The Life & Death of Congregations – The Sequel

So, I was thinking that it was time to return to a train of thought I boarded a couple of posts back. The gist of that post was that everything lives and dies, including congregations. Congregations and organizations like them have choices about living and dying. I said, “The real causes of decline and death in a congregation is that it becomes more concerned about its survival than its mission. It is that plain and simple. The picture (below) reminds us that returning to our mission brings life. The choice we face as a congregation that has stabilized and matured is whether we will make the effort to be renewed and reborn through the power of the Spirit, or will accept the forces of gravity and begin a hopefully dignified decline into death.” 

life cycle 2

It is easier to let life cycles follow a natural course. Entropy (the process of running down or degrading) takes place without guidance or effort, so the downward path of decline comes like breathing… well, until it stops. It is much more difficult to swim against the current of entropy and fight decline. It takes not just effort, but letting go of habits and past behaviors. It takes more effort the deeper into decline an organization travels. It takes more effort to achieve longer periods of renewed growth. That is what the different color circles mean. The red circle signifies a modest turn made when the organization is at the leading edge of decline. The green shows decline a bit deeper and the growth a bit longer. The blue shows the pat from deep decline to greatest growth… and it takes the most change and effort.

Here is another symbol that signifies the same thing, but with much deeper results:

 cross sillouette

The Church today, it seems to me, misses many opportunities to experience resurrection, renewal, redemption, because we have forgotten how to embrace the cross. We have, with great fear and trembling, shifted from a mission of cross-shaped obedience to institutional survival or maintenance. Job one has become to make sure our congregation, seminary, college, synod, district, etc. survives the threats brought by constant and incomprehensible change. We ask, “What will happen to the building?” What will happen to the endowment fund?” “Will anyone remember us?” We have forgotten that job one is really to “Go, make disciples” or “take up your cross.”  Taking up the cross is what leads to resurrection and new life.

The cross for the church of our age is to make some hard choices. To allow many aspects of our way of doing things, our way of being to die so that God can raise up a new body in this world. It isn’t easy – look at Jesus! But if his followers won’t risk death for the sake of the reign of God, then who will?

I want to leave you with some choices it seems to me we must all make if we are to take up the cross of mission and be opened to God’s future. Ponder them and let me know what you think. I’ll write about some of these particular choices in the weeks ahead. As Moses told the people in Deuteronomy, we have a choice:  “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live,  loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him;  (Deuteronomy 30:19-20) 

  • Linked Arms or Open Arms
  • Full Tables and Seats or Empty Chairs and Seats
  • Managing Scarce Resources or Trusting God’s Abundance
  •  Everyone Decides or Trust Leadership
  • Membership Matters or Discipleship Matters
  • Fear of Failure & Death or Faith in the Spirit’s Guidance
  • Everyone Happy or Everyone Challenged
  • Reasonable Demands or High Expectations
  • Welcome Neighbors & Friends or Hospitality to Stranger
  • Giving to Needs or Needing to Give
  • What God Has Done or What God is Doing
  • The Past As Guide or The Future as Goal
  • Giving within Reason or Extravagant Generosity
  • Maintain or Thrive
  • Monument or Movement
  • Comfort or Discomfort
  • Passive or Active
  • Sunday School Faith or Mature Growing Faith
  • Church on Sunday or God Everyday
  • Divided by Disagreements or United in Diversity
  • Minimize Risk or Take Bold Risks
  • Old Friendships or Christian Fellowship
  • Never changing or Ever Changing

I know that we could add more to this list — and perhaps we will! I know some will say that these are all “both/and” possibilities. I think that is too easy. What shall we choose people of God? Life and mission? Survival and eventual death? That is really the question we need to be asking.

Pax Christi,

Pastor Tim Olson

© Timothy V. Olson, 2014

3 thoughts on “The Life & Death of Congregations – The Sequel

  1. Nancy

    I agree with the above except: Everyone Decides or Trust Leadership

    How about: Everyone Decides or Trust GOD

    We are not to put our trust in Leadership, we are to put our trust God (and God will guide us AND the leaders)!

    1. Maybe it should not be, but trust in God in the context of this exercise is assumed. I would add that as Jesus instructs that “wherever two or more are gathered in my name I am with them” when we prayerfully elect leaders and they prayerfully lead, we are in fact trusting God when we trust faithful leaders. It is easy to say “trust God” – but what does that look like? In the Christian community, as Paul, and James, and Jesus – not to mention Moses, Joshua and a host of others in the Old Testament teach, God establishes elders, leaders, pastors, bishops, deacons etc. to lead. God indeed guides leaders, but many congregations are so paralyzed by mistrust that leaders, led by God, can’t do what they are called to do. If every decision – from the direction of mission to the color of the carpet – requires a congregational discussion and vote, then mistrust guides the people and nothing gets done.

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