The good news is that every church has the option as to how it will change or whether it will resist change altogether. The church must choose to embrace either evolutionary change, revolutionary change, or accept attrition. Each option involves pain. Like change, pain in inevitable. Of course churches can choose not to choose, but no decision is always a “no” decision that leads to accepting the slow death of attrition.
On the right side of the chart that represents the life cycle of a church, there is a period between the time when the congregation peaked and before it drops below the level of sustainability when it has the option to embrace intentional, evolutionary change. This type of change usually comes about as leaders engage in a serious strategic planning process, clarify the mission, values, and vision of the congregation and take focused steps to achieve what they believe God is calling them to do and be. This process takes months, sometimes years, to be fully embraced by the existing congregation.
Because the pace of change is slower the intensity of the pain endured by the congregation is lessened but spread out over a longer period of time. The good news is that this pain is endurable by most healthy congregations and is seen as more of an annoyance than as a devastating occurrence. The bad news is that this period of evolutionary change can provide the climate when those who are unhealthy can use the discomfort caused by the change as a time to exhibit negativity and dissatisfaction with the pastor or lay leadership. Threats will be issued and, if tolerated, the change can be fought and even thwarted by the “back to Egypt committee” that exists in every congregation.
Another threat is that rather than embracing change at this stage the congregation can simply attempt to do what its always done, and just do it better. The simple definition of organizational insanity is doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results. Rather than accepting change, this is a stalling technique that will cause distress and distrust later on.
Congregations that fully engage in this level of change do their homework. They seek out other churches that have made it through the “valley of the shadow of death” and get coaching to assist them in making strategic changes. They resist the urge to keep spinning their wheels and begin to align all of their ministries around their mission and core values. They eliminate everything that distracts them from doing what they are uniquely called to do for the Kingdom of God. They endure the pain because they realize that short term sacrifice will lead to eternal rewards.
As time passes the church begins to teeter on the brink if unsustainability. Finances get shaky, staff gets reduced, and ministries get eliminated due to funding constraints. Usually, about this time, there is a precipitating crisis or two that causes significant loss to the membership and worship attendance, further restricting both personnel and financial resources available for ministry. Serious soul searching occurs and it is usually at this time that the church leadership decides its time for revolutionary change in hopes of preserving the historic witness of the congregation and helping it survive.
Even though the pain with revolutionary processes is shorter in duration it is severe in intensity. If the congregation is unwilling to endure the pain it will not make the change and it will return to the level of progressive decline, usually blaming the pastor, or the community, or some other force beyond its control rather than accepting responsibility for its self-determination. Conflict arises over the mission, vision, and values of the congregation as “sides” are choses and jockeying for influence occurs. Attempts at building unity occur but as the church drops below the level of sustainability factions become more concerned with guarding special interests and favorite activities than they are with reaching the community. Members cease inviting friends and neighbors because nobody wants to invite others to a dysfunctional organization. Funding and attendance continues to decline until a breaking point is reached.
The pain causes loss. Those who disagree are vocal about their opposition. Some leave the congregation in search of one that represents the “good old days” and the leadership is subject to personal attacks. There is incredible pressure to change pastoral leadership as some believe that if the pastor is changed the revolutionary process will be abandoned.
At the point the congregation chooses revolutionary change it makes radical adjustments to their staffing, funding priorities, missional engagement, and financial plans. Perhaps consultants are brought in or a new leader is engaged to radically redirect ministry. Property is viewed as a tool for ministry and loses its “sacred cow” status. Sometimes it is even sold and relocation is considered to facilitate mission. Ministries once considered foundational and jettisoned in order to create space and resources for new, innovative endeavors. Texts like Isaiah 43:19 (“I am about to do a new thing…”) or Mark 2 (new wineskins) become formative as grounding, theological texts to inspire the people to accept radical changes.
While the pain is very intense it is over a shorter period of time. There is equal opportunity for great Kingdom advancement as well as the very real possibility the church will fall well below the level of sustainability and collapse, but there is no Sunday morning without Friday night, no resurrection without death. “Behold I am doing a new thing…do you not perceive it?”
There comes a time when it is too late for revolutionary change. There comes a time when the congregation accepts, actively or passively, the inevitability that what has been will no longer be and that death is a certainty. Cuts are made, subsistence level strategies are adopted. No longer does the sanctuary ring with the cries of infants. The nursery is empty, the youth group has gone off to college and not returned, and a few faithful souls remain to conduct Sunday worship and, perhaps, Sunday School. Hopelessness sets in as worship drops to single digits, then one day, no one comes. The doors are closed, the property sold and a new church moves into the abandoned building.
Even though it doesn’t sound like it, I am an optimist. I believe its never to late to be the church you could have been, but it does take decisive action and intentional, strategic planning. It doesn’t just happen. The question is not whether your church will change, the question is whether it will be evolutionary, revolutionary, or attrition based change. May God guide you as you make those decisions, I remain:
Consumed by the Call,