My E-pistle last week about the life-cycle of churches and my call for churches to "go down serving" as they conclude their life-cycle has stirred up a lot of response. That's good! It helps me to know that people are reading and considering my E-pistles.
Several responses shared wonderful stories of congregations which completed their ministries with a genuine commitment to service, to leaving a legacy, and to finishing strong. Other responses have included stories of churches which broke the usual pattern of decline and found new life – instances of what one respondent called "resurrection churches" that came back to life, even when their statistics would have predicted decline and even death. I do believe that churches can be resurrected, and I have witnessed several of those myself.
Those stories of "resurrection churches" all have the same three themes, as I have read their stories and as I have observed them:
- Resurrection churches find life by giving themselves away to others in ministry, moving outside their own walls and comfort zones, and reaching out in new ways to be in ministry to and with persons beyond their previous experiences.
- Resurrections churches find life through the leadership of one or two key persons (usually lay persons) who catch a vision for a new ministry and lead the rest of the congregation to follow them. Once in a while those stories included a new pastor, but usually they were stories of one or two congregational leaders who caught the vision. This is why a small congregation has a distinct advantage over a larger one – it only takes a couple of people to turn around a smaller congregation, whereas changing a larger congregation can be like turning around a large battleship.
- Always, always these stories of resurrection churches include a major focus upon prayer. As one congregation in the Dakotas Conference told me years ago when I inquired about their amazing turn-around to become vital once again: "We had to become a praying church before we became a growing church."
So, yes, I believe that the typical life-cycle of a congregation can be interrupted, turned around, and resurrected with new life. Keeping on the same downward slope or even just "working harder to do the same thing" won't result in turn-around. One of the definitions of "insanity" is "doing the same thing over and over and expecting a new result." Resurrection is always an interruption, a spiritual change, and a new openness to God's leading.
Can it happen? Indeed, yes! Does God want us to interrupt our typical patterns of decline? Absolutely! Can the typical life-cycle of a church be jolted into a new birth? Most definitely! What is the best way to become a resurrection church? Start praying, and looking around to see the people who need the ministry of our church, and keep on trying new ways to start new ministries to connect with them. Most importantly, keep praying for those of us inside the church to be changed, transformed, and resurrected. And the result may be a resurrection church.