Overcoming the Odds

Following on from a couple of posts ago is the awkward question, what if most of a congregation have plateaued? Or enough that they tip the balance of power in a church to mean that leaders are always frustrated when they try to bring initiatives that would get them moving again. That's a bad Catch 22 – you want to help people move on, but the very ones you want to help will always resist because the  things that would help them will also challenge their comfort zone. This happens either when a church welcomes new members without insisting on a clear commitment to the church's vision (and leaders as exemplifiers of that vision) as a condition of membership, or when people have been allowed to coast spiritually for a long period of time. Incidentally, why on earth do we think that anyone who is a Christian should be allowed to join any local church, as if being a believer is the only criterion? Don't identifying with the vision, values, strategy, doctrine, people and leadership also have a significant bearing? Just being a member of God's family doesn't automatically mean you identify with the specifics of a particular fellowship, and if you don't then you shouldn't be invited into the responsibility of membership.

The Catch 22 has several possible elements to it:

  • The pastor is inhibited in bringing the very initiatives that would change the situation
  • They are expected to use all their time fulfilling the current, mistaken, expectations of the congregation, leaving no free time or energy
  • If they stop doing what is expected in order to free up more time to change things there will be complaints
  • There will be a lack of sense of church-as-team, leaving the leader to carry the emotional stake of bringing renewal singlehanded
  • Resistance will mount every time there is an attempt to get people off the plateau, and lessen every time the attempt is thwarted

It is crucial to identify two groups of people: those who aren't on the plateau and who really want to grow in God, and those who are on the plateau but who have the beginnings of godly dissatisfaction with where they are. The engine for change needs to be the first of these groups. Search them out, get them together. Get them to pray and mentor and encourage the second group. I think it is rare for the sole leader to bring about the change on their own, without the empowering fellowship of those in the church who are going for it with God (few though they may be). The need is for long term pressure in the right direction and that is very rarely something that a leader will maintain on their own.

And if the inertia is inescapable? Worst case scenario, that fellowship is no longer a church, biblically speaking. They have fallen into the Ephesian trap of losing their first love, regardless of all the activity that might go on. It happens. It's hard to make the call about when a fellowship is heading inexorably into that Revelation 2 black hole, when the ability to change course has been entirely destroyed, when the forces of inertia will certainly lead to eventual church death, where the passion for God has been extinguished. I think it can only be seen after that long term pressure in the same direction to try to change it, but putting long term effort into finding out, only to discover that there is no possibility of change, is intensely demoralising – let any leader in that situation make sure they have really good friends.

Granted God can revive whoever he wants. The low point of the entire Bible is the vision in Ezekiel 37 in which the entire people of God are reduced to a valley of dry bones, and yet the Spirit gave life out of death. But humanly speaking we sometimes have to decide whether we are flogging a dead horse and need to leave to do something else. In the case of a church, let us postpone that decision as long as we possibly can – but not forever. I know a few, extremely godly, people with ministries to pastor aging churches gently through their demise. Praise God for them. But for those who aren't gifted to that, staying when the fellowship is well beyond the point of no return is a recipe for leadership death as well as church death.