Last month in Part One of this article, I related the correlation between the stages of dying and the potential death of a church. Each goes through somewhat definable stages that start with denial, move to anger, then on to bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance.
For a church:
- Denial happens while it is still on “the plateau,” where growth has stalled for several years.
- Anger takes place when decline starts and those frustrated by this look for someone or something to blame.
- Bargaining is the process of trying to “make a deal with God,” in which the church finds itself willing to compromise on some things that previously were non-negotiable.
- Depression sets in when the church seems unable to right the decline, and this affects the church’s perception of its own value and worth.
- Acceptance happens when the church submits to a death that seems inevitable.
My colleague, Bob Bickford, has noted that the decline of the church, what I have called the stages in the dying process, offer a few optimal “windows” for revitalization and replanting work. I now turn my attention to these three windows of opportunity.
1. The denial stage. Of course, the challenge is helping the church to see the plateau they are on is really a signal that decline is coming. This is especially true when the plateau has been a reality for the church for more than three years. Remember, a plateau is strictly defined as growth or decline of 5% for five or more years. So, entering Year 4 an opportunity arises to catalyze growth and move back toward upward progress again. Charles Chaney, who led the Home Mission Board (now NAMB) Church Extension Division, used to say the key here is to “start something new.” Newness could mean a new worship service, a new ministry, a new church plant, a new vision, etc. The details don’t matter as much as the fact a new initiative has taken place. This brings vitality, energy and movement in a positive direction. If you can help the church see the need and respond, this is the easiest place on the church’s life journey to begin healthy, positive growth and development again.
2. The bargaining stage. When the anger has given way to a willingness to compromise (or perhaps negotiate is a better term), the church has the chance to see a turnaround take place. In my experience, almost everything is negotiable at this point, though those items, events or experiences with the most sentimental value will be the hardest to release. If we are not careful and alert to this, these particular items or experiences can become idols to the congregation. Leadership may have to confront these concerns at this stage. The key here is empathy, compassion, yet focused responsiveness to the need at hand. Arresting the decline will be harder here than at the denial stage, but if you can rally the congregation to be supportive and unified, you can experience forward momentum and progress toward reversing the decline.
3. The acceptance stage. At this point, depression has given way to desperation. The church knows it has little to no chance of surviving in its present form. Something dramatic has to change, and most churches who understand this are willing to take drastic action. However, the prescription at this point is limited to full-fledged replant options (marriage, adoption, replant from within, etc.). The church likely will engage with partners to assist them in this transition, and the church will indeed be different in the future, but it can survive, and even thrive, in its effort to begin again. Leadership must guide the church to release control to a healthy outside partner, who will give direction to the new chapter in the church’s life and ministry. This is often the hardest decision for the long-tenured members of the church. However, it can lead to the greatest gain and kingdom impact of the three opportunities mentioned here.
Of course, there is no plan or process, apart from the Holy Spirit, that can lead to church renewal. It must be recognized that it is His work, and His alone. But we must be sensitive to the opportunities He presents to us, and allow Him to guide us in our service of the church. After all, Jesus is the Head of the church, and He cares about its health and well-being far more than anyone else.
Lean into Him in this process, and He can bring the dead back to life!
Published September 3, 2021