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There’s a moment within the first few minutes of The Matrix that tips off the viewer about just how AWESOME this movie is going to be. It’s after the eeriely green production logos for Warner Brothers and Village Roadshow, past the first glimpse of that iconic digital rain, beyond the cryptic phone conversation between Cypher and Trinity, through the rabbit hole and into the glare of an officer’s flashlight as two units of street cops enter the dilapidated halls of the Heart o’ the City Hotel to apprehend Carrie-Anne Moss as Trinity—all accompanied by Don Davis’ gloriously discordant score. I’m talking about the moment when Hugo Weaving as Agent Smith turns to the cop who just told him, “I think we can handle one little girl. I sent two units, they’re bringing her down now…,” and omiously replies, “No lieutenant, your men are already dead.” Agent Smith clearly knows something the police don’t—he is, after all, a “man in black”—and we have no reason to doubt that the cops inside the hotel are in trouble. Serious trouble.

Matrix, Trinity, Neo, Heart o' the City Hotel

The Future Is Here to Kick Your Congregation's Butt.

I’ve been thinking about this line from The Matrix lately because of a couple of blog posts I’ve recently run across on the Interwebs. One is from, a great resource for spiritual progressives, religious liberals, spiritual-but-not-religious folks, and anyone else interested in “balanced views of religion and spirituality.” The other comes from George Bullard’s Posterous blog. Bullard is a congregational and denominational consultant with a lot of expertise in the area. The two posts that got me thinking are both about worship and the future of congregations in the United States. Read separately, they give the impression that congregations are facing some tough times. Read together…well let’s just say it’s not a rosy picture.

The post is from Theoblogy: The Tony Jones Blog, and has the ominous title “More Bad News for the (Mainline) Church.” Jones looks at Hartford Seminary’s most recent Faith Communities Today report, “A Decade of Change in American Congregations, 2000-2010,” [PDF] and comes to this conclusion: mainline clergy in smaller congregations are unable to “satisfy the elderly members [in their congregations] and also reach out to new, younger members.” This is especially true for clergy serving smaller congregations. As Jones notes, “These clergy [are] in a predicament: their congregations are so small that to lose any of the old-timers virtually ensures closing the doors to the church, but without dramatic changes, the congregations are bound to continue their decline.”

Just how small are these congregations? Jones doesn’t say. That’s were Bullard comes in. The title of his blog post, “Your Congregation is More Likely to Exist Ten Years from Now if its Weekly Worship Attendance is Over 135,” gives us a pretty good clue about the kind of numbers we’re talking about. Bullard bluntly states that your congregation’s survival is “marginal or uncertain if it has 80 to 135. It is less likely to exist with vitality and vibrancy if its average weekly attendance is less than 80.” When I put these two points of view together, I come to this conclusion: clergy who are afraid to make changes in their worship services out of fear of losing current members are like the lieutenant in that opening scene of The Matrix. They may think they’ve got a handle on the situation, but as Agent Smith might say, “No reverend, your church is already dead.”

Why? Because when a congregation’s worship attendance numbers are below these thresholds, there’s little need for the kind of capacity building necessary to face the future. They are, according to Bullard, below the size “where effective functioning requires shared leadership beyond the pastor and any part-time or volunteer staff.” Bullard goes on to say that

The sharing of leadership makes it more possible the congregation can weather the ups and downs of attendance, the occasion crisis, and the resource demands for functioning as a vital and vibrant congregation.

In other words, lone rangers (lay or ordained) can’t do it alone. Congregations that rely solely on their pastor and/or a small cadre of volunteer staff to run the show simply do not have the capacity to address the challenges every church must face over the next decade. And by running the show, I’m talking first and foremost about worship.

