Youngstown Ohio: A Parable for the Church

The Planet Money blog offered up this recent NPR story about Youngstown, Ohio, a town that has suffered in recent years from a shrinking population and diminishing economic opportunities.

The town cast about for various ideas to save it, to get it growing again:

Youngstown was going to replace the steel industry with a car factory. Or with a NASCAR racetrack, or a riverboat casino. Maybe a blimp factory out by the airport.

"That was the mentality," says Mayor Jay Williams. "It was grasping for straws. If you came in with what seemed to be an even marginally viable economic idea, there was a rush to make that the thing that was going to save Youngstown."

Where have I heard this story before? Ah yes... Our church needs a praise band! We need a shiny young minister! We need parenting classes to bring in those families with children that will save our church! Forget the fact that there were no young families nearby, and/or the population as a whole is declining in the neighborhood around the church.

To the credit of Youngstown's leadership, it finally decided to stop searching for the silver bullet that would solve all their problems. Instead, they are rejecting the "most fundamental assumption of economic development and city planning": that a city should always be growing.

Instead, Youngstown is trying to remake itself into a smaller town. Those old homes that nobody's going to move back to? Demolished by the hundreds. With the closing of entire neighborhoods, garbage collection and other city services can be consolidated. And the few folks left behind in mostly abandoned neighborhoods are offered financial assistance to move to more populous areas within the city.

Though the Youngstown leadership might not put it this way, the message is clear: We are a community of people. We are more than our industries (what we do) and buildings (where we do it). Again, the parallels to church are obvious. Perhaps leaders of churches that have plateaued or are in decline don't necessarily need to close up shop tomorrow, but maybe they need to admit that the pews won't ever be filled again and (gasp!) remove some. Or (big gasp!) sell the building. Or maybe there needs to be some realistic expectations of the "services" members can expect to receive from the clergy. A part-time pastor will not be able to do everything that a full-time pastor did. (Yes, in case it wasn't clear, I'm comparing the pastor to the garbage collector.)

As you can imagine, there is resistance. Some folks would rather stay in the homes they've lived in for 50 years, surrounded by dozens and dozens of empty homes, than pick up and move a mile or two away. (I am picturing a smattering of churchfolk in a large building, sitting one person to a pew.)

So the process is messy, and slow. But I applaud the effort.

Growth is a tricky thing in the church. I do think we've become enamored of the same capitalist models that held Youngstown captive for so long. On the other hand, we are called to be evangelistic people. (I heard some grumbling this week about Rob Bell's new book on heaven and hell, and even did some myself. We've been talking about this stuff in the mainline for years and never made it onto Good Morning America. Yeah, and his book is #5 on Amazon and ours aren't, so maybe we need to do some soul-searching on why we've been having so much trouble getting the word out about a message that is clearly so compelling that people are flocking to this book in droves. As a fellow traveler in the way of Jesus, I am overjoyed that people are gravitating to the message of radical grace, and think we mainline folks need to keep our annoyance in check that people didn't choose to play for our intramural team.)

And I'm going to be honest: the fact that we are growing at Tiny Church is a source of relief for almost everyone, especially the leadership. We are small, but we do not have one foot in the grave. We recognize that we can't do things the way we've always done them and expect that to be compelling to a new generation; we understand that the culture is changing rapidly around us; but we're approaching these questions from a position of strength. This is a blessing. (It's also a challenge---how does one create a sense of urgency when everything's muddling along pretty well? Why do we need to do anything different if we're growing? But that's a post for another day.)

The growth question is sticky, but I agree with George Bullard, who emphasizes kingdom growth, which is not the same as church growth (see #6 in the link). The transformation training our church is engaged in talks about growing one's ministry capacity. That can happen through additional members. But it can also happen through a greater sense of depth and excitement among the folks who are there. And it can happen when churches free themselves from having to maintain large buildings, which can become a money pit for small membership congregations. (I once heard of a pastor of a small church with a large expensive building who semi-seriously prayed it would burn to the ground, it was such a burden.)

I wish the Youngstown, Ohio the best. I will be curious to see how it all works out.