William C. Bills, Pastor
The Vital Church Initiative is not a magic bullet. But it (and things like it) are being undertaken in churches all over the country. There was a post-World War II church building boom in this country. Now, church attendance numbers are at all-time lows. Many congregations are simply aging out. The children of older members don’t attend church at the rates their parents and grandparents did. Older people don’t attend as much as they used to. Because decline in churches is slow, it often goes unnoticed. If nothing is done to engage new generations, more and more churches will close over the coming decades.
I haven’t heard any dramatic success stories from VCI. In many churches, it has slowed or stopped declining membership and attendance. But VCI hasn’t caused many congregations to experience rapid growth. The one proven method of growing congregations is simply to start new ones. But new churches tend to settle into habits and traditions around the 25 to 30 year mark. Then most begin a slow path of decline.
The waning influence of the Christian Church in America has made this even more pronounced. Some churches are growing dramatically. Those churches tend to be newer. They are not afraid to innovate. Churches that have been in existence longer resist innovation. But staying the same isn’t really an option for churches in this country anymore. The majority of congregations over the age of forty face two choices: innovate and develop a plan for the future or accept a slow and steady decline. Slow and steady decline usually happens over decades in churches.
David A. Roozen of the Harford Institute for Religious Research published a study entitled “American Congregations 2015: Thriving and Surviving.” According to the study, churches that thrive today are the ones that are willing to innovate. In the study, “innovation” is just the willingness to try new things. According to Roozen, churches that try new things fare better than churches that don’t.
While the Vital Church Initiative is not a magic bullet, it does afford congregations an opportunity to consider where they want to be in ten or twenty years. Obviously some of us won’t be here in ten or twenty years. But that is not the point. The larger question is, where will our church be in ten or twenty years?