By Michael C. Mack
Why do some churches grow and multiply, some plateau, and others decline?
It’s a question I’ve considered for a long time. As I studied the article and charts Kent Fillinger prepared for this month, it reinforced my theory that growing churches do certain things and have a particular mind-set largely absent in stagnant and declining churches. I’ll try to explain.
In my personal life, I’ve seen a direct correlation between my physical health and my tolerance for pain. For years I lived with carpal tunnel syndrome and eventually lost quite a bit of functionality in both hands. I knew having surgery would be painful, inconvenient, and uncomfortable for weeks after the procedure, but I need the use of my hands for work and many other things. I had to weigh the costs, and I decided to have the surgeries. It was difficult at the time, but now, about 18 months later, I sit at my computer and type without pain.
I’ve experienced something akin to that in my spiritual, emotional, and relational life. Growth in those areas has come about mostly through times of struggle, pain, loss, sacrifice, and surrender. That’s why James said we should consider those kinds of struggles “pure joy”: they result in maturity and completeness.
I believe similar correlations exist in our churches. Vitality and growth will never happen without pain, loss, and sacrifice, and we must weigh the costs of joyfully taking on those struggles—and the bigger, kingdom impact of not doing so.
(Before moving on, I want to make a couple things clear. In this issue—and in August and October—the statistics we present about attendance and baptisms are, or should be, gauges that reflect how effective our churches are at making disciples. In Acts, Luke provided an ongoing tally of baptisms and believers in the church because those growing numbers demonstrated that the church was fulfilling Jesus’ vision in Acts 1:8.)
Churches, small groups, ministry teams, and other ministry organizations go through a common progression. They start “up and to the right,” with excitement and growth. Eventually, however, they begin to level off and plateau. This is not necessarily good or bad, at least not at first—it’s just a natural occurrence in organizations; it’s hard to sustain long-term accelerated growth. A brief plateau may be a time for rest—a sabbath of sorts. But over time it can become unhealthy: a comfort zone, a time for maintaining the status quo, focusing internally, and, well, lukewarmness. Churches, groups, classes, and teams can forget their “first love,” the very reason they were started, and settle for something safer and more comfortable.
I think one of the saddest things in life is to see a once vibrant person, group, or church now plateaued and remaining there for years upon years. They weren’t created for that!
Along the plateaued line, a church comes to countless decision points, and each one represents an opportunity. They can continue with the status quo, or they can push out of the comfort zone, wholly trust God, and focus on his mission to the world around them.
Recognizing and responding to these various decision points is a vital leadership responsibility. I have used this chart to teach small group leaders how to get out of maintenance and into missional mode, and the same principles apply for church leaders. One of the first things the leader must do is simply recognize these decision points as opportunities to grow.
Leaders should also recognize that each decision point bears an associated opportunity cost. A decision to step out of a comfort zone may bring temporary pain and loss, including the loss of some traditions, programs, and certain people. But missing or ignoring the opportunity has kingdom consequences. We accept pain to achieve progress; we endure loss to embrace real life. We walk through pain, help people grieve loss, trust God’s plan, and strive for his mission.
Of course, it’s not enough to just recognize decision points. We must act on them! We unapologetically cast a biblical vision. We refocus leadership meetings from internal to external. We start a new, externally focused serving initiative. We reach out to a neglected group of people in our community with the gospel. We develop young leaders and let them lead, even if imperfectly. We decide and communicate clearly that objects are not sacred and can be moved or changed to help us be more effective in carrying out God’s mission, which is sacred.
As a church moves forward in living out God’s mission, it becomes healthier. And healthy things naturally grow, bear fruit, and multiply. Unhealthy things don’t (or we don’t want them to!). Leaders in healthy churches count the cost at each decision point, and they ultimately decide temporary pain will not deter them from becoming the disciple-making church Jesus established and envisioned.