Are Growth and Decline the Only Options?

Photo by Christopher Carson on Unsplash

Some of the congregations I interact with are growing, but most are in decline. Membership, attendance, energy, enthusiasm, and financial support shrink slowly over time. Some of these declining congregations—the ones who think they can’t be a church without their building, for example, or who want to keep doing exactly what they’ve always done but hope that someone else will step up to take over the work—leave me praying for a quick end. But others—the easygoing ones that are adaptable, kind to each other, and generous with their neighbors—are a delight.

Most declining congregations—delightful or not—will die, because that’s what most institutions do eventually. But I wonder, as we struggle to incorporate millennials and Gen-Z’s into the body of Christ, whether we can learn something from these declining “delights.” In particular, I suspect they might help us see a “third way” to be a small-but-healthy church that isn’t growing at a megachurch scale or declining rapidly.

Congregational “delights”

One of my favorite “delights” is a tiny congregation in a shrinking town in southern Iowa that is about to rededicate its 130-year-old building. In the last 18 months they have given their building a new roof, new siding, new windows, a new paint job, and refinished hardwood floors. I am usually skeptical about church buildings—frustrated that they consume so many resources, force the congregation to conform to their existing shape. Worst of all, they are frequently designed so worshippers can’t see out. I think it’s no accident that Jesus never had a building!

But this congregation’s building seems to have lightened over time instead of getting darker and more oppressive. The paint colors have literally gotten lighter, but the congregation has also held the building lightly, worshiping as easily in the local community center or mining museum as in the sanctuary. They have shaped the building rather than allowing it to shape them, adapting it to their needs as the community has changed. Within and around their space, they do what they can and no more. They take turns, they take care, they keep track of everyone, they keep things clean and tidy, and they are incredibly kind to their rotating pool of supply preachers.

Small-scale pork producers

Their behavior reminds me very much of a list I copied several years ago from an article in the Rotman Management Review (reprinted here) about about artisanal businesses as an alternative to aggressive corporate growth. The article tells the story of the Chapolards, a family who bred and butchered pigs. The four brothers raised the grain and flowers that fed the animals, they bred and raised the pigs, they butchered about ten pigs a week, they prepared a range of sausages with the meat, and they sold the fresh meat, sausages, paté, and hams directly to local customers. It was incredibly hard and complex work. But the family was still able to create a consistently delicious product, not by mechanizing and standardizing production, but by working up close and by hand. The brothers were personally involved in all aspects of production from choosing seeds to interacting with customers.

The author of the article identified seven features of the family’s work that contributed to their farm’s sustainability:

  • Working close to home
  • Generating little-to-no waste
  • Taking personal care in what they do
  • Making products for people they know
  • Imparting quality by hand
  • Sustaining a slow or no-growth business
  • Managing production holistically, from end to end

Obviously, not all these features apply to churches. We’re not, or at least not intentionally, producing sausage. But some of these artisanal features track well with the behavior of my small “delight” congregation—staying close to home, doing no more than they are able to do and thus generating little waste, taking personal care, working for and with people they know, doing their work personally and by hand, and being content to sustain who they are rather than racing after growth.

Sustainable living

Moreover, some of these features track with what we know about the behavior of Millennials and Gen-Z’s—at least those who are not attracted to the corporate culture of the large church: wanting to be within bicycle or walking distance of home, generating no waste and no harsh impacts on the environment, being personally involved in what they do, building community with people they know, building their community slowly, and building community for its own sake rather than for the sake of growth.

The large-church is the reigning model right now—large staff, excellent and varied programming, expansive parking, and the option for members and visitors to attend without pitching in. But economists have noticed that the very things that propel corporate growth can also produce negative consequences. Rapid-cycle innovation, for example, which is a hallmark of so much recent tech-industry growth, often involves the risk of letting go of a proven product in order to launch and market an uncertainty. When the new thing fails, as often happens, everyone gets fired. Some of these downsides have parallels in large congregations, where the system can seem more important than the people.

The existing alternative seems to be the declining congregation—aging members, declining numbers, decaying buildings, dysfunction. But perhaps the time is ripe for a new model—intentionally small but healthy, creating community by taking personal care and being intimately involved, and imparting quality slowly and by hand. I don’t know that this small-but-healthy model needs buildings, but it might have pigs.

Sarai Rice consults with congregations on a variety of issues including planning, program development, and governance, and offers coaching for clergy and lay leaders. She has a passion for work across the lines of faith traditions, especially in areas involving community ministry and social justice, as well as a deep commitment to the notion that human institutions should work well for the people they serve.