Thom S. Rainer, a long-time consultant and researcher of Christian congregations, wrote an article that has been shared recently in my social media circles. It’s entitled, The Most Common Factor in Declining Churches. In this article, Rainer says, “Stated simply, the most common factor in declining churches is an inward focus.”
In some ways, this is not surprising, but it is hard to hear. Rainer gives a list of common traits found in inwardly focused congregations. To summarize them, congregations are inwardly focused when their ministries and budgets are used almost exclusively for their own members.
These days, I see a lot of congregations turning inward. That is not the case across the board, of course. Many are engaged actively in their wider communities. But I see and feel this trend, and I hear it from others too.
So what does this trend look like? To begin, it might be helpful to say that inwardly focused churches can be quite loving. Often, these communities have formed deep bonds between their members over the course of decades, and they take care of one another with beautiful commitments. When new people show up, these members can even extend that care to include others. But by and large, these kinds of congregations have stopped reaching out, meeting their neighbors, or engaging in any kind of mission or service.
While this is happening, we are additionally experiencing rapid changes in religious demographics and patterns of congregational participation. We’ve probably all seen a host of articles trying to explain why Millennials do not affiliate with congregations to the same degree as previous generations. We’re learning about the rise of the Nones as well: These people are religiously unaffiliated and include approximately 23% of the U.S. population (7% are atheists and agnostics, and 16% identify as “nothing in particular” and/or “spiritual but not religious.”)
As congregations encounter these cultural shifts, they can become inwardly focused. This is connected to a desire to survive, and that force can be quite strong. Sometimes, survival is literally a question of whether a congregation can remain open; other times, survival is rooted in a desire to stay intact as is without having to make significant cultural and structural changes.
In the midst of all of these dynamics, some congregations become obsessed with gaining new members — less for the purposes of discipleship and inclusion (both faithful endeavors) and more for the purpose of maintaining current budgets for buildings, staff, and programs. Consciously and unconsciously, when presented with new ideas and opportunities for ministry, these congregations continually ask, “How will this benefit us?' Opportunities for callings and connections then become occasions to do cost/benefit analyses: Will this idea gain us members? Will people leave the church if we follow this calling?
How will this benefit us?
In some contexts, this is absolutely a question of greed. In an effort to survive as is with an image that is affluent and influential, some congregations begin to run themselves like businesses and mirror the practices of the corporate world. But in other contexts, this question is an expression of authentic trauma. Congregations fear closing or losing what has been. At times, both dynamics can be present in the very same congregation.
Christian leaders have a dual calling to challenge this greed while comforting this trauma. It can feel like a fine line, but if we do this well and turn our orientation outward, it might just lead to a new reformation of the Church itself.
 I am grateful for a conversation I had recently with Rebecca Harrison, a Presbyterian leader in Asheville, North Carolina, and several other people in an online forum. She observed that too often, congregations ask, ‘”How will this benefit us?” Our discussion informed this post.