After Death, Resurrection

DIOCESAN POST, MAY 2009

The Reverend Dr. Gary Nicolosi

The Reverend Dr. Gary Nicolosi

The churches in our diocese will have to die in order to live. Dying doesn’t necessarily mean going out of business, but it does mean dying to our long-established way of doing church, to our obsessive attachment to buildings, to our reluctance to partner with other churches in ministry, to our resistance to merge with churches when clearly our own congregation is no longer viable, to our refusal to recognize that our church no longer has a critical mass to attract new people, to our desire to do our own thing and go our own way when as a diocesan family we are called to common mission.


After Death, Resurrection
by The Reverend Dr. Gary Nicolosi

the-reverend-dr-gary-nicolosi2Several years ago my wife Heather and I were having breakfast with a newly-elected bishop from the Province of Ontario. He was determined to turnaround his declining diocese. For over thirty years his once proud diocese had been losing members. Now the rate of decline was building momentum. Churches that once were thriving were now almost empty. As an example, the bishop mentioned that he had seven churches in one part of the city, but that he expected to close four of them

Heather and I looked at each other stunned by what we were hearing. We knew this area well. It was a highly populated part of a city with many high rises, single family homes, markets, stores and schools. One of the churches the bishop wanted to close was once bustling with young families. We couldn’t believe this church now had to close, but the bishop assured us that he had no other choice.

As we left breakfast that morning, Heather turned to me and said, “The bishop is a good man, but I think it is too late. If he had been the bishop twenty years ago, there might have been a chance to turn things around. But the diocese is too far gone to revive it now.”

Recently I was back in that diocese to give a lecture. The situation that had been bad ten years ago was even worse now. Churches had fewer members, and the members they had were older. And while there were lots of new housing developments with young families and children, few of those families were part of any Anglican church. What I could never have imagined when I was in divinity school was now happening – some of the strongest churches in the most heavily populated part of Canada were in decline

What is happening here? To put it simply, there is a lifecycle to every organization, including churches. Congregations (and dioceses) are born, grow, mature, decline and die.

In the embryonic stage, a congregation comes to life. Take a church plant, for example. People involved in the plant are enthusiastic about the future. There is energy, passion and drive as the church begins to take form and reach out to people. There is a lot of risk-taking in this stage. People do crazy things to insure the success of the new church.

Eventually the congregation moves into a growth stage. As the church takes root in the community, it begins to grow in numbers. Worship, programs and need-meeting ministries draw people. Money never seems to be a problem because morale is high and mission is strong. The church is forward-looking and future-oriented.

When the congregation remains intentional about growth, it resists becoming complacent. It refuses to settle for the status quo. It strives for excellence and avoids mediocrity in its ministries and programming. It constantly recreates itself, never allowing its way of being church to become fossilized and stale. It maintains a readiness to change in response to a changing world. It engages in continual renewal, always seeking to innovate, to improve the quality of its ministry, to respond to the needs of people, moving, in Jim Collins’ famous phrase, “from good to great.”

However, when the congregation succumbs to its own success and fails to continually renew, it begins to stagnate. Membership starts to plateau. Growth starts to cease. Complacency sets in among the members. Mediocrity and poor leadership are tolerated. People get comfortable with the status quo. Innovation and new ventures in ministry get resisted. Excessive reliance on endowments, reserves and rental income begins to offset the lack of pledges. To longtime members, the church may still look and feel sound, but it is beginning to live on borrowed time.

As years of complacency take its toll, the congregation starts to decline. At first, the decline may not seem very serious: budget shortfalls, fewer pledges, a drop in average Sunday worship attendance, fewer children in the church school, and increasing difficulty in recruiting volunteers. No one panics, but eventually the downward spiral begins to build momentum. Numbers fall off dramatically, money becomes increasingly tight, much needed building maintenance gets deferred, endowments and reserves are invaded and then shrink, and staffing is reduced to the barebones. Ministries are cut back and the mission of the church becomes survival.

The declining congregation finally gets to the point of no return – when the only option left is death. It is at this point that the church faces its greatest decision: What kind of death will it be – the death of extinction or the death that leads to resurrection?

Christians are an Easter people. We do not believe that death leads to extinction but to new life in Christ. What is true of us personally is no less true of our congregations.

The churches in our diocese will have to die in order to live. Dying doesn’t necessarily mean going out of business, but it does mean dying to our long-established way of doing church, to our obsessive attachment to buildings, to our reluctance to partner with other churches in ministry, to our resistance to merge with churches when clearly our own congregation is no longer viable, to our refusal to recognize that our church no longer has a critical mass to attract new people, to our desire to do our own thing and go our own way when as a diocesan family we are called to common mission.

I remember a Lutheran church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania that was founded to minister to Latvians. The minister spoke Latvian. The worship was in Latvian. The church flourished so long as a Latvian population remained in South Bethlehem, but eventually most of the members moved away and the area around the church began to be filled with Hispanics. Since by this time everyone in the congregation spoke fluent English, the Lutheran bishop asked the congregation to commit to becoming a Spanish-English church, calling a Spanish-speaking pastor who would conduct two worship services: one in English and one in Spanish. The congregants gathered and debated the bishop’s proposal, and then rejected it. They would rather die than change. Within a year, the church was closed and the property sold. For that Latvian church, death meant extinction.

Another story: in Rochester, New York there were two Episcopal churches: one was a predominantly black church, the other predominantly white. The black church flourished. In fact, it grew so large that it needed more space to conduct its extensive seven-day-a-week ministries. The white church, although blessed with significant financial resources and a beautiful, well-maintained historic church building, had fewer and fewer members over the years. The bishop proposed that the black and white churches merge, using the white church campus but having the black church Rector as the new Rector with the white church Rector as the assistant. Both congregations enthusiastically accepted the proposal. The churches merged, and today it is a healthy, prosperous, centercity church serving people of all races and ethnic backgrounds. From death came resurrection and new life.

Two churches, two stories, but with different outcomes: There is a lesson here for the churches in our diocese.

Will we choose the death of extinction or the death of resurrection?

Will we die to change so we can live again, or will we refuse to change and die to extinction?

Time is running out.

Which will it be?


The Reverend Dr. Gary Nicolosi is the Congregational Development Officer,
Diocese of British Columbia

Leave a Reply