Implosion’s launch pad

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.
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About Michelle Van Loon
  • Celia Milslagle

    Hi Michelle,

    I came to your blog to read about the box. :) but lingered to read about your church-implosion experience. Having been through one myself has re-defined for me what the church is–and isn’t.

    What kind of reformation does the church need? It has something to do with making Christ central, letting him be our gyroscope. Not blindly following tradition and one another. Not getting our “joy” and “peace” from services that please or Christian friends who inspire. It has something to do with finding out what the Bible actually says—not what we believe it says because we’ve heard certain out-of-context quotes so often. To find out ALL that the Bible says—not just the verses that show up in promise boxes or just the Scriptures we can pray to support outcomes that we believe are important. And then, having been amazed by what it says, not being able to return to the same-old, same-old style of living.

    It’s not about the programs or the pastor or the membership. It’s about church members choosing to lay hold of God—whether anyone else does or not. As more and more of us find that place, we can help others get there. But if one has truly fallen in love with Jesus and has discovered the compelling wisdom of his Word, having a church full of like-minded members or pastors will never again be the main event. Jesus will continue to be the one who captivates.

    The church is important, but it will never be perfect—especially not for someone who hungers to see her “without spot or wrinkle”—holy and grown up to the full stature of Christ. I believe that our objective, as church members, is not to be in a church that meets our expectations, but to meet Jesus’ expectations of us as we sojourn within his church. It is not so much a matter of finding a good church as it is a matter of how good we are in that church. Jesus was never in a good church, either. His refreshment came from nights spent in prayer and his meat came from doing his Father’s will. His relationship with “the church” was to pour into those who were receptive, to demonstrate the compassion of God, to deliver the messages that came from his Father’s prompting, and to trust that it would all bear fruit.

    That is not to say that it doesn’t matter how healthy the church is. We are to “stir one another up to love and good works.” But our spiritual health needs to be augmented by the church but not dependent on it—or it is based on the wrong foundation.

    Easier said than done! I am finding Bob Sorge’s book Secrets of the Secret Place a great boost to me in that direction.

  • Michelle Van Loon

    Beautifully put, Celia!

    Your comments carry the weight of someone who has been there, and has been able to follow Jesus out of the mess. He bids us to “come up higher”, and not be pulled down into the cesspool of a bad situation.

    It is a challenge to find a healthy understanding of the weight we need to put on our individual pursuit of Christ and our connection to the Body of Christ. We stand before God as individuals, yet He also sees us as part of the Bride. The church can’t save us, yet our salvation makes us members of something greater than merely ourselves.

    Bob Sorge’s book has been a life-changer (or lifeline!) for many!

  • Celia Milslagle

    You are so right, Michelle, about the fact that we are inescapably a part of the Church—and blessed to be so. I am hopeful that the church is being led by the Lord to know the Shepherd behind their human shepherds. I’m afraid I have come rather close at times to the mentality of the Israelites at the foot of Mt. Sinai who said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us . . .” That kind of church membership—sticking to temporal things that they could handle and comprehend, instead of lifting their eyes to the eternal—was mostly profitless. Every crisis was as frightening as the one before. They were easily deceived. And they did not reach the promised land. It took a new generation who apparently had esteem for and trust in GOD (instead of a “Moses, YOU get us there” attitude) to step into the life God had called them to. Now, what was the secret of the church in the wilderness that caused it to raise up this faith-filled generation?

  • Michelle Van Loon

    The Egypt-leavers all had to die. The Jordan-crossers had grown up eating manna, following the cloud, wandering the desert.

    Hmmm….

    How would you answer your own question, Celia?

  • Celia Milslagle

    It’s sad that the Egypt-leaver’s mindsets were so ingrained that they simply had to die off. Would you say that what the church needs to do is to help people “die” to the “Egypt” in their past, and act like the new-born people that they actually are, letting their whole outlook on life be re-shaped by the new experiences of the life of faith? Or did you have a different answer in mind?

  • Michelle Van Loon

    No, I didn’t have a different question in mind. You’ve asked the zillion dollar question about how to encourage people to die to themselves.

    We know this is what God is calling us to do, but how to create a culture in the church where this is embraced and encouraged? Any ideas??


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