I’ve been thinking a lot recently about possible reasons behind congregational decline, or at least the reasons behind congregations surviving but not thriving. Peter Stienke, a respected expert in congregational dynamics, has an article in the latest issue of Christian Century magazine titled “Buckle Up: Congregation Change Isn’t Easy.” In this article, Steinke defines what he calls “mission drift:”
…Some members say their congregation has a sense of mission because they have a mission statement. Sad to say, few know what it is.
Limping along without a focus is called mission drift. It is what happens when people have forgotten what their objective is and are just going through the motions. To judge from my experience, congregations in mission drift will at some point:
- engage in conflict,
- suffer a malaise of spirit
- decline in some statistical manner
- adapt to their most immature members
- fail to mobilize people’s gifts and energy
- surrender to apathy or complacency
- do little planning
- become turned in on themselves
- blame outside forces (or perhaps one another) for their depression, and/or
- be unable to make effective appropriate changes.
Interestingly, I’d say that this list of symptoms also applies to congregations that are in a stalled transition from a pastoral-size congregation (average attendance of up to 150) to a program-size congregation (average attendance of over 200). This suggests that there might be some correlation between mission drift and a stalled size transition. I say “correlation” because I’m not willing to assign a causal connection between the two. While it seems possible that mission drift could stall a size transition, wouldn’t there be some kind mission in place to prompt growth before the stall happened? And it’s hard to imagine how that a size transition somehow magically makes a congregational mission disappear. Perhaps there’s an underlying cause, e.g., perhaps when a congregation gets up past an average attendance of 150, the old informal communications network breaks down — where everyone just knows what they need to know — and there is as yet no formal communications network in place to effectively pass on the mission statement to newcomers, and to repeatedly remind old-timers.