There are hundreds of church growth seminars offering church leaders enough “tools for their leadership toolbox” to stock a Home Depot. I’ve never heard of a seminar telling church leaders how to shrink their congregations…or even to kill them…but this happens A LOT. Stagnation, shrinkage or complete collapse may be more common than the stunning growth that those church growth seminars seem to showcase.
I’m thinking about this today because some friends from a former congregation sent us a copy of a resignation letter they’d sent to the church’s leadership and asked us to pray for them as they set out into the Land of Church Transition. We are. Their now-former church had once experienced explosive growth. We were a part of the church during those amazing times, but have been gone for quite a while. It has been heartbreaking to hear occasional snippets through the grapevine about how the church has been experiencing a painful, dramatic numerical decline.
This got me to reminsicing about what it is like to live through a church implosion.
Bill and I have lived through a complete church collapse, and I wouldn’t wish the experience on a cockroach. Bill was in leadership at the time, and one of the most stunning things to witness was the power of a few hysterical women to burn up hours on the phone doing group dissection projects as they picked at every single thing that was wrong with the church. Their husbands would then gather around a couple of men who didn’t actually want to lead the congregation in title, but were more than happy to provide color commentary and fear-soaked “theological analysis” of every move the church leaders made to their devoted group of followers. Bill and the other elder spent hours talking, praying, meeting with each of the disgruntled folks individually, and in the end, as if most of them were following a script (which in fact some may have been), they left.
As these key influencer families left, their followers (their true personal congregation) followed. And then others, who had nothing to do with all of the drama, decided to move on to healthier pastures. Who could blame them? The conflict and grief had turned the place inward, and in the end, the church didn’t make it. A handful of people left chose to merge with a group who’d been meeting as a house church for a while, reforming into a larger version of the house church. Our family, battered and weary, moved on into the Land of Church Transition. It took a long time to find a new church home. It’s taken longer to experience a good measure of healing. If you’re committed to a local church, it is a long dark journey to get to the border crossing of that land…and that’s before you begin to wander the seemingly-barren terrain in search of a way out.
If you’ve ever been through a situation like this, you know that it changes you. It must. Reading the book of Acts and seeing supernatural growth even while experiencing conflict internal-to-the-infant-church tells me it is possible to thrive. Hearing accounts of stunning growth of the church in other parts of the world, without “tools” and copycat marketing strategies, shows me that the book of Acts is absolutely real and current here and now.
That barren terrain is meant to strip us of our false ideas of who the church is (both the glossy church growth version and the battleground/implosion version) and get us praying, “Lord, Your Kingdom come…”
And so I do. For our friends. For all of us.