In my research, one of the most valuable books on restoring a church’s vitality I read was Dean Kelly’s classic “Why Conservative Churches are Growing.”  At the time, Dean Kelly was on sabbatical in the early 70s from his leadership position with the National Council of Churches, and he was trying to understand the decline of mainline congregations.  Almost 4 decades later, the conclusions are still valid.

In this book, Kelly says the purpose of a church is to create a sense of shared understanding for its members.  … this stream of shared experience brings to members a system of explanations, a sacred cosmos, which makes life understandable to them …strong organizations tend to increase in membership and weak ones to diminish.”

Kelly says that organizations “run down.”  If they don’t take time to refresh themselves from time to time, they get lazy about telling “the old, old story” and recounting the shared experiences.  They stop “testimony time” and the new people and the children don’t develop the same commitment to the ideals of the organization.  With each generation, a little vitality leaks away.

Kelly quotes Franklin Littell’s “The Origins of Sectarian Protestantism” to say that not only do some churches continue to “halve the half” until only a sliver of meaning is left, but to pay the bills they accept marginal members (“baptized pagans”) who further dilute the shared understanding.

What I take from Kelly’s excellent book is for a congregation to remain vibrant in its community, it must comtinually involve its members in shared work of the congregation, to immerse the leaders in service.  The pastor’s job is to give witness to the activities of the congregation and to continue to remind them why they exist.  To fail at this task is to invite meaninglessness and organizational dissolution.

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