Failing Church Syndrome

In his book Kitchen Confidential, the late Anthony Bourdain describes a phenomenon that he calls “Failing Restaurant Syndrome:”

I began to see, for the first time, what I would later recognize as Failing Restaurant Syndrome, an affliction that causes owners to flail about looking for a quick fix, a masterstroke that will “turn things around”, reverse the already irreversible trend toward insolvency. We tried New Orleans Brunch – complete with Dixieland band. We tried a prix fixe menu, a Sunday night buffet, we advertised and we hired a publicist. Each successive brainstorm was more counterproductive than the one before.

When the paychecks started bouncing, and the vendors started to put us on COD (cash on delivery), the owners called in the restaurant consultants. Even then, we knew what that meant: the consultants usually arrive just ahead of the repo men and the marshals. It was the death knell. We had tried. We had failed.

As with other industries and institutions, there is likely no single thing that contributes to a restaurant failing. However, Bourdain describes a series of increasingly desperate moves to try to save something that the owners know is in trouble. This stance of desperation will cause an entity to fling gimmick after gimmick at the wall, hoping that something will stick and magically turn everything around.

Naturally, of course, reading about Failing Restaurant Syndrome inspired me to think about the church version.

A congregation senses that things are not the way they used to be, and they realize they are faced with a choice of how to proceed. One option is to act out of that same sense of desperation and throw together something (or a series of somethings) they hope resembles the successful programs of other churches and will achieve the same results.

One of the many problems with this thinking is a lack of understanding of why those programs work elsewhere. Churches in this mode rarely do the deeper work of laying the groundwork for the congregation to get onboard, researching the logistics of what they want to do, or adapting the model to best fit their context.

Furthermore, the passion for the activity may be misplaced: not for the new activity they think they must do, but rather for the results they think it will surely bring. For instance, does a church really have a strong desire to establish a new worship service with modern music, or do they just have a strong desire for young people and think this is what will attract them? Does a church feel a genuine urge to establish a weekly “pub theology” group, or do they have a strong desire to seem cool and hip to people they wish to attract?

Intent is a significant piece of whether a new initiative will last.

Granted, there are churches that feel a deep, genuine call to establish new ministries. Maybe they do lay the groundwork, do the research, and adapt according to who they are. These are marks of a church acting out of a sense of purpose and identity that isn’t merely “get new people and more money.” They are acting out of a knowledge that they need to change to minister in a new time and changing landscape, but doing so out of a self-awareness of who they are.

Churches are called to faithfulness rather than desperation, and intention rather than quick fixes. Maybe the new attempt will work and maybe it won’t, but careful and prayerful discernment will make lapsing into Failing Church Syndrome less likely.

2 thoughts on “Failing Church Syndrome

  1. My advice to churches that are headed toward failure or failing is to open portals to the Divine by creating programs that do not tend to their personal needs, but to the needs of those listed by Jesus in Matthew 25: 31–46. When that’s done Christ always appears. Always. An example is in this week’s Lectionary lesson — about the Road to Emmaus– it’s not the visions of angels by folowers, or great study of text or even Jesus walking along side that brings about an experience of Christ on hte road ot Emmaus, it’s the hospitality to a stranger that allows Christ to be experiecnced in the breaking of the bread. The Body of Christ is resurrected when tended to in the least among us. A church that intentionally does that faithfully, has the best chance of animating the Body of Christ corporately. Plus that tending to the well-being of others is the love we are called to provide regardless. Thanks for your ministry Rev. Nelson!


  2. All well and good. Reminded me of an article in Living Lutheran (Mar 22). Noted was a shift from a so-called Age of Association (churches, service club etc. to what Charles Taylor calls the Age of Authenticity, emphasizing personal choices, values and identity. Local churches are, among other factors, dealing with a powerful change in culture and the usual means of renewal, as per your blog, is not addressing this shift. What’s needed a re-visioning of how to manifest the gospel outside of the usual institutional setting. Sharing the gospel and making disciples without the comfort of the institution seems pretty daunting. Is anyone writing about this? I haven’t an answer for this. It’s why I retired early.


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