I have no fear of drowning

It’s the breathing that’s taking all this work.
– Jars of Clay – 
Here’s another article on the struggle that many congregations are facing to survive.  These articles are pretty common.  Congregations are closing at a rapid clip.  This one includes a bell curve graph that should be familiar to those involved with ministry.  It represents the typical lifespan of a congregation.  A small start that experiences healthy growth and then begins to decline.  
Like many such articles, the author provides some helpful insights into what might be the cause of a congregation entering the downhill slope of the bell curve.  Note that these insights come after the author states that “the standard bell curve serves as a helpful picture for the typical church life cycle.”  In other words, the majority of congregations experience this progression of growth, plateau, and decline.  For some it’s a cycle that may vary in intensity.  For others, it’s a single run up and down the bell curve.  Coming back from the downhill slope is considered by many to be the hardest form of ministry out there.  It’s conventional wisdom that it’s easier to start a new church than to reinvent a declining one.
So, bearing this in mind, we hear that congregations may be guilty of unsound doctrine, refusal to evangelize, resistance to change, navel-gazing, abuse of leadership, a preference for comfort, and possibly a failure to follow their pastor’s leading.  Serious issues.  But I wonder if there isn’t another explanation that doesn’t indicate some sort of massive moral failure on the part of the congregation or the leadership.  

Perhaps churches simply aren’t meant to exist in perpetuity.  
I don’t hear many experts suggesting that churches aren’t mean to live forever and perhaps we ought to plan our ministry accordingly.  But it seems like something that might be worth considering.  What would you do differently in planning a ministry if you knew that it was likely only going to last 50 years, or 100 years, or 10 years?  I’d wager there would be a fundamentally different approach to ministry with this mindset.  An approach less concerned with buying and building and acquiring, and more focused on the basics.  What a massive shift in economics regarding church planting and planning!  Perhaps that’s why nobody wants to talk about this openly – too many people stand to make too much money off of continuing the assumption in people’s minds that they ought to invest in the best for their church because they want it to last forever, just like the congregation.
Not all congregations can be saved, and fewer congregations probably ought to be saved.  That’s a cold-hearted sounding pronouncement, but it’s a simple fact.  Perhaps if we kept this fact in mind as we started churches, we might find the bell curve looking a little different, or the plateau period lasing longer.  Or perhaps not. Perhaps the bell curve would be a lot tighter, with congregations starting and stopping every few years.  What if congregations formed around specific purposes or goals, and when those goals or purposes were fulfilled, the congregation de-assembled and re-assembled?  What if a congregation existed in a dormitory or an apartment complex for a couple of years, then dissipated with the members moving elsewhere to create new congregations?
I suspect that the other major hurdle to this sort of rearrangement in congregational thinking is the role of denominational polities.  At least in our denomination, congregations have to submit a formal constitution for denominational approval.  While it’s not rocket science, a lot of thought and effort goes into it.  Having congregations popping up and disappearing regularly makes it a lot harder to keep tabs on who’s doing what, where.  It also tends to work against a strong, centralized denominational organization since congregations help to support these organizations.  
Still, I don’t think this issue ought to be a deal-breaker in and of itself.  There ought to be a way for a denomination to streamline and begin to expect that congregations will come and go with rapidity.  Perhaps it’s the difference between the traditional European battle tactics of line-up-and-march-directly-across-the-open-field-through-enemy-artillery-and-rifle-fire-to-charge-the-line, and the more guerilla warfare tactics that have proved so effective from the American Revolution up through today.  Maybe this is the next Reformation in the church.  Or maybe not.  

2 Responses to “Drowning”

  1. justine Says:

    You might not want my thoughts on this one. ;-)

    But I love Jars of Clay!

  2. Paul Nelson Says:

    Pish posh, woman!  This isn’t a mutual admiration society.  It’s supposed to be a place to help people think, and people includes me!  So speak yer mind!

    Lay on, Macduff,
    And damn’d be him that first cries, ‘Hold, enough!’

    – Macbeth at the conclusion of Shakespeare’s Macbeth –

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