This is why I believe increasing worship attendance should be the number one strategic move any congregation in this size range can make. If your congregation has an average worship attendance of under 80, you need to make it a goal to raise that number over 80. And if your congregation has an average worship attendance that’s over 80 but under 135, you need to make it a goal to raise that number over 135. Of course this would require some major changes, changes that some clergy are hesitant to make out of the fear that they may lose some current members. But maintaining the status quo practically guarantees that your congregation will not be around in another 10 years. If that’s the case, you might as well start familiarizing yourself with Ending with Hope: A Resource for Closing Congregations right now.


Last night I led an online workshop called Five Signs of Congregational Decline (and What You Can Do about Them).  When I blogged about the workshop last week, I hinted at some of the changes I had made to Tony Morgan’s original list. Well, now that the workshop’s over, I guess I’ll go ahead and share my revised list, along with all of the resources (PDFs) I offered to folks who participated in the workshop. I’m also sharing a link to the Spiritual Development web page from the First Unitarian Church in Rochester, New York; a link to information about the Articulating Your UU Faith curriculum at the UUA Bookstore; an archived version of Social Media for Congregations; and a link to the registration page for an online workshop I’ll be offering next month called “Mission, Mission, Mission” (guess what that’s about!). And, if you’d like to register for next Tuesday’s encore of the Five Signs of Congregational Decline online workshop, click here. There’s still plenty of room!

1. Lack of Vision (Antidote: Mission)

Vision, Mission, and Covenant: Creating a Future Together,” [PDF] from New Congregation and Growth Resources, UUA

2. No Clear Path (Antidote: Faith Development)

Process, Not Program: Adult Faith Formation for Vital Congregations,” [PDF] by Diana Butler Bass

Faith Formation 2020 Summary,” [PDF] from Lifelong Faith Associates

Faith Formation 2020: Designing the Future of Faith Formation, [PDF] by John Roberto (Chapter One)

3. Complex Structure (Antidote: Simplicity)

Outline of Simple Church, [PDF] by Thom S. Rainer and Eric Geiger

Sunday School in a Simple Church,” [PDF] by Eric Geiger and David Francis

4. Inward Focus (Antidote: Social Action, Social Justice)

Insights into the Compassionate Congregation,” [PDF] by David Breeden and Theresa Zingery

5. Leadership Fatigue (Antidote: Effective Ministry)

How to Minister Effectively to Family, Pastoral, Program, and Corporate Sized Congregations,” [PDF] by Roy Oswald

Additional Resources

Spiritual Development web page from Rochester Unitarian

Information on Articulating Your UU Faith: A Five-Session Course at the UUA Bookstore

Archived version of “Social Media for Congregations” online workshop

Registration for next month’s “Mission, Mission, Mission,” online workshop

Next week (on January 13 to be exact) I’ll be hosting an online workshop called “Five Signs of Congregational Decline (and What to Do About Them).” I got the idea for the topic from a blog post at called “5 Attributes of a Church in Decline.” Morgan writes about talking with a denominational leader who had “personally been involved in consulting engagements with about 60 declining churches within his denomination.” Morgan asked the leader if there were any common themes among these declining churches, and “within moments, he rattled off…five attributes of churches he’s worked with that are in decline”:

  1. Lack of mission and vision clarity
  2. Failure to define a concise strategy to help newcomers become  fully-devoted followers of Christ
  3. Complex structure
  4. Inward-focused with little connection to the surrounding community
  5. Weak leadership especially in the senior pastor role

Now I don’t agree with every thing Morgan has here (“weak leadership” is a catch-all term I wouldn’t want to use, especially in reference to senior ministers!).  And of course UU congregations aren’t particularly interested in helping newcomers become “fully-devoted followers of Christ.” But there’s a lot that rings true here. So I’ve adapted them a bit for our liberal religious situation. If you’re interested in finding out more, consider signing up for the workshop, 6:45 p.m. Central Time, Thursday, January 13. For more information and to register, click here. By the way, the workshop will be repeated on Tuesday, January 18, so if you can’t make the first one, maybe we’ll “see” you at the second one.

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