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hope for churches in stress

Schoolhouse 1884

A week ago, six church leaders met at a schoolhouse, built in 1884, in the final stages of restoration. Their aim was to share insights gained in work with churches that are declining, stalled, or distressed. Some of the insights that emerged included these:

  • The Covid pandemic has prompted innovation in the church and revealed hearts. One projection is that as many as ⅓ of former attenders will reshuffle to another church or will not return at all.

  • Churches can capitalize on technology deployed during the pandemic, whether a single smart phone or major upgrades. First-time guests used to come to churches through the front door; now they come through social media.

  • Every church is different. Pastors and lay leaders need to assess the demographics, circumstances, and community before considering remedies. One size doesn’t fit all.

  • To practice “the art of neighboring,” churches can ask three questions: Who are we? Who are our neighbors? What are the points of intersection between us? In this way, we can build relational bridges that open the way to witness and service.

  • During the pandemic, some churches focused on “micro-gatherings.” One-to-one conversations, small cohorts, and geographic clusters can all be used effectively to train and encourage leaders and workers in the church.

  • Change creates new neural pathways in our minds. In a similar way, as churches practice finding new pathways forward, they become more flexible and adaptable.

  • In tough church circumstances, the best counsel may be: just do something, anything! Once a church is in motion, an initial project can lead to even more fruitful initiatives.

  • Working for change can take a toll, physically, emotionally, and relationally. In the midst of catalytic endeavors, we must find ways to take care of ourselves.

Schoolhouse 1884 is being remodeled by Erisman Mennonite Church (Manheim, PA) as a new venue for ministry. The six church leaders who met there saw this historic, now refurbished, schoolhouse as a metaphor of the Lord’s care for churches under duress:

“For the Lord comforts Zion; he comforts all her waste places and makes her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song” (Isaiah 51:3).


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