Survival anxiety


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!”

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.


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4 Responses to Survival anxiety

  1. Georgia Hamilton March 23, 2013 at 4:49 pm #


    What a timely comment on the state of many churches today! I’m not sure where FP fits into this conversation. I’d like to think we are still working on creating worship servies that are meaningful to most of our church family. Additionally, we’re trying new ways to connect and “hang on” to those we have.

    A blessed Easter to you and the family. CHRIST IS RISEN!


  2. mike March 23, 2013 at 10:13 pm #

    It would be great if 20 years from now we looked back at these “good old days” and said…Yup, that’s when faith began spreading it’s roots again…and in our own little corner of the world, FirstPres played a big part and planted a lot of seeds.

    If anxiety is what drives us…that’s better than not be driven at all.

    Favorite quote from the movie Starman…”when things are at their very worst – you people are at your very best”. Not a bad reputation to earn when facing challenges – definitely something to aspire to.

  3. Sandy Steffen March 24, 2013 at 2:31 pm #

    Interesting Doug, maybe some new projects like Hope South Florida can bring the congregation together with a renewed purpose outside ourselves??!!

    Great sermon today too! ( :

  4. Clark Ellis March 25, 2013 at 3:06 pm #

    Hello Doug
    The churches here in Delaware City are full and some times over flow.
    Of course none of the churches can seat more than 250 at a time.
    A blessed Easter to you and all at First Presbertian


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