Paid to Change: Old First E-pistle 03.08.12

Paid to Change: Old First E-pistle 03.08.12

A friend of mine really bit his fingernails. Until they bled. His parents tried everything. Gloves. Painting his nails with that awful tasting stuff (he grew to like the taste!) Punishments. Positive reinforcements. Nothing worked.

He laughs as he explains that somewhere along the line, they created some arcane formula whereby his allowance was decreased “per digit” — for each finger where they could see evidence of nail biting, they’d deduct from his allowance. That didn’t work.

Finally, his dad came up with another financial plan. They’d all agree on something he wanted. The latest toy. New tennis shoes. To go trout fishing. Ultimately, the goal grew as big as a trip to Disney World.

With a goal set, his parents would assign how much my friend could earn by not biting his nails. Usually, the value of his corrective behavior was in proportion to the expense my friend was aiming for. But, he chuckles, success bred success: the goals got increasingly bigger and more expensive. His need to break a bad habit became quite a little cottage industry. “Payment” was tallied on his balance sheet every time his parents needed to cut his fingernails with the clippers.

Not sure of all the internal psychological dynamics or pedagogical correctness involved, I know what desperation feels like as a parent. And as a pastor. I was reminded of this sort of behavioral modification on a congregational level last week.

I was speaking with someone mourning the imminent death of a congregation she loves. Understandably, she can’t quite make sense of the situation…

Members often hope against hope that their congregation is eternal. The church may last forever, but congregation’s have more defined lifespans– birth, infancy, their young years, adulthood, their middle age and eventually decline and even death.

Unlike us humans, the life span of congregations seems to differ widely. Short-lived or longevity– in a congregation, mortality tables relate to whether or not that faith community can evolve and stay in a creative, productive relationship serving the needs of people around it.

The last thirty years in North America have forced many congregations, no matter their actual chronological age, into their declining years. Between 50% and 80% of today’s congregations are expected to close in the next 20 years. Or, more immediately, 9 churches in America close every day.

Can you imagine a North American landscape almost without a church on the horizon. One of the pastors in our midst, when I told him of these projections responded, “Don’t you think that when we look at North American people and their attitudes and worldviews, the church has almost already be culturally eclipsed?”

I often wonder what has pushed so many churches to the brink of failure? Has the world around them picked up speed and changed faster than congregations can keep up? Or is there some factor in contemporary church life, some reaction to cultural change perhaps, that has left the church stubbornly resistant and unable to respond? Perhaps it’s some unholy alliance of those two opposing forces?

The congregation my friend worries about, she explained, is “stuck unto death.” Aging and declining membership. No new or younger members. Professing to want to grow and survive. But showing neither interest nor ability at making changes, any changes!, that might enable them to engage new people.

There they sit, a handful of older people, hoping the church will still be open to bury them. But the various, competing numbers– the size of the membership, the money available to support the church, their ages– don’t look promising. Still the institution is completely paralyzed, like a deer in the headlights, waiting for the headlong crash of inevitability.

Sadly, from my days as the Regional Conference Minister in the New York City metro. area, I can say my friend’s church’s experience is not unusual. One might expect that ominous writing on the wall could free a church up to try something new. At least, when prospects look really bad, a community doesn’t have all that much to lose.

But, quite often, just the opposite happens. Congregations dig in. Stick to their ways that aren’t working as if they are their only source of sacredness. As if God could only be found in a museum.

And the downhill roll picks up steam. Bodies to do the work become scarce. So too money dries up. The building suffers. Other institutional necessities get left undone. Ministries and programs are attenuated, then shut down. The pastor’s hours shrink.

As the Regional Conference Minister, I would often fantasize… what could force the church’s hand? “Instead of standing in place while a grave is dug around it, can’t you, God, make something happen, anything, even if it has to be painful, that could knock a congregation out of its stasis and into responsive action?” I was often thinking more in terms of punishments.

Since that conversation with my friend mourning her congregation, I learned of an interesting ministry. A pool of money that is available to congregations in tight financial straits. When they need it because they are almost broke.

But there’s a catch. Strings attached to the money. Instead of a “gift from heaven,” it’s paying the congregation to stop biting its fingernails… to let go of its bad habit.

A windfall of cash usually enables a local church to go on as it has, making as little change as possible. That’s what happens when most churches get desperate enough to sell their buildings– they spend down the capital liberated from the sale of their property so they can continue refusing to change.

But in the ministry I read about, accepting the money involves agreeing beforehand to do whatever the grantor says about how your ministry needs to change.

Ironically, making the church more visible, accessible, welcoming and meaningful to new people isn’t rocket science. But figuring out how to get approval and acceptance of those changes from the people who already consider the church too much “their own” is the stumbling block. It’s not what to do, beloved; it’s the will to do it.

If I were sitting on top of a big pile of money I could dedicate to ministry, I just might try paying congregations to break their old habits in favor of new ways of being a church that can engage people today. To stop biting their nails. Why? Because I think an American landscape without steeples and faithful people will be culturally flatter… poorer, less creative, compassionate and justice-seeking.

See you in church,


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