Two of the more important words for a congregation to ponder in the 21st century are “resistant” and “resilient.”
Which of those two words better describe your congregation – and you – may well determine whether your congregation is viable in the next 10 to 20 years.
Observers of the church in the United States may differ on the specifics, but they generally agree that a turning point of sustainability is coming for most local congregations in the near future.
Our dependence upon the financial support of aging members, our aging physical facilities, and the trends of church attendance in the population at large portend a looming crisis of viability.
If one excludes mega-churches and church plants, which have their own crises of sustainability to manage, the likelihood is that older, traditional congregations will face a window of viability that culminates in the 2020s with immense pressure to merge, close or radically alter congregational life.
At the risk of sounding alarmist, I believe wise leaders must take seriously the warning signs and respond proactively to this crisis.
Back to the two words.
Some congregations and leaders are resistant to the reality of the day. Resistance takes many forms.
In some cases, it is passive and primarily marked by lethargy and loss of energy. We prefer to ignore the data and choose to continue our methods and practices.
Over time, such resistance to reality produces a church in which there is awareness that something is lacking and metrics are failing, but there is little energy or motivation for facing the facts.
In others, resistance is more visible and outspoken. The shifts in congregational life in the 21st century are cause for anger and frustration. Our first reaction is to find someone or something to blame.
Much energy is given to condemning American culture, politics, denominational life, clergy, seminaries and so on. Usually, there is a call for a return to traditional methods and programs that were successful in prior eras.
We often employ a “work harder at the tried and true” mindset. Sadly, the decline usually continues unabated.
Resistance to innovation and change marks many traditional congregations as we consider our future.
Far too often we find ourselves resistant and unwilling to consider the fundamental shifts in thinking that must happen if we are to remain vibrant and alive.
Without a deep awareness of the depth of the crisis, receptivity to a new way of being and doing church remains elusive.
If resistance is our primary reaction to the new realities, rather than receptivity to innovation and change, we face a very uncertain future.
To be more direct: by around the year 2025, if you continue to resist facing the facts and learning from them, your church will very likely be in a crisis of survivability.
The other key word to consider is resilient.
In the face of tremendous odds in a multitude of cultures and settings, the church of Jesus Christ has survived nearly 2,000 years.
One can make a good case that, across history, God’s people do some of their best work when the odds are longest.
There is no doubt the good news of Jesus Christ will survive and thrive. The question is whether our churches will also.
When compared to the plight of the church in other cultures, the challenges faced by the U.S. church pale in terms of persecution and hardship.
Our challenges are more insidious than straightforward, more covert than overt, more internal than external.
The dictionary tells us that the opposite of resiliency is inflexibility and rigidity.
Our ability to be resilient and survive will be determined by how well we reconnect with our reason for being and a deeper understanding of the place of the gospel in our culture.
As we think about the future, resilient congregations will look to our past, not in order to replicate prior methods, but in order to reconnect with our spiritual DNA.
We will look carefully at the present, in order to know our current setting and to accurately assess where our methods and practices are succeeding and where they are failing.
We will then look forward in hope, believing that God inspires imaginations and creativity in every generation to make the truth relevant in our context.
Our resiliency will be marked by fidelity to the gospel, optimism, hope, flexibility, innovation, creativity and an enduring receptivity to the Spirit’s leading.
When we lower our resistance and embrace our resilience, we may well find ourselves launched upon a grand adventure that is larger than what we ever imagined.
Perhaps we will find ourselves living a God-sized dream. Nothing is more vibrant and alive than that!
Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Congregational Health in Winston-Salem, N.C.