On the evening of August 18, we had a church council meeting at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church. At that meeting of just more than 15 church members, we discussed one of the most—if not the most—pressing issues facing mainline denomination churches in the United States. The issue is church life cycles. I can only imagine how your pulse must be quickening with excitement as you read these words. In all seriousness, this is not an exciting topic for most, but it is one of the underlying issues which impacts the present and future viability of any church.
Briefly, the stages of a church’s lifecycle are:
- Birth—This stage is characterized by potential, purpose and vision, and constant care/protection.
- Growth—This stage is characterized by energy and excitement, the unexpected, and progress.
- Stability—This stage is characterized by fulfillment, accomplishment, predictability, and nostalgia.
- Decline—This stage is characterized by anxiety, fear, denial, paranoia, and conflict.
- Death—This stage is characterized by, well, death of the church.
While all churches start with birth, and most then enter a period of growth, it is worth noting all churches do not inherently go from stability to decline to death. If there is great intentionality and hard work, a church can intervene when decline begins and reverse the process where a new period of growth can occur.
How hard it is to intervene and address the decline and engage in a period of new grow is directly tied to how long the decline has been occurring. If we think about this for a moment, this is intuitive to us. For example, if I want to get in shape, how hard that will be will be largely determined by how long it has been since I have exercised. The same is true in the church. The longer a pattern of behavior has been practiced, the more difficult it will be to change.
The current reality for us at St. Paul’s is that over the past three months, we have seen an increase in the most easily, but not the only measures of vitality in a church. We have seen roughly a 32 per cent increase in worship attendance and a 10 per cent increase in financial giving to support the ministries of the church. This is wonderful, and we should celebrate this. However these recent increases belie a greater truth. Both of these increases are not composed primarily by new growth, but instead are from the return of individuals and their giving, who, for whatever reason, had stopped coming to worship or participating in the life of St. Paul’s over the past several years. In a sense, it would be like finding a $20 dollar bill in a pair of pants you don’t wear very often. It is exciting, and is $20 more than you had before, but you have not earned more money. It is simply finding what you previously lost.
I believe greater truth of our reality here at St. Paul’s is our church is and has been in a period of decline for some time. This is not to say there aren’t wonderful people here or that there aren’t wonderful and impactful ministries occurring. What this is to say is if things keep going as they have, St. Paul’s will follow the natural and logical progression of a church’s life cycle. I do not believe this has to be the case for us.
I believe because of the passion and faith of those who are here and because of the vitality and relevancy of our ministries, we have the potential to reverse this period of decline and restart a sustained period of growth!
If you are going to attend this meeting, I am asking that you read the book beforehand so it can help facilitate our work.
So what now?
Pray. Pray for St. Paul’s. Pray for God’s guidance for our church and that we will have the strength, determination and faith to live into the future God has for us. Ask God to reveal the part you play in this process.
Come and invite others. Continue coming and participating in the life of the church and invite those you know to join you.
Dream. On Sunday, September 27, from 2:00 to 3:30pm we will be having another church council meeting where we will be looking at how we can best restart a period of growth. To guide our discussion, we will be using the book, Renovate or Die by Bob Farr. Those who came to the last meeting received a copy. We have a few left in the office, and it is available on Amazon.com as well.
Only God knows what will happen in the next few years in the life of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, but I fully believe if we come together and fully devote ourselves to this task, there is no reason why this church cannot thrive again.
Rev. Kris Tate