September 2019
Mobilizing our Assets for Mission

Nostalgia Is a Disease

“We need to bring in families with young children.” Every struggling church recites this mantra. It’s no surprise. They are shrinking and graying and face a painful choice, change or die.

Unfortunately, it is not as simple as attracting a single demographic. Reversing systemic decline can be just as long and complex as the factors that contributed to it. Seismic shifts in our culture and technology have affected church attendance and participation across the denominational spectrum.

Out-dated standards for success

Businesses and other institutions have managed to adapt to these same changes and trends, often reinventing themselves in the process. Yet church leaders continue to hold themselves to models and standards of success that haven’t been viable for decades. For example, Sunday morning worship should be full. There should be a large choir and an organist. The church school should be thriving, because what family would choose soccer over church? There should be dozens of ministries and plenty of retirees who each give ten hours a week to the altar guild or finance committee. A successful parish should be self-contained and self-sufficient and replenish its membership through births, as opposed to evangelism.

Today, that same once-thriving church has just a fraction of the people and money it had formerly. An ever-shrinking group of volunteers is trying to balance the demands of multiple ministries, unable to let any one of them go. They may have some of those coveted families with young children, but they only attend once a month so it is impossible to get to the critical mass needed for an organized church school. Yet despite limited resources, they are held captive by nostalgia and continue to define success only in terms of the lofty standards of the past.

Sweat is a play set in Reading, Pennsylvania. It chronicles the gradual collapse of a thriving blue-collar town into what became the poorest city in America. The story revolves around a factory and the people who work there. As the plant slashes wages and brings in non-union labor, the whole community is thrown into chaos and conflict. Some want to fight, while others are willing to accept the loss of pay and pension. With the strike and lockout come inevitable hardships, and although people do their best to stand together, inevitably friendships come unraveled. It is an incredibly powerful commentary on some of the forces that have shaped our current political landscape. Yet out of all that moved and troubled me, there was one line that truly stood out, “Nostalgia is a disease.”

Breaking out of the nostalgia trap

As Episcopalians our past helps define us. Our traditions, liturgy and hymns are part of who we are. Yet the past can also imprison us, cutting us off from new possibilities. This is where I and other staff members at the Diocese of Pennsylvania offer help. By reframing the situation, we help congregations break free from the yoke of nostalgia and redefine what it means to be “successful” as a parish.

Letting go of institutions and practices that are no longer effective can be painful, but it is also liberating. Ending the annual Fondue Festival may be hard, but it may also be a relief to volunteers who felt they had no choice but to keep it going, even though it attracts just a fraction of the people it used to in its heyday. What once brought life now imprisons.

Look inward and then out to the community for God’s call today

It is only by letting go of those past notions of what a church “should” be and do, that our parishes can begin to consider who God is calling them to be now. Such a fundamental shift usually begins by taking stock of ourselves. Who are we – not in fantasy or memory – but in reality? What are our needs? What are we really able to do and do well?

The next step is to look outwards to the surrounding community. Who lives there? What are their needs? What does the church have to offer them? Meaningfully connecting with neighbors must be part of any parish’s identity and mission. Therefore, it is often helpful to compile and analyze demographic information from Executive Insite and Datastory. While there is no substitute for building relationships face-to-face, good data can give a vestry a place to start identifying opportunities for ministry.

But churches want more than just data. They want proof that a parish like theirs can actually turn things around. Therefore, whether they are drawn from written articles or from my own experience, real-life examples are one of the most powerful tools I have to offer. They not only provide inspiration, they offer hope.

Once church leaders have been reoriented, encouraged and equipped with information about their community, the next step is to enter into prayerful conversation to discern a new sense of identity and call. I like to come back after the vestry has had some time to reflect and then help them articulate that.

While this process can mean crafting a new mission and vision statement, what really matters is that they articulate one or two missional priorities. They don’t have to be huge. It is often better to identify something modest yet achievable, rather than attempt some grand gesture. One new ministry or small success can be the catalyst that energizes the congregation and creates a meaningful connection in the community. This, in turn, can help lead more people to the church, creating new life and energy.

Of course, there is no guarantee that a new endeavor will ultimately work out – but as my bishop, Daniel Gutiérrez, is fond of saying, “we should be failing often, so long as we fail early and fail cheap.”

Sometimes that new idea doesn’t succeed. If it doesn’t, then we go back and discern again what God may be calling us to do.

Navigating all this change and venturing out into the unknown is hard. We are so rooted in the past that it can be difficult to let go, even when we know that the way we have always been doing it is no longer working. At such times it is important to remember that Jesus had no time for nostalgia. Instead, Christ calls us out of bondage into freedom and through the grace of God, despair and stagnation can give way to hope and possibility.

Jesus offers us the new wine. It is up to us to help reshape our churches into new wineskins so that we may share his Gospel freely and fully with the world around us.

Kirk Berlenbach serves as Canon for Growth and Support in the Diocese of Pennsylvania. He works with congregations to help shift their focus outward to the community, connect with people who might not otherwise attend, and make the best and fullest use of their buildings. A veteran of parish ministry, he was also heavily involved in Diocesan governance and the boards of a number of community nonprofits. Prior to parish ministry he worked in behavioral health and in hospital and hospice chaplaincy. He loves reading, music, gardening, cooking, craft beer and studies Aikido. He is happily married with three children in college. You can follow him @canonkirk and read some of his musings at


This article is part of the September 2019 Vestry Papers issue on Mobilizing our Assets for Mission