"I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.
The life of a church community is not static but always changing, always evolving or decaying. There is a certain ebb and flow that is inherent in the life of any living organism. Times of development, times of growth, times of strengthening, times of disease, times of reproduction, and ultimately times of death. A church body is a living thing. Despite church growth experts opinions, I do not believe a local church body was created to last forever, but like our lives, has an unique lifespan that is created for the purposes of demonstrating the Kingdom of God in its socio-historical context. I have seen some wonderful and powerful communities of God that had relatively short life cycles, but were beautiful in their creation and fruitful in their ministries.
The point is to understand that all churches are unique manifestations of the Kingdom of God, and that the nature, location, and even the existence of that manifestation is influenced by the culture and context in which it is to be submerged. In the mid-twentieth century, it is said that many neighborhoods in America stayed relatively stable in socioeconomic, ethnic, and culture over a 30-40 year period. By the late twentieth century, the average neighborhood changed every 7 years. Since the church exists to be both reverent (to God) and relevant (to its community), this suggests that churches that do not develop an ethos of change, will have a fairly reduced life cycle.
The problem that many church communities struggle with is not whether change is necessary, but what, how, and when to change. There are multiple mistakes that are often made by sincere church leaders and leadership boards in contemplating change in ministry, mission, and structure:
1. Assuming your church will look like other"successful" churches. God often has a unique calling for your unique situation. It may not look anything like Willow Creek, Potters House, Northpointe, etc. Church leadership must have a better understanding of their uniqueness and the uniqueness of their settings. It doesn't mean that we can not glean a tremendous amount of insight from learning from successful ministries, but that ultimately, God wants to do something in your community that may have never been done before.
2. Deciding upon for format for ministry prior to discerning what's God's mission for you. Discernment is a community activity in which the community seeks the revelation of God's will for them. It is seeking a vision that comes from God, and is only possible with God. It is only with a clarity of vision and mission, that ministry alignment is possible.
3. Focusing on the financial, political, and structural ramifications of spiritual decline instead of confronting the spiritual health of your church and its leadership. I have seen churches where the leadership are simply glorified firemen. They meet together to put out fires. Financial problems with the church budget, poor attendance at certain programs, non-existent outreach, and church schisms are a few. These things keep leaders busy for years, but the underlying problem is not that the church needs to raise more money. Stewardship is very important, but the underlying problem is still a spiritual issue in which the distance between the community and God has widened.
4. The Change that God desires may not make your church larger, more well known, or more financially stable. Interestingly, many pastors and leaders will tell you that they made changes to their churches due to the aforementioned. Yet, I have found that God often calls us to go to the least, the last, and the lost. He calls us to minister people and places that are off the grid. Its like we all have a Ninevah (see the book of Jonah if unfamiliar). While God directed change can results in rapid increases in the size and maturity of your congregation, I have seen very fruitful changes that have not. The goal of change is not our survival and prosperity, but our obedience to the discerned will of God.
I want to encourage every church leader to lead a culture of change in their churches. No, I am not asking you to change for the purpose of changing. I am asking you to be reverently open to the discerned will of God who seeks to make you a relevant tangible expression of His love to a rapidly changing culture around us.
May God bless you this day,
Pastor M Traylor