This great article was sent to me by one of our elders. What are your thoughts? This article originally appeared at http://www.churchleaders.com
By George Bullard
Discover these hidden factors that are undermining the health of your church congregation.
Life is fragile. But you know that.
All of us who are more than a generation old realize the physical and mental sharpness of our childhood and youth has diminished. It may not be obvious when we are 20-something or 30-something, but it is there. It becomes more obvious when we are 40-something and 50-something and still trying to trying to push ourselves like we were much younger.
By the time we are 60-something and 70-something, the aging process is in full swing. Many of the symptoms of our aging have been present for decades, but they are just now having an obvious impact on us that we cannot overcome by just working harder. We must work smarter and choose carefully those things to which we commit ourselves. Health conditions that were not obvious in earlier decades are now part of our daily concern and actions.
If we make it to 80-something or 90-something, for the vast majority of us, health and life expectancy issues are not only a primary concern for us, but often for our family who love us and have a responsibility to help care for us.
Is the Same Pattern True for Congregations?
Absolutely! The patterns are clear.
Congregations often thrive for the first generation of their lives. At some point when they are 20-something, their founding dream or vision wanes. If they do not intervene in their own journey in response to the spiritual nudge of the Triune God, the vitality and vibrancy of their congregation will diminish incrementally for the succeeding decades, and they will approach death at some future date.
Or they may realize the underlying spiritual, strategic, social and structural health issues and redevelop forward in response to a new or renewed vision. This is possible as a Christ-centered, faith-based, spiritual community. This is not something that is ultimately possible for us as individuals.
The ideal is that following the first generation of life, congregations will re-envision their future continually and effectively live into that vision as FaithSoaring churches. However, that is an ideal realized by less than 20 percent of congregations at any given time.
What about the rest of us?
Hidden Factors Undermining the Health of Congregations
Once congregations reach the end of their first generation, what are the hidden factors undermining their health?
As an overarching issue, let’s acknowledge that the lack of an empowering, God-inspired vision for future ministry that guides the journey of the congregation is the key foundational factor. Yet the vast majority of active people in a congregation can feel the lack of vision, so it is not totally hidden. They may not be able to identify that the factor lacking is vision, but they feel that something is missing.
Captivating vision is, however, the most important factor—hidden or visible.
Here are hidden factors I have observed over more than four decades of working with congregations in the second, third, fourth and following generations of their journeys. I offer 20 hidden factors here. What ones would you add?
Many congregations are in denial of the fact that they are no longer driven or fueled by a clear sense of vision. They believe the majority of things are doing well in the congregation. It is generally meeting their expectations. Nothing is wrong that needs to be addressed.
The longer congregations are in existence, the more they are comfortable with the way things happen in their congregation. They have lost the prophetic, cutting-edge nature of the vision they are seeking to fulfill. Good enough has become good enough. A subtle mediocrity has set in.
The patterns and culture begin to harden like concrete once congregations have been in existence for a generation or more. Tradition is worshiped as beloved heritage. This is where the seven last words of the church come in: “We’ve never done it that way before.”
During the first generation, mission is often truly missional in nature and is about what God is up to in and through the congregation. By the second generation and following, without intentional effort otherwise, mission can often become about the existing congregations and what they are doing.
In years past, denominations sold congregations on the idea that successful, growing programs always meant successful, growing churches. This was a partial truth. Too many congregations believe a focus on the right programs is the best future for them. Also a partial truth.
Too many congregations believe discipleship equates to head knowledge, when it is really a lifelong process of spiritual growth focused on the Triune God. Thus, many people connected with congregations never grow deep enough in their faith so that it is evidenced by a Christ-like lifestyle.
Deep relationships in a congregational community are important. Yet, too many people equate close relationships with a closed circle of relationships. The active participants of congregations have too many people with whom they only have face familiarity, not deep friendships.
Too many conversations in congregations are shallow. We are afraid to go deep. We are afraid of being marginalized if we say what we really think about the Bible, theological issues, ethical dilemmas, or what makes up a moral or immoral lifestyle. Congregations need deep dialogue.
Life happens. Life can be tough. Church is a place where we should deal with life issues. However, there is a really big difference between, in humility, bringing our life issues to a loving congregational community and abusing a church because of our anger over our life issues.
The longer the average person has been connected to a congregation, the more they see things primarily from their own perspective or the perspective of their best friends. This leads to a lack of openness to transition, change and innovation. The age of a person is not a factor.
Congregations tend to be output based. As such, they want the growth numbers of the church to be better each year than the year before. They want to attract new people to provide leadership where needed and to contribute generously to the church budget and any debt.
By their second generation, many congregations are composed of people who come from a churched culture and do not understand the unchurched culture. Even if they became professing Christians during the past generation, they may have lost the perspective of the unchurched.
The geographic context served by congregations often changes from generation to generation. The demographics within active congregations may not match the community context, if it ever did. Congregations can become disconnected from their context and not understand the people.
The theology, philosophy, methodology and style of congregations can drift over the years. One day, the long-term members realize this is not their congregation any more, and they seek to bring the congregation back from the abyss instead of seeking God in the present times.
Congregations can get stuck in place, lack innovation and creativity, and simply become dull. There is no excitement, glitter or pizzazz. As such, they are unattractive to new people and do not inspire existing participants to do more than to go through the motions of being and doing church.
Any system needs a fresh set of leaders stepping forward on a regular basis. Too many congregations do not have this. The same leaders have led with the same or similar style, and in the same or similar ways, for too many years. Fresh ideas and approaches have few or no champions.
When a congregation is beyond its first generation of life and is not empowered by vision, a vacuum is created into which a management mindset settles in. These management people have the good of the church at heart, but forget a church is an organism and not an organization.
Because of the significant investment congregations make in their buildings, and the fact that many participants invested their personal financial resources in those buildings, keeping up the museum becomes a high priority for congregations. They become curators rather than creators.
To keep up the museum, and to have the staff congregations believe they need or deserve it, an increasing percentage of budget allocations are spent on buildings and staff. When this gets over 70 percent of the budget, warning signals should go off. When over 80 percent, the crisis is huge.
Long-term, older members confuse Christ and the culture of congregations to the extent that they may believe allowing congregations to change in any radical manner may deny the presence and direction of God. They fear it may even impact their personal eternity in a negative way.
Why Have I Identified These Hidden Factors?
The answer is quite simple: These types of hidden factors cause tens of thousands of congregations in North America to fail to transition, change and transform following their first generation of life.
They may have a fruitful, vital and vibrant first generation, but instead of moving forward to an equally exciting second, third, fourth or more generation, they become what I call “One Generation Congregations.” They live on the fumes and memories of the past. They call it heritage and hope that tomorrow will bring a return of the characteristics of the first generation. They may never be captivated by an empowering vision again.
Further, I have identified these hidden factors to get them out in the open for dialogue and to work on clarifying them and building strategies to address them. When congregations can effectively address these and other hidden factors, they may create a readiness to soar with faith in the direction of God’s full kingdom potential for them.