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Church Killers

Following the post on signs of a dying church last week, here is a similar one: 20 Hidden Ministry Killers. I read this one especially when I realised it was written by George Bullard, someone whose work on the life cycle of a congregation I discovered on my last sabbatical. While in this new post Bullard sometimes has in mind churches that are even younger than many of the ones people like me minister in, nevertheless several of his twenty danger signs resonated with me.

Which ones connect with you? What other signs would you add?

Sabbatical, Day 14

Valentine’s Day. Debbie and I had it all worked out. A nice day with the children, then we’d pack them off to bed at the usual time and share a Marks and Spencer’s meal. 

And the day started so well. The children had signed Valentine’s cards to Mummy. They had also jointly signed one to me. But then they derailed things.

For the better, I might add. This evening’s quiet meal somehow ended up off the agenda in favour of a family lunch trip to Pizza Hut. And since I had been away for five days until yesterday, I think a family meal out was probably the better option. Our romantic evening has instead become me clearing down hundreds of emails that arrived while I was away (no exaggeration – I’ve deleted four hundred) and Debbie doing the ironing.

However – in response to popular demand – well, one comment by Olive – here is some more information on what I sketched last night about ‘the life cycle of a congregation’. I don’t have time to rework this substantially, so what follows is simply a copy and paste from OpenOffice of the notes I made in Stephen Skuce‘s lecture. Therefore, please be aware that the structure of what follows is his, not mine. All that is mine is my attempt to record as faithfully as possible what he was sharing with us in the lecture. I went straight from this lecture to coffee and then drove home. There are some compelling parallels with a lot of church experience, but also some gaping holes, as he indicates in the section entitled ‘reflections’. But I hope they might lead to a useful debate in the comments below.

THE LIFE CYCLE OF A CONGREGATION

STEPHEN SKUCE

Understanding this helps us know where we are and help us diagnose what to do next. Various proponents can be found on the web, including George Bullard.

Western linear thinking – but much of life is cyclical.

Gene structure of a congregation (Bullard)

  1. E-factor is concerned with energising a congregation or group, such as a project within a congregation.

  2. P-factor is for programmes and schemes. A congregation that is to become stabilised and growing needs structures.

  3. A-factor is concerned with intentionality. The way a congregation expresses itself in mission statements, and how human and financial resources can be used efficiently. Specific goals, outcomes, plans.

  4. I-factor is concerned with inclusion. How are individuals and groups drawn in and assimilated into the congregation. How are factors like power and conflict handled?

Ascent scale of a life cycle

  1. Birth – high energy levels, organised around vision, or the charisma of the founder. So many ideas bubbling up they can’t cope. The need isn’t dreams and visions but needing to broaden the congregation in order to carry them all out. People are generally very unified in a church plant, because they have all chosen to be part of the project.

  2. Infancy – time scale of this move from 1 above is hugely variable. The high quality of personal relationships matches the enthusiasm. High level of inclusion immediately. Programmes not particularly developed or thought through: this is not a problem. One or two who were present at birth may have drifted away, however. Time needs spending to develop the sense of mission. Ministries start to develop – worship team, social caring project, etc. Distinct roles and places within the church, rather than stage 1 where everyone pitches in everywhere.

  3. Adolescence – energy levels high, focussed on development of congregation. Everyone busy. Early unrealistic idealism has been curtailed. Not completely seeing eye to eye over future direction any more, although not falling out. Early leaders from stage 1 are beginning to take a less active role. The church planters are moving off to start something else. Others have been burnt out already. Paid staff may burn out. Membership still needs to be broadened to cover a range of interests and different understandings of faith.

  4. Prime – by now comparatively a large and successful congregation with strong interaction between inner and outer members. Intentional and inclusive. Still working well for newcomers who join. A number of programmes, which are organised, visible and attractive. We are pastorally caring for one another. By this stage the danger of the dominance of one or more groups has started to emerge. Youth leaders and children’s leaders may conflict, for example. Separate roles become more important than the group identity. Starting to splinter. Conflict resolution skills need to be developed in order to keep things smooth. Overall the church still moves where it’s meant to be going. Visitors from elsewhere come to see good practice. Commitment levels and financial giving are both high.

Descent scale of a congregation

  1. Maturity – hard to distinguish from ‘prime’. The movement happens as soon as the repeat of good practice is desired. Comfort zone instead of risk-taking. Maintaining high standards mean that changes start to be questioned. Still a good welcome for newcomers, but those who are a little different don’t fit in so well. Church members very busy, just not quite so enthusiastic as they were before, because they’ve been busy for a long time. Members feel important and affirmed. Corporate vision of the church, e.g., mission statements begin to develop, even though they become an exercise in navel-gazing.

  2. Aristocracy – more like a club than a church. Busy but not energetic. People enjoy coming to meet their friends. They defend their positions and territory. Status and inclusiveness can be factor. Dwindling base of support as fewer newer and younger people join. Newer and enthusiastic members are not joining. Lost sense of mission. Nobody can recite mission statement, even if it’s on all the stationery. A need to restore God’s sense of purpose through the history of the church. What was our secret in the past, and can we recapture it?

  3. Bureaucracy – people are disillusioned and the good old days are no longer sought. If loads of kids turned up we wouldn’t have the leaders. People defend status. Boundaries. People are a bit suspicious of each other – why are you doing that? Several factors induce the suspicion, but the reasons are lost in the mists of time. Structures are rigid. Hope still exist if the silent or powerless can be heard. Change is possible with new leadership (not the minister, because that post has been changing, but rather the key lay leaders).

  4. Death – the congregation is all about preserving the past or the building. The building is of great historical importance and the community would miss it if it weren’t there. Despair about the congregation’s future – it’s not going to last but it’s going to last while I’m alive. A hospice church, allowing me to live out my life of faith in ways I like until I can die with dignity. No missional impact in the community. Doesn’t mean the situation is hopeless. You can’t change the hospice church, where people are now so tired and old and can’t change that now. Alternatives for the building or mergers with other churches or circuits are considered. We kid ourselves we’re doing it for mission and growth, but we’re doing it to eke out another ten years of existence. Mergers are like two drunks staggering out of the pub at closing time, holding onto each other, but they can’t and they collapse to the ground. More chance if congregations are going to come together if all the premises are sold and something completely new built.

Reflections

  1. This may illustrate a relatively small congregation or groups and ministries within a large congregation.

  2. There is nothing inevitable about the growth or decline.

  3. It depends more on the spiritual leadership than on sociological factors.

  4. External factors, such as good or bad actions, can have a significant influence.

  5. The changes in the surrounding community are not included.

  6. Times of revival (as a God thing) are discounted in this analysis.

  7. Death is deserved if a church is apostate.

  8. What does the picture of the early church in Acts and more established congregations in Revelation 2-3 impact on this?

Bibliography

  • Bullard, G., ‘The Life Cycle Model’ www.bullardjournal.org. (2007)

  • Grundy, M., Understanding Congregations (London: Mowbray, 1998)

  • Saarinen, M. F., ‘The Life Cycle of a Congregation’ in Action Information (Alban Institute, May/June 1986)