Lifecycles: The Life and Death of Congregations

William Shakespeare reminded us about the reality of life’s cycle of birth, growth, maturity, and death in his play Henry IV, when he wrote, “We all owe God a death.”  No matter how hard we try, death is a reality for all living things. We can keep fit, avoid vices, take our vitamins and perhaps have some effect on stretching the life cycle out a bit. But, then again, those efforts may not slow death’s approach at all.

The same truth about life’s cycle applies to organizations, nations, governments, ideas, institutions and even congregations. Rome began, grew, matured and after some centuries, died. The Soviet Union fell. American Motors no longer makes Ramblers in Kenosha. I’m pretty sure the congregation founded by Paul in Corinth is no longer open for worship. Organizations can, however, have much more control over the length of the life-cycle than we humans possess. Congregations can move out of maturity and decline and redefine, redevelop, or be reborn to meet that changes that are pushing it into decline. It is not easy; it is not without cost. The longer an organization declines, the harder it is to go through some renewal. If one waits long enough to change, to bear the pain, to catch a new vision, the harder and less likely it is that death can be avoided. The chart below paints a picture of this phenomenon:

life cycle 2

Holy Trinity has been around for over 60 years. We have seen growth and we have embraced stability. These are good things. For some in our community, there is fear that we are declining and death is in our future. Some worry that other growing congregations will take all our members. That is highly unlikely. Others worry that change and acting faithfully will make folks mad and they will leave. Still others long for “good old days” – where things always seem better and the skies are not cloudy all day.

When I see nearly 300 kids and over a hundred volunteers come for VBS, I have to say I don’t worry about any imminent demise. 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 above 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.  Will we take survival as our mission – which is no mission at all? Or will we lay aside or anxiety and fear and see where God wants to take us? What do you think we should do?

 

The Church is Dead. Long Live the Church

So, I was thinking that the Church is dead. If not totally dead, it is as Miracle Max from The Princess Bride would say at least “mostly dead” or in very critical condition.  I know you probably don’t read a pastor’s blog expecting to hear this kind of thing.  You were perhaps hoping for something a little more uplifting. Sorry. The vital signs are, it seems weak.

When it comes to belonging to a church, the fastest growing group of people in our culture simply don’t.  5% of the population said they were “unaffiliated” in 1972.  Today it is 16%.  People are not choosing other churches, mega churches, new churches or old churches; they are not picking more conservative or more liberal churches, when they leave one church, they are not going to something “better” – they are choosing to do away with church completely. They are often called “nones” because they check “none” on surveys about religious affiliation   This is happening to every single segment of the Christian Church – Protestant, Evangelical, Roman Catholic — it across the board.

More facts: 70% of mainline Protestant households have no children; 91% of those same congregations are white (unlike our society).  The median age of people in church is steadily and quickly rising (averaging over 62 years).  Congregations are getting smaller and smaller on the whole. Only 27% of “members” actually worship each week.  Only 7% of Christians have actually read the whole Bible.

The truth is that things have changed in every aspect of our world – economic, political, cultural and yes, religious.  The Church that we all remember from our youth is dead, mostly. Think back to the way things used to be:

¨The Way Things Were
  • You were born into the faith and stayed in your tradition
  • Faith was a way of believing, so you learned beliefs first – memorized, understood.
  • Christian faith was expected of most everyone
  • Institutions played an important part in our lives
  • Authority was given to those who had studied – experts
  • Keeping the faith = Keeping the traditions
Look at how things have changed:
¨The Way Things Are
  • People seek spiritual connections and religious life on their own.
  • Faith is a way of living – doctrines and “truth” are understood to be negotiable or dialogic.  So, spirituality is about living daily
  • Christian faith is no longer a cultural norm
  • Institutions/Denominations have lost their power and are fading
  • Seminary training and official teachers are suspect
  • Keeping the faith = living with integrity
The Church, as we remember it, even as we long for it, is dead, mostly.  But that is not “bad news.”  God is faithful and the Spirit is always moving.  We have the challenge and blessing to be living in an age when the Spirit is rewriting, re-imaging what it means to be the Church.  To be part of that means we will need to wander in the wilderness (sounds familiar) we’ll have to change our attitudes (not the first time), We will have to live our faith in a way we have not for some time (likely a refreshing change).  We will have to adapt the way we engage in mission to the reality of our world.
The great news is that God gives life to the Church in every age.  The Church may suffer many deaths, but God is in the resurrection business.  So what do you think about the death, and the life of the Church today… and tomorrow?
Pax Christi,
Pastor Tim

Giving Thanks

So, I was thinking that giving thanks is harder than it sounds. Now that does not mean I don’t favor giving thanks.  With G.K. Chesterton, I am well aware that at the least “When it comes to life the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.”  It is too easy to live each day taking the “daily bread” God showers upon us for granted. Gratitude is the antidote for slipping into a sense of entitlement.

But, I maintain that giving thanks is hard. The difficulty is partly cultural. It is not lost on me that the day named for the practice of giving thanks has become but a prelude to the “Black Friday” that follows. We try to give thanks for a few hours, but by midnight we will have turned from gratitude to anxiety over what we need to get and what we do not yet possess. After all, there are only so many shopping days to find the things that will make everyone happy – for a day or two.

Black Friday rises from our preoccupation with tomorrow without remembrance of the past and attentiveness to the present. Worry about the future, anxiety over what is not yet, is the seed of sin and all matter of evil. As C.S. Lewis, has the demon Screwtape say in one of my favorite books,  The Screwtape Letters, “Gratitude looks to the Past and love to the Present; fear, avarice, lust, and ambition look ahead.”  If you can get us to fret over tomorrow, we are undone.  If we can give thanks, we have an antidote. Is it a coincidence that Madison Avenue wants us to zoom by the gratitude and love of the past and present so we can worry about Christmas as soon as possible?  I think not. 😉 

Giving thanks can also be hard because I find that saying, “Thanks be to God for the table full of food” is such a short distance from “Thank God I’m not starving like those who have nothing.”  Giving thanks for abundance when so many suffer scarcity tweaks my conscience.  It darkens my festive demeanor – and it should. Abundance, from a biblical perspective, is from God and for all, not just the privileged few. I’m not sure that gratitude means giving thanks for my personal affluence. Justice makes giving thanks hard.

But what makes giving thanks the hardest for me is that I have heard people throughout my life give thanks in circumstances I do not understand. When I heard someone say “I give thanks for my cancer” the first time, I was dumbstruck. Since then, I have come to understand a little more fully what they mean. The discipline (and yes it is this, not a feeling or a thought) of giving thanks is something we must apply to everything in life – even our pain and suffering.  This is hard. Henri Nouwen, one of the wisest spiritual teachers of the last century says: “Grateful people are those who can celebrate even the pains of life because they trust that when harvest time comes the fruit will show that the pruning was not punishment but purification.”  Can we say thank you for our pain and brokenness? Perhaps only by knowing that this is precisely where Christ meets us.  But it is still hard.

As difficult as it may be, gratitude is an absolute necessity in our world.  Without it, contentment is impossible and we are a very discontent lot. Gratitude that leads us to contentment makes us less afraid of the future. Gratitude that leads to contentment opens our hearts so we can share our bounty and help provide abundance for others. Gratitude that leads to contentment acknowledges the pain in our lives, giving God a chance to transform our teas to joy.  Gratitude that leads to contentment lasts more than a day and it changes the world.  Happy Thanksgiving to all.

Pastor Tim