The Shrinking Dreams: America & Church


The Shrinking Dollar by frankieloen –

In her recent article in The Atlantic, Marianne Cooper considered data from a number of recent surveys before concluding that “people are downsizing their definition of the American dream.” More specifically, she notes that “the desire to own a home or to move up economically is often replaced by a desire to be debt free and to have financial stability.”

What Next?

Cooper rightly suggests that this general shift in perspective is likely to have many long term negative consequences as people are so focused on just maintaining what they have that they will become increasingly unlikely to take risks or invest the funds needed to secure a brighter future.

So What?

The shrinking American dream has clearly impacted the dreams many local communities of faith have as well.  The dominant perspective in all churches has been aligned with the dominant view of the American dream during my lifetime.  The shift toward the new view that maintaining what a congregation has or trying to lose as little of that standing (membership, budget, real estate, etc.) as possible is troubling for the present and disturbing for the future.

In changing Cooper’s language  from what individuals do to what individual churches do, I am left with the following:

Churches stop making investments in leadership development; they delay or give up on marketing and outreach; they stop buying (or building) real estate and stop caring as well as they should for the buildings they already have; they are less likely to take entrepreneurial risks; and they defer their dreams, often indefinitely.

It is time that we name this shift for what it is: unacceptable. As soon as a congregation starts focusing more on getting by than discerning and living into God’s unique purpose for their shared life, it has plateaued and should expect to decline.  Churches have never been called to maintain buildings or the status quo.

Churches are called to something much bigger and far different than any type of nationalistic hope or dream. Churches are called to make real God’s realm on the earth as it is in heaven.  Churches are called to participate in the dream of God.  Churches are called to minister to all people (not simply focus on the needs of members).  Churches are called to make a difference.

  • Does your church suffer from a shrinking dream that leads folks to focus more on maintaining than on moving forward and taking the risks associated with big dreams or is your church outreach minded and future directed? Share some of the reasons that support your answer.
  • What is your congregation’s mission? vision? purpose? How closely aligned to those dreams are the ministries you know the most about or are personally involved in?


  1. I draw a different moral from this economic data. Seems to me that this is a time when the church should focus *more* on the needs of members, who may be too ashamed to admit they are struggling. Instead they get weekly guilt trips from the pulpit about putting in more volunteer hours, contributing more to the capital campaign, etc., when they may be working every waking hour to make ends meet.

  2. Jendi, I think your call for churches to accurately assess then meet members (and other active participants) where they are is very much in line with the Way of Jesus! Wise words.

  3. Churches are literally entering a new space. We haven’t been here before. This isn’t merely fatigue or resignation, though some of that is here. It’s a nowhere land generated in response to a new cultural reality.

  4. Len, yes, indeed this is a new space and we are entering a newly forming/re-forming word. At the same time, we must always be somewhere and willing to commit the resources needed to discern where God is calling a given community of faith next, then the energy (and resources) to move in that direction. Risk taking will always be needed on some level.

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