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There is no end to clichés and easy assumptions about congregational health and vitality. It's much easier to start a new church than turn around an old one; nondenominational churches are growing, while denominational churches are dying; small-membership churches are concerned only with survival; suburban churches care only about endless programming and "spiritual entertainment"; downtown churches are doomed to decay.
Whatever kernel of truth such analyses might contain, they miss the actual point. Churches stagnate, decline, and die for a number of reasons, but principally because they have forgotten who they are. They have forgotten their mission to reach out to those who do not know God in Christ. They have forgotten that we worship--not to feel comfortable and safe--but to come into the presence of a God who leads us out into the world. They have forgotten the "cloud of witnesses" who have gone before us in the Christian faith, providing models for how we can proclaim the message of the gospel in ways that new generations can hear it.
Paul Nixon calls this failure of memory "spiritual amnesia." Concerned with institutional survival and personal comfort, congregations have forgotten what previous generations of Christians have learned time and again: that the church's great challenge is to make the gospel available in new and compelling ways to those who need most to hear it. In a series of sweeping insights into congregational life and contemporary culture, Nixon maps a course that will help churches remember who they are and for whom they exist.
PAUL NIXON is Director of Congregational Development for the Alabama-West Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church, focusing on the creation and revitalization of churches and ministries.