Whose job is it to build up the church? Daniel P. Smith and Mary K. Sellon write:
"Finances are tight, and our numbers are dwindling. The congregation is looking to me to turn things around. So is my denomination—that's exactly what I was told when I was appointed here. And, frankly, that's my expectation too. Isn't that my job?" says a pastor of a congregation that has been experiencing decline for many years, voicing the belief of many congregations, denominations, and pastors that when a congregation is declining, it is the pastor's job to fix it.
Here's the hard truth. If you're a layperson in a congregation that's experiencing decline, whether the congregation thrives is ultimately up to you and the other members. Your pastor can teach, guide, lead, support, inspire, even cajole. But in the end, congregational health is a function of how people in the congregation relate to one another, to God, and to their community. A congregation is a microcosm of the greater church, a local embodiment of the body of Christ. In John's Gospel, Jesus says, "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly" (John 10:10). We believe this is one of the primary messages that a healthy congregation embodies for its members and its surrounding community.
Over and over we hear congregations wishing that the people in the community would become active in their church. What drives that desire is revealed in their response to the question "Why?" Any time a significant number of people answer, "To keep our programs running and our doors open," we know that the congregation is in trouble. It has moved to the point at which the people beyond its doors are valued primarily for what they can bring to the church. People in the community are seen as the congregation's salvation, rather than the other way around.
Attempting to lure the new population group, the congregational leaders add programs and make changes they imagine will appeal to the people. Surprised and frustrated when their changes show little result, they redouble their efforts to find the right program. This work is misdirected. The congregation is not declining because the community around it has changed, or even primarily because the church's form of ministry and worship feels foreign to those in the neighborhood. The real and deeper issue is that the congregation has lost connection with a Christian church's basic mission: helping people experience God and connect with the gospel message of life and hope. Read it all at the Alban Institute.