Everybody knows the new church on the block. It’s the fresh, informal, innovative church plant down the street. “New Church” may be small, but everybody is deeply invested – and it shows in the way they love each other and their neighbours.
“Established Church” moved into their building about 15 years ago, and things are really happening. The leadership team and organizational framework clearly enable their mission. Sure, they have lots of programs, but the emphasis is on meeting people’s needs in Jesus’ name.
Over at “Mature Church,” they’ve wrestled hard with issues and have scars to prove it. Members of the congregation share deep relationships with one another. They’ve been enjoying a long season of stability, which means things are running more smoothly and efficiently than ever before. But members seem to be getting busier these days, and fewer and fewer are willing to get involved.
Then there’s the church that just posted a for-sale sign on their front lawn…and it isn’t because they’re moving to another location. The few people who haven’t left or moved away are tired of carrying so much. They’ve agreed to go, with each other’s blessing, and blend into other existing congregations in the area.
Is this the story of four different churches? Or is it a description of the life cycle of every church?
Must all congregations eventually grow up, grow old, and die? For everything there is a season – sure, but when it comes to local churches, death needn’t come too soon, or even at all, for that matter.
Congregations grow and change
The notion that churches are complex, living social organisms – naturally progressing through stages of growth and development – has been around for some 60 years. It’s an idea that finds its roots in biology and sociology. The notion of congregational life cycles can help people anticipate challenges, normalize idiosyncrasies, and foster improved self-awareness. The goal is for congregations to navigate the cycle, rather than allow the cycle to navigate congregations.
However, consensus around the number of stages, their description, and the causes of stage transition has proven illusive. Church life cycle models include a range of proposed stages, from as few as three to as many as 11, while descriptions of stages reflect different emphases and assumptions.
Some question the benefit of borrowing a construct from the world of science and applying it to the church. Is it appropriate to anthropomorphize the body of Christ? Can we draw insights about the church from the social sciences? As author Craig Van Gelder says, “[Congregations] have a duality to their nature in being both holy and human. This means that the study of congregations as organizations must bring together biblical and theological foundations in relation to social science insights.”
Alban Institute researchers Alice Mann and Martin Saarinen say congregations develop and decline in distinctive stages due to changes in emphases around four factors. The “E” factor (energy) includes vision, hope, excitement, enthusiasm, and a sense of potency and potentiality. The “P” factor (program) describes the services and programs of the congregation in response to its needs, environment, and ministry mandates. The “A” factor (administration) includes mission statements, goals, objectives, budgets, and planning. The “I” factor (inclusion) describes relational concerns including those within and outside the congregation.
As the emphases on these factors shift, six stages emerge. Each stage of congregational life comes with its own unique joys and challenges, and can offer instruction to churches at other stages.
Stage #1: birth
The first stage is the birth of a congregation – a particularly exciting and uncertain phase. A core group of Christ-followers has already invested deeply in this “new thing” God is doing. The nascent group’s commitment level is remarkable, and is matched by a tremendous openness to the surrounding community. The elements present at the beginning of this congregation’s story contain “genetic” information that will be expressed throughout the rest of its life cycle.
Young congregations invite people into a more unscripted way of being together. The formalization and professionalization developed in later phases is not yet present at this stage. While there is certainly a place for “formal” and “professional” in the church, there is also a place for improvisation and variations on a theme. These congregations have something important to teach other churches about “jazz” – that organic variety of music, particularly adept at hearing and responding to the sometimes-syncopated rhythms of the Spirit.
Newborn congregations may also remind more established churches of their own birth stories. Such recall can have a realigning effect, as those memories come embedded with the missional seeds of God’s original call on the congregation.
The savvy with which these young congregations interpret their context and incarnate the gospel for the culture serves as a tremendous example to mature and declining congregations. Young churches are like bloodhounds on a scent trail, learning through trial and error, as they weave back and forth across God’s call for their community, honing in on who they are, and what and who they are for. Such openness to their environment and sensitivity to the leading of God’s Spirit serves as an important example to congregations in other stages.
Stage #2: formation
The next stage in congregational life cycle is formation, when the basic identity of a congregation is established. Lessons learned in the early years translate into growing wisdom and history within the community. Relationships broaden and deepen as the community remains on mission. The church begins to take shape around particular needs and best practices.
If there’s a challenge in this stage, it is trying to do too much with too little. Jesus had a way of multiplying a little into enough-for-all. As we follow him through this stage, the temptation will be to try to do that again and again, without limit. Yet, Jesus didn’t try to meet every need in first-century Palestine. We can only do, be, and offer so much.
Congregations in the formation stage offer a distinct perspective on the nature of church programs. In their view, no program is a sacred cow. Any initiative is considered an experiment and, as such, has yet to be entered into the congregational book of untouchable practices. During this stage, programs that fail to meet the concrete, relevant needs for which they are designed are more likely to be discontinued.
During later stages, congregations will have more difficulty off-lining programs, especially those in which so much has been invested and held in the congregation’s collective memory as being “successful.”
Stage #3: stability
The formation stage is followed by a period of stability within which a congregation’s faith identity is clear, and where the organization of the church enables effective and persistent expression of that identity.
