If you have been around long enough, you have seen the “life cycle of a church” diagram. The basic concept is that the life of a church – or any organization – can be represented by a bell-shaped curve. Birth or dream is at the bottom on the left side, health or maturity at the apex of the curve, and death or dissolution at the bottom on the right side.
Church consultants have used many variations on the idea, especially to help churches that are on the downward slope from maturity to death to adopt an intervention that will kick the church into a new rising growth slope. Although the concept has become an accepted representation of a church’s life cycle, few consultants have been ready to help a church accept that perhaps “death” is the appropriate destination for their congregation.
Nowhere in the Bible are we told that a particular local expression of the body of Christ will last forever. We are told that “the Church” (the visible and invisible congregation of believers of all times, the universal church) will certainly survive and conquer (Matthew 16:18). Do any of the churches of the first century still exist? No. Do churches (local congregations) fulfill their mission and die? Yes. The problem is that some do not realize that they are dead.
I have thought for some time that we need a hospice program for churches. In this situation, we would help churches that have declined to “die with dignity.” These are churches whose neighborhoods have changed, whose members no longer live in the area and do not return for services, or who have been crippled by economic situations. A “hospice ministry” would help these churches to accept the situation and close their doors with grace.
My home church in Mobile, Ala., found itself in such a declining situation. Under the leadership of a gifted interim pastor, the church found another congregation with which they could merge, sold the church facilities to an ethnic congregation at a reasonable price, and gave a majority of the receipts to a Baptist college for a scholarship fund. One can find any number of situations where such wise decisions have been made.
My friend, Chris Gambill of the Center for Congregational Health, has come up with an even better idea. He suggests that such churches in decline need to become pregnant. Like Sarah of old, they need to conceive and give birth. This could take a number of forms. The church might use its resources to give birth to a new congregation that would meet in its facilities until maturity. For example, an ethnic, emerging or “new generation” church start might use the old church’s facilities as an “incubator” with the original congregation continuing to share the facilities.
Alternatively, the church might simply close its doors and sell its building to provide resources for new church development. Another approach is for the old church to sell or give its facilities to a stronger congregation that would continue to use the building to provide ministries to the area after the former congregation is gone.
The possibilities are unlimited. The challenge is to help declining congregations accept the fact that death is part of life and discern ways to continue to build the Kingdom of God even after the present congregation no longer exists. Will this take a miracle? Yes, but it is the miracle that we preach – new life and resurrection.
Ircel Harrison is an associate with Pinnacle Leadership Associates and director of the Murfreesboro Center of Central Baptist Theological Seminary. A version of this column appeared previously on his blog.
Ircel Harrison is coaching coordinator for Pinnacle Leadership Associates and is supplemental associate professor of missional theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary.