All organizations, including churches, have a natural lifecycle. Just as a human being is born, develops, grows, declines and dies, so goes the life cycle of a congregation. Our faith, however, teaches us that, in Christ, death has been defeated. By the power of the Spirit working in our midst, this is just as true for congregations as it is for individuals.
When a congregation is born, the community is full of hope, vision and energy. Church planters typically have a deep passion for the mission field and work long hours to cast a vision and build community. As the congregation grows, it develops into a more complex organization. Structure, staff and programs are added to help the vision become reality. In time, programs and structure (maybe even some staff) become deeply embedded traditions, and the vision and passion that energized the birth grow dim. In many ways, the most critical time for a congregation is the “plateau” that occurs when things seem to be going just fine. If nothing changes, decline will inevitably occur. It is at this point that traditions and structure become the reason for existing. The mission is left far behind, and the congregation is almost totally internally focused. Far too many of our congregations have failed to act during this critical period, and they find themselves in decline or even near death. The more the congregation worries about dying (and thus focuses on saving itself), the more quickly death is likely to come.
Jesus said something about losing your life in order to find it. This is the eternal hope for dying congregations. It is possible for a declining congregation to be renewed by reclaiming the vision and passion for mission that were present at its birth. That means change. As the “Lifecycle of a Congregation” diagram shows, the nearer to death an organization is, the more drastic change will need to be in order to move it back to growth. In the earlier phases of the lifecycle, incremental change is enough to keep things on track, but at the bottom of the curve, a complete “reboot” is needed. Perhaps the most important question to ask is to what extent is the congregation fulfilling its original mission.
It’s not unusual for different people in the same congregation to see the church’s lifecycle stage differently. Here is an exercise to try with a group of leaders. Give a brief explanation of the lifecycle of an organization. Then draw an empty curve line on a flip chart or white board. Ask each person to make a mark (or place their initials) at the point they believe best describes the congregation as it currently exists. Then listen carefully to one another as each person explains his or her reasoning. The conversation which follows is a great beginning to understanding what the church must do to get growing again. Once an organization knows where it is, it’s easier to get where it needs to be.
Rev. Evelyn Fisher, director of Congregational Excellence