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?

 

Light in the Darkness

So, I was thinking about this passage from Isaiah, so central to the Christmas gospel:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined. (Isaiah 9:2)   

This hopeful proclamation from the prophet Isaiah is part of the Christmas message. Light overcomes darkness.  To tell the truth, things have seemed pretty dark to me since Christmas preparations went into full swing weeks ago – around Halloween, I think.  On the surface, people are talking about looking forward to the holiday.  Underneath, however, I sense an all too frequent dread or stress.  I don’t think it has anything to do with the annual “war on Christmas.”  You know – Happy Holidays, instead of Merry Christmas (even though the English origin of the word “holiday” is holy-day”); kicking the crèche out of the town square; banning religious songs at the school choir concert.  I don’t really buy this kind of war on Christmas as a real issue.

That said, I do think something dark and destructive has been happening to Christmas.  Maybe it is a war of sorts.  It has shaped Christmas into a rather hideous creation.  It has involved us all in a systematic erasure of the meaning of the birth of Jesus Christ.  We still call it Christmas, but maybe it should be called “Consumerist-mas” – the “Feast of the great Consumption.”  There is little Christ left in its observance.  We go on a binge dedicated to dark excess instead of bowing before the Light of the World.  Jesus came bring us the light of freedom, yet the post-holiday credit card debt will shroud us in a kind of slavery for the next two Christmases. Jesus came to give us peace, but we end up doubling our antidepressants because our stress over the perfect holiday has plunged us deeper into a dark hole.  The real focus of the season is how much money was spent and made, not how light has entered our darkness.

I don’t mean to be a buzz-kill or the Grinch.  But, I’m afraid were missing Jesus in the midst of all the jingle bells. I fear we have lost our minds, our hearts and our souls.  We live in a world where benefits are cut to millions who are poor and will have no holiday. At the same time the TV encourages us all to buy diamonds and a Lexus for our loved ones so they know we love them.  We force the least powerful and poorest working folks to work all day on Thanksgiving so we can all get an early start on our excess. That just does not sound like it has anything to do with Jesus to me. You see, my fear is that the Grinch didn’t steal Christmas – consumerism did, and we all helped.  I fear that the true power of God’s incarnation is completely negated by wrapping the manger in foil paper and selling it for $39.95.

Advent is the first act of resistance against this dark progression of commercialism.  The holly jolly world of retail Christmas plays on our desire for instant gratification. Advent makes us wait, a spiritual discipline we may despise, but is essential to our maturation in faith.  Faith is about joy, but also about enduring the darkness as we await the real light.  The strings of bulbs on our houses only decorate the darkness and since they burn out, don’t bear the true light of Christ.

Amidst all our celebrating, spending, preparation and panic, Christ will come. Of this I have no doubt.  Notice however, that the only ones who noticed God breaking into our humanity were shepherds, who had nothing but the silent night.  Maybe if we get a grip on our holiday, Christ will get a grip on us. Christ came to a manger, not the mall.  May Christ come to you whether a new blender does or not.