Congregations, like living organisms, experience cyclical and predictable seasons. In a manner of speaking, they are given birth in the spring, flourish in the summer, fade in the fall, and die in the winter.
Well, not necessarily. While the living organisms of nature have been created by God, the church is indwelt by God the Spirit, the very Spirit that raised Jesus Christ from the grave. And because of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, congregations need not die or retire. Instead, they may experience resurrection through renewal or regeneration through a relaunch.
But what about your congregation? If your ministry currently lives in the spring or summer, you need not spend much time with that question. Like parents with a newborn baby or with teenagers exploring adulthood, you have enough on your plate. Perhaps, however, your church has entered the fall season. Your membership is declining, along with your contributions. You expend more energy maintaining structures and programs than making disciples. Your congregation gets embroiled in disputes over non-essentials, having lost sight of its reason for being. In short, the autumn season is upon you and its starting to look like winter.
What do you do? Better yet, what is the Lord’s will for your congregation? At least three options lie before you. Each one is difficult to endure, yet each one leads to a fresh outpouring of God’s grace.
First, your congregation may retire. It may close its doors, donate its resources to another ministry, and encourage members to join other congregations. It’s a tough option for it is a form of death, one that marks the end of relationships with fellow pilgrims who once shared life together. Yet, the congregation which arrives at such a decision receives grace to die to itself and hope that its death will breathe life into other congregations. As such, it offers a unique opportunity to follow the example of Christ who died that we other may have life. It may be the best option for your congregation, especially if characterized by an aging membership and diminished energy.
Second, your congregation may relaunch. A relaunch requires a new vision accompanied by context specific strategies which slowly but surely give shape to a new look. This is also a tough option for it involves a makeover of the ministry. Congregants feel like they are losing their church. Some leave but a core remains – ready to embark on a new mission. This is an option chosen by many congregations whose membership no long reflects its neighbors.
Third, your congregation may renew. Most congregations prefer this option, if only because the others lack appeal. It involves a season of visioning ministry and developing strategies which lead to the realization of a new vision. Like the first two options, it is difficult. It’s tough because it requires a renewed commitment to mission, significant changes in strategy, and elimination of some cherished traditions. Yet it is liberating. It opens the door to the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit by which the congregation enters a new season of life.
Renew, relaunch, or retire? Whatever option is chosen, this much is certain: the future of your congregation will not mirror the past. Every congregation will finally experience the autumn season and every congregation will then face a simple question: Will we renew, relaunch, or retire?