The Birth, Life, And Decline Of A Church

By Dan Butler

Studies reveal some remarkable facts regarding the histories of large local churches in America. In tracking these churches over a period of 60 years or so, very few continue to be either large or a significant force, not only in the nation, but also in the region in which they are located. Further studies reveal that this is often also true in smaller churches. Finally, it has been documented ad nauseum that this same phenomenon is true of organizations of churches. The vitality which was the impetus of an organization in its beginning is lost over time, leaving it stagnant and paralyzed. The dynamic spiritual experience which the first generation experienced is often long gone for later generations and is something no longer understood or valued. The bell curve (shown at right) illustrates the life journey of churches and church organizations.

On the bottom left, the journey begins.
SPIRITUAL FORMATION-First, the dynamic spiritual experience of the initial group creates spiritual formation.

BELIEFS-Out of spiritual formation come beliefs. ‘These are conclusions formed upon both study and their dynamic spiritual experience. A doctrinal framework which enunciates the group’s core beliefs, and within which they do their work, is the result.

VISION-The dynamic spiritual experience creates the vision to take this “Good News” (beliefs) to the world.

MISSION-The vision of the believers who now share this dynamic experience and these commonly held beliefs, for the first time, turn outward towards the formation of Christ’s kingdom in the earth, rather than focusing only on the inward formation of the kingdom within their hearts.

STRUCTURE-Accomplishing this mission demands the creation of a structure to convey the Good News to the intended recipients.

MINISTRY GROWTH-All of the above leads to acts of successful ministry.
Ministry Growth

CRYSTALLIZATION-Over time, the familiarity with the operations creates a loyalty to the structure which becomes intermingled with loyalty to the original spiritual experience and beliefs and often supercedes the loyalty to the original components which gave meaning to the enterprise. This structure is, in effect, “theirs.” The members create it, embrace it, and become deeply resistant to adjusting or changing it. Nostalgia and fixation on protecting the past gains strength. Older members become victims of paradigm paralysis.

NOSTALGIA-Being a member of a group for a period of years creates a certain psychological “sense of home” among a constituency. Friends, acquaintances, personal recognition, participation in group efforts, family connections, etc. all develop over a period of time. Strong ties emerge that play significant roles in one’s everyday life. After many years, these memories pile up and link together to form a chain of comfort and sense of belonging. Individuals are held to the group by these bonds. These ongoing relationships and events are the threads that make up the fabric of the comfortable coat in which the members wrap and warm themselves. “The good old days” are recalled with fondness. Gentle Reunions replace Raucous Revivals.

QUESTIONING-Meanwhile, two forces are working among younger members. First, they are increasingly less acquainted with the original dynamic spiritual experience and vision that created the movement in the first place. Second, they are not enamored with the old structural machinery, especially as it grows increasingly less effective. Therefore, they have no nostalgia. Lacking the original dynamic spiritual experience they also no longer radically embrace the beliefs. Questioning core values is the result.

DISSIMILATION-The process of becoming dissimilar. The development of dissimilarity between two consonant sounds in a word that are originally identical. Instead of speaking with one voice, there are “voices” eventually “many voices.” The group’s “certain sound” is lost in the cacophony.

FRAGMENTATION-Finally, there is fragmentation. Often this is not simply a “split,” but rather a moving apart in multiple directions at once. Leaders struggle to come to grip with the realities that have created the situation while also grappling with a whole range of emotions and temptations, such as a sense of loss and abandonment, anger, sadness, finger-pointing, and attempts to hold together and provide direction for those who remain and have resigned themselves to the fate of the structure.

Hope lies only in an authentic renewal of the original dynamic spiritual experience. This, in turn, re-establishes the beliefs, inspires the vision, empowers the mission, releases new creativity for development of effective structure, and produces again successful ministry. The way forward is back….way back…. to Pentecost, to Calvary, to the Cross. There are no substitutes.

From, “Together”/Fall 2008/Page 20-22, by Dan Butler

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