(1) I’m not a Thom Rainer fan. I am skeptical of anyone or anything coming out of LifeWay.
(2) I’m not a Calvinist, let alone a NeoCal.
(3) I absolutely reject the mindset that accepts that the pastor can do no wrong.
I generally give the pastor the benefit of the doubt until the facts won’t allow it.
Rainer provides a quick blurb on what he calls seven reasons why churches often experience dramatic declines in their attendance.
(1) Scandal. I agree with him on this one, having seen a couple of them firsthand. Sex/adultery scandals are often the worst here. When a pastor (or anyone in church leadership) falls–or, more accurately, swan-dives–into sexual indiscretion, he’s committing treason: against his family, against his church, against Jesus. He’s effectively dropping a nuclear bomb on everyone around him. (And yes, those scandals can include women in key positions, too.)
(2) Sudden departure of a pastor or staff person. Most of the time, this occurs when a popular, well-respected pastor either (a) retires or (b) gets “the call” to go elsewhere. Pastors can do the latter for a number of reasons, some of them good, others not so much.
On one hand, a pastor may have reached the point where he has outlived his usefulness at a particular church. In a perfect world, this would never happen, but–in case you didn’t get the memo–we do not live in such a world. At some churches, it’s a given: their niche is for the training of itinerant pastors. I know of churches in rural Kentucky that are like that: seminary students preach there every Sunday and Wednesday, and they cycle in a new one every couple years. These are typically very small churches who cannot afford to have a full-time pastor.
OTOH, I’d have to admit that I share Dee’s skepticism. When a pastor gets a “call” to go elsewhere, it’s almost never a call to preach at a smaller church; oh noes: it’s almost always a “call” to a larger church that is paying more money and offering more perks. I’ve often observed that today’s “ministry” is more like a corporate ladder: get a 4-year degree, go to seminary and get an MDiv (and maybe even a DMin or PhD or ThD), then take on small-ball ministerial gigs. If you manage to speak well, not piss off the wrong people, you will progress to medium and then larger churches where the sky is the limit.
That’s a very corrosive culture, and the Church is worse for it.
(3) Closure or decline of a major employer. I would have labeled this Economic decline of the area. Yes, this can be a big deal, particularly in a town where there is one or two major employers and plants start getting shut down.
Sometimes, this can happen over time, however.
I was one a part of a church that experienced such a decline over a couple decades. In the early 1900s through the WWII era, they were in the prime part of town and church attendance was booming. But as a tobacco plants and distilleries began to cut jobs and then eventually close altogether, families moved out. And then the government housing projects moved in, and more families moved out. This dynamic impacted every church in that area. Even the prominent black church–which was a mile away from my church–moved out, as they didn’t even want anything to do with the decaying community.
I used to run outside after church on Sundays in that area. Today, I would be an idiot to do that.
(4) The Church changes its position on a Biblical/moral issue. While Dee focuses on churches that fell victim to what I call “NeoCon hijackings”, I will attest to what Rainer is describing: churches that embrace liberalism or reject conservatism. I know of churches that have bolted the SBC, not because of their coverups of abuses (that would be a good reason) but rather their conservatism. These are churches that endorse homosexuality, abortion, communist economics, and a lower view of Biblical authority.
I also know of churches that bolted the Presbyterian Church USA due to their liberalism. The PCUSA has embraced the pro-gay, pro-abortion, anything goes paradigm that is common in mainline protestant circles. As a result, many PCUSA churches have jumped ship and joined forces with the more conservative PCA and OPC.
When churches depart from Biblical standards, it should lead to a serious disruption in attendance.
(5) A power group continues to wreak havoc in the church. Like Dee, I see the importance of such groups, as they can often be a defense against those who (unwisely) would take the church in any direction that might seem popular at the time. They can also be a defense against a pastor whose wisdom has not kept pace with his charisma.
OTOH, what Rainer is describing is a whole ‘nother insidious dynamic: where you can’t take a restroom break without consulting with that “power group.” Such churches often have committees, often dominated by the same people, who obstruct almost everything, and are resistant to even the most benign change.
Such churches can become graveyards for pastors. My church was started because a group of folks was run out of a church by a “power group”.
(6) Another church moves close by. Unless that other church is a megachurch or very large church with similar theology, that is not as much of a factor. If people are leaving your church for the New Church In Town, then they’re probably doing you a favor.
(7) A highly-contentious business meeting. I’ve seen this dynamic, and I place the blame mostly on the pastors on this one. Sometimes, these are the work of insidious “power groups”, but I’ve mostly seen this done by pastors who seek to foist very divisive plans on the church.
Sometimes, it is a “relocation” proposal, which is very difficult and sometimes is done for all the wrong reasons.
Sometimes, that involves an initiative that requires big financial commitment. Again, that is very difficult and sometimes done for all the wrong reasons.
I’ve seen pastors press their churches to add a gymnasium (aka, a “Family Life Center”) and put the church into big debt that they could not sustain. I’ve seen pastors attempt–in spite of all wisdom to the contrary–to relocate their churches, and fail badly.
In other cases, as Dee points out, you have churches where pastors, often with a NeoCal bent, seek to foist a whole new form of church government (“elder-led”) and church membership (“covenant membership”) on parishioners. Of course, such meetings will be contentious, and people will leave (this time for good reasons).