This third stage is characterized by openness toward others, responsiveness to needs within the congregation, and balance between people and programs. Stability like this sets up a watershed environment where it can be more convenient to stick to the status quo than to introduce a season of reflection, celebration, and refocusing for the future.
If the stable congregation has one thing to teach congregations at every other stage, it’s this: danger ahead! By now, the congregation has hit its stride. Systems are working, people are growing in relationship with God and others, lives are being transformed in service of God’s mission in the world. Momentum has been building, and it seems the congregation has finally arrived.
This stage appears to be the sweet spot in the cycle, but it’s perhaps the most dangerous. At this stage, sacred cows are born. “This is how we do things around here.” Ministries become frozen, calcified, inflexible. The congregation wants to stay right where it is. Ironically, the longer a congregation tries to remain in this stage, the more definitely it will move on to the next one.
Stage #4: maturity
The maturity stage is best represented by an innocent sounding question: “What did we do last year?” Congregations that provide quick answers to this question may face a future driven more by the past than by sensitivity to God’s larger, more ancient and imminent narrative.
Mature congregations may be more responsible, but maturity may also unwittingly serve as a windbreak against the gusts of God’s Spirit, homogenizing the messiness of kingdom-of-God living, displacing the “new thing” God desires with the “old thing” we know best.
Although this stage is more often characterized by decline than emergence, mature church families have significant resources to offer congregations in earlier stages of development. Mature congregations have become wary of passing trends and remain unmoved by quick fixes and easy answers. These church communities have grown deep over the years and have a thoughtful, considerate perspective that younger congregations would do well to pay attention to. These congregations, with several generations of families in them, enjoy rich, multi-layered relationships. They model something important about loving one another in community.
The relational strength of this stage can become a liability, however, when relationship between members is deemed more important than God’s mission in the world. A key challenge facing these congregations is remembering the words of Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple: “The church is the only cooperative society in the world that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.”
Stage #5: decline
The beginning of decline is marked by an emphasis on fine-tuning what already exists – a strategy that would make sense if ever there came a point in the life of a congregation where everything had been learned, or if God’s ongoing work in the world ended, or if the cultural context ceased to change.
During this stage of decline, congregational focus leans toward internal, controllable factors. As momentum diminishes, congregations may be able to maintain the status quo by relying on efficient processes they’ve developed, thereby obscuring initial signs of decline.
Stage #6: death
The old wood-frame church building, with its broken-out windows, stares ahead with hollow eyes. The front doors are secure, though; they won’t give in to pulling because they are nailed shut. The beloved body of Christ bears the wounds of death still today.
And yet, while God’s people do bear responsibility for the body, the church exists and persists because of the grace of God. God will have the final word. After all, when have nails been able to hold back the body of Christ?
A sold sign on a church building does not reflect the well-being of the kingdom of God, neither is it a commentary on the faithfulness of the community that once gathered in that place. Chances are good that the last ones to turn out the lights are as good and faithful as the rest of us.
Opportunity for renewal
Unfortunately, some people misunderstand this life cycle framework and believe it reinforces a negative stereotype about aging. Life is not all about mitigating the forces of aging. Forever young is neither the point nor the calling of the church. Healthy growing churches reaching their worlds are as subject to aging processes as humans are. In the church, death and life commingle in a now-but-not-yet kind of dance. The point is not to defy or resist aging, so much as to understand the process and allow the natural rhythms to create opportunities for new expressions.
Death is part of life, but death need not be the end of the story for a church. What is true for God’s people is also true of Christ’s body. Resurrection and new life here and now can be part of the experience of local congregations.
A community on the cusp of decline is also a people facing opportunity for renewal. Over time, congregations can develop amnesia about the forces that once breathed life into their community. Renewal means a rediscovery of the congregation’s specific vision and its part in God’s work in the world. For existing congregations, revitalization is critical.
The further along the life cycle, the more difficult this work becomes. Mann describes a redevelopment loop that begins by acknowledging the death of a congregation’s previous identity and purpose. The congregation must then commit to reallocating resources toward the discovery of a new identity and purpose – finding new answers to questions about who are we, what are we for, and who is our neighbour.
But before we judge too harshly, it’s important to remember that the dwindling, embattled congregation struggling to meet its budget is as much “church” as the growing, multi-campus hipster congregation that seems to be on the cutting edge of everything. Comparing congregations at different stages of the life cycle is decidedly unhelpful. It’s tantamount to comparing a tadpole to a frog, then criticizing the one for not croaking, and the other for not having a tail!
The Lord once asked Ezekiel “Can these bones live?” to which Ezekiel responded, “Sovereign LORD, you alone know” (37:3). Obviously Ezekiel was unfamiliar with congregational life cycles. Yet that valley of dry bones illumines something of the essential nature of God’s role in revitalizing and vivifying his people.
The church belongs to God, the author and sustainer of life. He is equally present and at work among congregations in development or decline. Yet, God also calls his church into partnership. As members of the body of Christ, we bear responsibility for that body. Just as Ezekiel prophesied to those bones, may we speak to one another in Jesus’ name about the church. May the wind of God’s Spirit fill our memories and imaginations so that we, the body refreshed and renewed, might continue to impact our worlds for Christ.
–Nathan Koslowsky served as youth & young adults pastor at River East MB Church in Winnipeg. He is currently completing graduate studies at Canadian Mennonite University.