I serve on a board that makes grants every year to churches. Occasionally we give money to church-related organizations and institutions, but mainly the grants go to congregations that want to deepen and renew their worship lives.
The board gives away a substantial amount of money too – up to $15,000 per grant.
The work is fun and gratifying. I like the people I work with. Our conversations are energizing and life-giving. But I also like the tiny glimpse I get each year of what’s going on in churches around the country.
When I first started this work 12 years ago, many of the grant proposals were for starting new services. Churches were busy at that time adopting “the Willow Creek model” which includes a praise band, drama, and overall a much less formal worship style.
In many of these cases there was an existing service that was traditional in style, but these churches often felt pressure from some in their congregations to offer something different, more contemporary, expressive.
All of the growing churches, like Willow Creek, seemed to be doing this.
Interestingly, 12 years later, that wave seems to have passed. There wasn’t a single proposal this year to start a new, contemporary service. Tellingly, there was one proposal that asked for grant money to put two very different services back together. I don’t know, but I’m guessing we’ll be seeing more of those in the future.
How in the world do you get two congregations, with distinctly different worship styles, to come back together again? I’ll let you know how that goes.
But the theme that seems to have taken the place of starting a new service is a more disturbing one. That theme is survival anxiety. How do we – churches want to know – keep going in the face of declining membership, loss of interest, shrinking staff, and a surrounding culture that sees no value whatsoever in worship of any kind?
I sense this survival anxiety in my own congregation.
My congregation, however, will survive longer than most. We have resources and numbers and momentum that will keep us going for a long while. But the feeling is still there: Where is everyone? Remember the old days? What can we do to put people in the seats? (Actually, there’s a more colorful way of expressing that last thought, which I decided not to use in my G-rated blog.)
What do I think about all of this? I’m very nearly certain that fear is never, ever, a good basis for responding to what’s happening in our church. I wish our new initiatives and programs emerged because they were good ministry, not because of the fear that “we have to do something!”