On occasion I team teach a course on missionary and parish “strategy” with one of my colleagues at Trinity School for Ministry. We consider strategy from a biblical and theological point of view, and we review the approaches of some of the great missionary strategists such as St. Paul, Roland Allen, and Vincent Donovan.

We also look at secular writing on strategy from the world of business and the social sciences. One of the most insightful writers on this topic is Richard Rumelt, author of Good Strategy, Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters (Crown Business, 2011). Rumelt says that few organizations understand what a strategy is. It is common for an organization to put forth a strategic plan that is no more than a collection of vague and ambiguous — but high sounding — goals without any genuine strategy to achieve the goals: Double church attendance by 2020, grow the parish by 10 percent a year for five years, move from maintenance mode to mission mode; that sort of thing.

Rumelt writes that good strategies have some elements in common: they have an insightful diagnosis of the problem to be solved, and they have a coordinated set of policies, procedures, and actions designed to achieve the desired results. Strategies most often fail because there is not a sufficiently profound diagnosis of the problem. Intractable problems, like the challenge of development in some African countries, require strategies that identify the way in which multiple problems “chain link” into one more complex problem. Aid agencies come up with good strategies to improve health or literacy but fail to address political corruption or lack of infrastructure, so the effort sputters and fails. For Rumelt, a good strategy understands the depth and complexity of the problem and focuses the energy of the organization on policies and actions that can address the total problem.

In the class we teach, we ask the students to apply the principles of the course to a case study. Typically these DMin students want to develop a strategy for parish growth. In class discussions I am fascinated to see how very difficult it is to come up with a profound diagnosis of why average Sunday attendance in a parish church is either flat or declining. This is true in parish churches across denominations and across the country. Very often the initial diagnoses are too simple and so are the solutions. The style of worship is too traditional is one favorite diagnosis, followed only by the worship style is too contemporary.

Problems causing decline

In the remainder of this piece I want to identify some of the elements that link together to cause the complex problem of church decline and that need to be addressed in a coordinated effort.

First of all, there are large theological issues. In the mainline churches there has been something very close to a surrender to the radical pluralism and relativism of Western intellectual culture and the inevitable loss of theological nerve that such a surrender entails. Faith is seen as a private choice and not as a claim about the truth that can be tested by reason and experience. This creates a kind of evangelical embarrassment.

A practical Deism forms the mindset of many of our clergy and laity. The relative neglect of the doctrine of the Trinity is both a sign and a cause of a lack of confidence in the presence of a God who acts in human affairs.

The way in which the doctrine of salvation is understood in both evangelical and liberal churches typically marginalizes the significance of the sacramental life of the parish church. The focus of salvation is either the isolated individual or the transformation of society. Growth in holiness in community is not typically a major theme in either case.

Practical and pastoral issues form part of the problem. Massive biblical and liturgical illiteracy contributes to a persistent intergenerational failure of Christian formation. Our children and young people simply have not in most cases received any formation that enables a faith capable of withstanding the challenges of contemporary culture. Adults who were not adequately formed cannot pass on the faith to their children. If in the small town where I serve I could collect all the children and grandchildren that “should” belong to the parish our attendance would double.

Clergy deployment is a major problem. Parish churches need suitable, capable clergy who stay a long time. Parish-priest mismatches are a major problem. If a parish calls several clergy in a row that are a mismatch it can be very difficult if not impossible to recover.

Christianity is a kind of anti-brand for many people in our society. They know little about Christianity and the Church and what they know they don’t like. Individual parishes may suffer from no reputation or a bad reputation.

Our church culture is typically thin. The homes of our people are often no different in the art on the walls, the books on the shelves, and the media being consumed than the homes of non-believers. A thin church culture is a mismatch for a robust secular culture.

This list is not exhaustive. I am sure that readers could supply further problems that I have not enumerated. My point is that any proposed solution to church decline that does not perceive the interconnectedness of these problems and address a number of them simultaneously is bound to fail.

Conclusion

In Genesis 12 God explains his missionary strategy to Abraham. God promises to make a great people out of Abraham and through this people he will bring all his children home. They are to live toward God and toward their neighbors in such a way that all the nations will see that they know who God is and the nations will come to Israel to enquire after God that they might also know and serve him.

The Father has not changed his strategy. He has sent his only begotten Son to bring this strategy to fulfillment and completion. For this he died and rose again and for this purpose he has given us his Spirit. To accomplish the purposes for which he has called us out of darkness into his marvelous light requires an insightful understanding of the impediments to mission that confront us; it requires also a willingness to forgo quick fixes, in favor of coordinated and persistent effort based on a more insightful and comprehensive diagnosis.

The Ven. Dr. Leander Harding is rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Catskill, New York, and an archdeacon in the Diocese of Albany. His other posts are here.

The featured image comes via Bart Everson.

About The Author

The Ven. Dr. Leander Harding is entering his fourth decade as a priest of the Episcopal Church. After spending 26 years in parish ministry, he joined the faculty of Trinity School for Ministry, where he was associate professor of Pastoral Theology and Dean of Seminary Advancement. In 2013, he returned to parish ministry and became the rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Catskill, NY. He is an Archdeacon in the Diocese of Albany, and has recently been appointed the new Dean of the Cathedral of All Saints, Albany.

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