Above is a telling picture of what happens in churches as “living systems.” As “living systems,” congregations go through life cycles that, in many respects, mirror that which we all endure as human beings. Below is a simple manner of explaining these stages:
- Child – Survival is the keyword. The question being asked: can we be self-sustaining? These are exciting times in a congregation’s life!
- Adult – Maturity and development are keywords. Questions being asked: what will be our identity? Do we have a plan to be faithful to God’s call? These are times that take up the most “chronological” time.
- Parent – Multiplication is a keyword. The question being asked: what is happening in and through the faith community that is bringing about new life? Maturity congregations will either “birth” new life and new ministries or will start to subside in impact over the long haul.
- Grandparenting – Experience and resources are the keywords. The question being asked: Are we encouraging and building up other ministries? Are we planting, starting something new that keeps us “youthful” in enthusiasm, passion, and dedication to Jesus’ mission?
- Senior – These are Legacy years. In many instances, congregations are facing decline and are either trying to survive or seeking God for long-term legacy and rebirth. There are critical issues in attracting and keeping of young leaders, people, and families. Either NEW life will be experienced or the congregation may face “death.”
Again, the bottom line of this cycle is that all churches are living systems and, as living systems, all have life cycles that are easily discernable. Living systems, by nature, seek stability. That’s normal. A problem starts to occur when these most living systems become institutionalized because institutionalism causes systems to get more centralized and controlled. That’s a good thing – at least initially – unfortunately, along with control eventually comes stagnation. As institutionalized systems start to age most discover that these systems leak life. It drains right out of them. That’s why institutionalized systems eventually have to deal with things like instability and chaos again. Instability and chaos bring a sense of new life…new life brings about vitality, enthusiasm, and vision. Unless a living system invites instability and chaos back into their common experience, research shows us that soon the system will run itself into the ground and die.
Friends, the Church (that universal organism we know as the body of Christ) has moved from a time of unprecedented stability to a sense of chaos, change, and survival. Because of that many of these “living systems” are struggling to hold on to meaning and stability only to discover problems that they didn’t anticipate. For the issues that led to the stability and life of these complex systems have changed (this isn’t the 1950’s any longer) and, in most cases, the system has no way to adapt and move on. The complexities of life and culture are causing panic, disillusionment, and even resignation.
The fact is, a lot of people don’t go to church anymore. They are not church-inclined. And even if people go to church they are not exhibiting those characteristics that promise or could promise to breath new life back into fading and dying systems. Healthy and growing systems can’t completely tolerate spectators. Healthy systems move anonymous onlookers into relationships, they are much more interested in action than thought and definitively are intentionally moving everyone into their God-given, fruitful and reproductive potential by means of dismantling authority structures and equipping people to do the work of the ministry.
Every day something crosses my desk or my computer screen that promises the “silver bullet” to our desperation in ministry. But as you might guess, there is NO silver bullet with which we’ve had experience. The ONLY silver bullet that exists out there is something called discipleship. Discipleship, building disciples that are not only faithful to Jesus but also are, by nature reproductive. Discipleship is definitely not about doing another church program or having the right sermon series. Discipleship is about ONE person who desires to follow Jesus learning from Jesus how to follow Him and then teaching and demonstrating to another how to do the exact same thing. And instead of this thing happening once in a while, it happens daily not in church buildings but in coffee shops, living rooms, break rooms, and restaurants around the community.
People of Long Valley faith communities (both Our Savior @ McCall and Shepherd of the Mountains @ Cascade) and other Christian congregations, a DNA or paradigm shift that many of us have been praying about needs to continue to be foremost on our prayer lists…we need to learn how to be disciples, train disciples, and release disciples. We need to continue to learn what it means to love and follow Jesus. In many respects, we can’t afford the luxury of doing anything else than doing what Jesus has called us to do. We need to see everything that we do and are through the filter of discipleship and disciple-making. I believe Jesus is not only cheering us on but also deliberately empowering us through His Spirit to continue to be His hands and feet in our communities! Let’s pray for LIFE in our living system! Let’s not give in to apathy or complacency. Let’s keep our eyes and hearts on the good Shepherd and see what has in store for us next!