“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.
A congregation that is truly being church brings people into a loving, life-giving relationship with God and others that is transformational. This is the nature of the kin-dom of God, where covenant relationships model the best aspects of family. People find hope. They experience belonging; they extend and receive forgiveness. They discover a sense of purpose and direction. They learn to live with appreciation and joy no matter what the circumstances. Although a pastor can preach and teach this message, the message has power only to the extent that the people in the congregation live it and practice it with one another. Practicing loving, life-giving relationships transforms congregation members. Witnessing such benefits draws others who want something similar for themselves and their families.