Saturday, April 18, 2009

From Death to Life

If you have been around long enough, you have seen the “life cycle of a church” diagram. My understanding is that Martin F. Saarinen introduced the concept with The Alban Institute. Most of us in Baptist ranks were first exposed to the idea by Bob Dale. George Bullard has amplified on and expanded the idea. The basic concept is that the life of a church (or any organization) can be represented by a bell shaped curve with birth or dream at the bottom on the left side, health or maturity at the apex of the curve, and death or dissolution at the bottom on the right side. Church consultants have used many variations on the idea, especially to help churches that are on the downward slope from maturity to death to adopt an intervention that will kick the church into a new rising growth slope.

Although the concept has become an accepted representation of a church’s life cycle, few consultants have been ready to help a church accept that perhaps “death” is the appropriate destination for their congregation. Nowhere in the Bible are we told that a particular local expression of the body of Christ will last forever. We are told that “the Church” (the visible and invisible congregation of believers of all times, the universal church) will certainly survive and conquer (Matthew 16:18). Do any of the churches of the first century still exist? No. Do churches (local congregations) fulfill their mission and die? Yes. The problem is that some do not realize that they are dead!

I have thought for some time that we need a hospice program for churches. In this situation, we would help churches that have declined to “die with dignity.” These are churches whose neighborhoods have changed, whose members no longer live in the area and do not return for services, or who have been crippled by economic situations. A “hospice ministry” would help these churches to accept the situation and close their doors with grace.

My home church in Mobile, Alabama, found itself in such a declining situation. Under the leadership of a gifted interim pastor, the church found another congregation with which they could merge, sold the church facilities to an ethnic congregation at a reasonable price, and gave a majority of the receipts to a Baptist college for a scholarship fund. One can find any number of situations where such wise decisions have been made.

My friend Chris Gambill of the Center for Congregational Health has come up with an even better idea. He suggests that such churches in decline need to become pregnant. Like Sarah of old, they need to conceive and give birth. This could take a number of forms. The church might use its resources to give birth to a new congregation that would meet in its facilities until maturity. For example, an ethnic, emerging, or “new generation” church start might use the old church’s facilities as an “incubator” with the original congregation continuing to share the facilities. Alternatively, the church might simply close its doors and contribute its plant to be sold to provide resources for new church development. Another approach is for the old church to sell or give its facilities to a stronger congregation that would continue to use the building to provide ministries to the area after the former congregation is gone.

The possibilities are unlimited. The challenge is to help declining congregations accept the fact that death is part of life and discern ways to continue to build the Kingdom of God even after the present congregation no longer exists. Will this take a miracle? Yes, but it is the miracle that we preach—new life and resurrection.


Chris Harbin said...

Signed my death warrant at a church for pointing out that the direction of its demographics were pointing it toward a slow death. It's hard to set up a hospice program for churches that refuse to face the reality of their cancer.

Ircel said...

No one likes the bearer of bad news, do they? It's always easier to "kill the messenger." Perhaps this is where the church consultant comes in as an "outside consult." To continue the medical metaphor further, perhaps we can learn something from the bedside manner (good and bad) of the physician who delivers bad news.

Would love to find some folks who have actually pulled this off!

Chris Harbin said...

RASnet in VA held a session at 21-C back in 2006 that dealt with the issue. As I recall, we had 3 speakers on the topic of dying churches: 1 re-started, 1 gave their building to an African-American congregation, and 1 donated their building to Mercer.

Ircel said...

Thanks for this input. I am familiar with RASnet, and I think I know the pastor of the church that donated its property to Mercer. Do you remember more about the other two churches?