Zombie Congregations

Okay, right off the bat let me say, my intention here is not to offend anyone (which means I am pretty sure I will offend someone…)  What started me thinking about this was a church sign I passed where, I believe, someone made a rather amusing mistake.  The sign read, “Dead inside?  You belong here!” 

Zombies — by definition — are lifeless corpses that continue to function in an imitation of life, generally doing more damage than good.  They are frightening, and if George Romero is to be believed, they seek one thing — to feed upon the living.  Unfortunately, this is not an unfair metaphor for a number of mainline Protestant churches.  Check the list: lifeless, going through the motions, trying to get new people upon which to feed.  It is a pretty stark, but accurate description of a number of decaying churches.

In The United Methodist Church, over 50% of our congregations are in some sort of decline — much of it serious.  I believe these congregations can be divided into five basic categories:

  1. declining but doing very good work
  2. declining but maintaining the status quo
  3. declining but losing focus and no longer making a positive impact
  4. declining and struggling to survive
  5. declining and waiting to close

It is churches in the last three categories that I want to address.  It is an almost universal belief of churches in the last three categories that the solution to all their problems is “new blood.”  New members, young families, youth, children, young adults — the list goes on and on.  If only these “new” people would miraculously appear the church would have a bright new future.  On the surface, this makes sense, but on deeper inspection there are some serious flaws to such reasoning.

  1. New people = change.  One of the main contributing factors to the zombification of a congregation is the inability to change, adapt, or accept new/different ideas.  Look at any depiction of a zombie — they are stiff, inflexible, and slow to change direction.  New people are unlikely to be drawn to a congregation resistant to change.
  2. New people threaten the status quo.  Zombies hang out together, and they look and act very much alike.  They only attack those who are different (i.e., those filled with life, energy, and imagination).  Many of our congregations say “we want new people” when they really mean is “we want more people exactly like us.”
  3. New people are disruptive.  Pity the poor zombies, shambling along, minding their own business, when along come these cocky living people shooting them in the head and shoving them out of the way.  New people come into congregations seeking action, engagement, and meaningful activity.  They immediately “rock the boat,” challenging traditions, wanting to try new things, and questioning the established order.  Existing members often begin to feel like an endangered species.
  4. New people shift the focus.  Zombies are pretty single-minded.  They do the same things over and over.  They’re not very good at sharing.  They are territorial.  When new people move in there is an immediate battle for resources.  Many congregations are only willing to welcome new people as long as no cost or sacrifice is required.
  5. New people have rights.  Zombies don’t respect personal space.  They’re not known for being fair, reasonable, compassionate, or considerate.  They tend to be pushy, aggressive, and demanding.  The living have very little desire to spend time around such behaviors.  You get the church parallel…

The metaphor breaks down significantly at this point — zombies can’t change, congregations can.  Congregations can work on flexibility and acceptance.  They can develop practices of radical hospitality.  They can increase their tolerance to disruption and discomfort.  They can improve their emotional and social intelligence, becoming more respectful, more accommodating, and more inviting.  They can work on creating strong relationships within the existing community by naming and addressing bad behaviors, while cultivating grace-filled behaviors.  They can act to counter the debilitating attitudes, practices, and prejudices that exert such a deadly influence on the community of faith.  No congregation has to tolerate the death and decay of the zombie way.  It calls to mind the teaching of the Deuteronomist:  

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.  If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life so that you and your descendants may live…” (Deuteronomy 30:15-16, 19-20)

4 replies

  1. I pastor a 2-point charge in central Indiana and can relate to this all too well. One of the congregations fits category 4 (declining and struggling to survive) and the second fits category 5 (declining and waiting to close). It is very frustrating to me to have a God-vision for what we are called to be and trying to transition these congregations to a missional/incarnational ministry. They don’t want it! After 4 years I’m about ready to move on.

  2. Great stuff. As a United Methodist I sometimes feel that I am in a movie like 28 Days Later 🙂

    I am a layleader of a small downtown Indianapolis UMC that has gone through a de-Zombie-izing. It took three years and wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars and was a terrible process. A few of us stuck it out and learned much along the way and now we are a totally different type of place. we are still small and have a long way to go but i am still excited about the future.

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