You know the stats. The mainline church in North America has lost significant numbers of members over the last several decades. The ELCA alone suffered a 20% loss over the last fifteen years. This isn't news. What is news - or what should be - is how little we're doing about it.
Oh, don't get me wrong - we have all kinds of programs and meetings and studies and initiatives. Yet when it comes down to calling into question basic assumptions about worship and preaching and congregational life and leadership, we continue to do what we've been doing for much of the last century.
Last night, after making a presentation on some of the cultural changes that are affecting patterns of church attendance, I was reminded of Einstein's definition of insanity: "doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result." As one participant said, "If we were a corporation, we'd be panicked, frantically experimenting with all kinds of ways to increase our market share." And yet we're not a corporation, as many church leaders I know will proudly remind me, so we don't need to be concerned about anything as base as profit.
True enough. But we're at the point where we do need to worry about survival. Yet we continue to act as if the situation is not particularly critical, let alone dire.
It's not that we're not worried. Goodness gracious, but a pall of anxiety, sadness, and nostalgia hangs over many of the congregations I've visited. But while we may be worried and sad, we've not yet become motivated enough to change. At least not really change.
This isn't a problem only in our churches and denominations, of course. I teach at a seminary that commissioned a faculty study of the basic patterns by which we organize ourselves, covering fundamental issues like tenure, workload, sabbaticals, and the rest. The result of months of careful study, extended and impassioned conversations, and lots of hard work? An elegant defense of the status quo where everything is tweaked but nothing changed. And this at a school that doesn't project a balanced budget for the foreseeable future.
Change is hard, I realize, even frightening. For change means leaving what we know for what we do not know, and that entails risk. And even if what we know isn't working all that well, it's at least familiar, safer. But sometimes we forget that there's risk involved in not changing, too. In fact, in a world and culture that is changing rapidly, perhaps the greater risk is to remain static and, potentially, to become stagnant.
Here's the thing: if we want a future, we need to abandon the safety of past practices and imagine a different future. Not easy, of course; but then nobody ever said real leadership was supposed to be easy.