What can we learn from America’s cities?

Many of the country’s urban centers are struggling but others have found ways to revitalize. That may offer models for congregations.

By Bill Wilson

Imagine a community in steady decline. There are fewer and fewer people and revenues are declining. Young families, especially, are missing. There is a constant chorus of longing to return to the good old days. A sense of dread about the future pervades and hope seems in short supply. People become increasingly cynical and jaded about the future.

Without a compelling vision for the future, conflicts become normative as people become self-protective and self-focused. Attempts to cast a fresh vision are met with indifference or outright resistance. Leadership becomes opaque and keeps secrets about decisions and processes. A loosely organized group of those who have been alienated emerges as the installed leaders ostracize and demean those who disagree with them. Public meetings dissolve into angry shouting matches that leave many with bruised feelings. Layoffs and bankruptcy often result.

Sound familiar?

What I’ve just described is a version of the decline and fall of several cities in the United States. In the last few years, we have seen cities like Birmingham, Detroit, Harrisburg, Pa., and Stockton, Calif., declare bankruptcy. Others (Cincinnati, San Diego, Honolulu, Chicago) teeter on the edge.

Reading the detailed stories in each case is a demoralizing experience. While the causes and paths into failure are complex, the end results are a sad commentary on some of the great cities in our nation.

Interestingly, the scenario described above very closely mirrors a common story for congregations of every stripe and flavor across America. Read through that description again and notice how much of that scenario relates directly to the conversations congregational leaders are having.

Some project that as many as one in four established congregations in America will not survive past 2030. The failure rate for new church plants is even higher. Are there lessons for church leaders from the experiences of these cities?

There is learning for us in the failures, of course. However, I choose to focus my attention on a different group of cities. Think about some of the cities that have undergone massive and challenging shifts in industry, production or population and emerged stronger and more vibrant. Some that come to mind include Pittsburgh, Greenville, S.C., and Raleigh N.C.

I recently heard someone make a quick comparison between the fate of Detroit and Pittsburgh. Both faced the collapse of the primary employment base (automobiles in Detroit and steel in Pittsburgh). We know the sad state of Detroit, but would do well to pay attention to the signs of emerging life in Pittsburgh. Retooling and refocusing became the normal operating procedure for the city. The population has stabilized and the city was recently named one of the world’s most livable cities.

Greenville faced a similar challenge when the textile industry collapsed in the last quarter of the 20th century. Investing in new foreign industries (BMW, Michelin, etc.), the local economy stabilized and vibrant renewal began in the downtown area.

Raleigh’s Research Triangle has revolutionized the city and surrounding area as technology and innovation now define the city internationally.

What are lessons congregations might glean from the experiences of these and other cities? Here are a few:

1. The future is going to be different than the past. The sooner we accept that and embrace it, the more likely we are to survive and thrive.
2. Vision is essential. Leaders must be able to see beyond immediate needs and demands.
3. Sacrifice is normative. Each success story is marked by their leadership and general population being willing to make sacrifices. Sometimes it was financial, sometimes it was convenience and sometimes it was a willingness to forsake safety for the unknown.
4. The future visioning process never ends. People describing and dreaming about what is yet to come mark every success story.
5. Collaboration is more than a nice-sounding word. Truly valuing and working with others marks these successes.
6. Homogeneous communities learn to embrace the idea that differences are a gift.

As interesting as it might be to think about lessons from American cities, our best lessons come from the God of the Bible and the Kingdom described in the life of Jesus. When we find ourselves in a season of challenge, remember that each of the six lessons above is actually a principle from the pages of Scripture. God’s people have always known that following Christ demands hope, vision, sacrifice, consistency, community and unity.

As you face an uncertain future at your church, look around you for examples of others who have met challenges and turned them into opportunities for success. Then, in humble devotion to the God of possibilities, go and do likewise.

OPINION: Views expressed in ABPnews/Herald columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.