors-Healthy Congregations has had the most response. Ministry Architects begins in the Fall with 5 congregations. We were hoping for 6 – 10 (It’s still not too late to sign up!) We are still building congregations for Partners for Sacred Places. However, Project Regeneration did not attract any congregations.
The presbytery gathering on Thursday will introduce Congregational Vitality as another way to learn and act in transformational ways for 2020. It is a denominational program that offers ways to look at congregations and neighborhoods (inside and outside of the church) that will make the congregation more relevant. I strongly suggest commissioners, teaching elders, and congregational leader take a look at this program.
In addition, the presbytery has made available $100,000 in grants for congregations, pastors, and leaders. These funds can be used to offset costs of programs, and to promote new ideas which leaders and congregations develop.
Take advantage of these learnings and programs. Become a bold church, a leader who takes risks, a congregation that is willing to experiment, as we continue to seek God’s will for the church in the 21st century.
Rev. Craig M. Howard