Future of the Presbyterian Church

In the past two articles, I focused on the past 5 years of membership and attendance trends in the Presbytery of Chicago. What is apparent is that the church isn’t growing. At best, we are stable; at worst, we’re in decline. Furthermore, we are a presbytery of small congregations. 80% of our congregations have 100 people or less in the pews.

The desire to grow creates anxiety in our pews and consternation in our session meetings. Pastor Nominating Committees are laser focused on finding the next pastor with a young family that can grow the church. The obsession with growth creates injustice, as qualified women, people of color, and older pastors are overlooked. It creates anxiety for church members and for the young pastor who fails once again to grow a church.

And yet, we insist on growing.

In an article by the church consultant group, LeaderWise, Mary Kay DuChene challenges the idea that the church is supposed to grow. “The only thing that grows without receding is cancer,” she writes. She proposes that instead of a season of growth, the church may be in a season of fallow ground. She writes, “Growth is always followed by decay/decline. Death happens and so does resurrection.”

I dream of a presbytery that focuses more on ministry impact and less on membership numbers. There is so much that can be accomplished through leveraging resources, partnerships, and community involvement, instead of just worrying about filling the pews. If congregations could take a long-view and focus on legacy, I believe a path forward can be found. Legacy means investing in a future that may not resemble the present. Friendship Presbyterian Church on Chicago’s northwest side is one example. Two congregations that were closing came together and envisioned a church that would have the community at heart. Their vision allows Friendship to do the fantastic mission and ministry that it does.

I encourage the 20% of congregations that are experiencing membership growth to keep it up! These growing congregations often include Chicagoland as part of their mission and ministry. It is important that suburban congregations recognize the value of local ministry, even as they continue to serve mission throughout the world.

There will be a Presbyterian future, and every congregation that is in existence today will be a part of it. These congregations will either be a living congregation or a living part of another congregation through legacy and presbytery support. Like tall trees in a forest whose death brings life to young foliage, the death of one congregation brings life to many others. But this future church may not look like or function like the church today. We must be willing to usher in the future of New Worshiping Communities and other expressions of faith into existence.

There is a book title I often remember when I’m feeling anxious about membership numbers and metrics. It is a book on finances in Christian organizations. The title is, “When the Bottom Line is Faithfulness.” May we keep this bottom line in focus.