I was reading post this morning by Seth Godin about the Mac and how businesses and primary products seem to hit a peak. That is, there is this point where the product isn't improved dramatically, the customer base is no longer increased and creativity stalls.
Godin writes. . .
The Grateful Dead hit their peak in 1977. Miles Davis in 1959, Warhol perhaps ten years later. It's not surprising that artists hit a peak—their lives have an arc, and so does the work. It can't possibly keep amazing us forever.
Fans say that the Porsche arguably hit a peak in 1995 or so, and the Corvette before that. Sears hit a peak more than a decade ago. It's more surprising to us when a brand, an organization or a business hits a peak, because the purpose of the institution is to improve over time. They gain more resources, more experience, more market acceptance... they're not supposed to get bored, or old or lose their touch. If Disney hadn't peaked, there would never have been a Pixar. If Nokia and Motorola hadn't peaked, there never would have been a smart phone.
One reason for peaking turns out to be success.
One does not have to look too far to find articles and blog posts about the rise of the "Nones" in American religious life and the stories of the marginalization of local churches.
Since the early 1980s, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of megachurches in the United States. The most common definition of a megachurch is a church that averages over 2,000 attenders weekly. There were approximately fifty megachurches in the US in 1980. Today, there are over 880. One statistic states that a new megachurch emerges in the US every two weeks in today's culture.
As America has become a predominantly urban and suburban culture, the growth of such places of worship was inevitable, it seems. The impact of these fellowships has been good, for the most part, and attractive for those seeking to be part of a larger story.
However, even with the rise of the megachurch, church attendance and participation in our culture seems to be going the opposite direction.
Have many churches peaked?
Bob Russell, former pastor of Southeast Christian Church, speaks of the reality of a local church's "shelf-life." He states. . .
One can trace the history of most churches through the swing of a bell curve. Birthed out of a need, it progresses upward through vision, commitment, enthusiasm, growth, and reputation, peaking at pride of achievement. Then the church slowly declines through tradition, dwindling attendance, indifference, bureaucracy, cynicism, and eventually death.
In a conference I attended years ago, Reggie McNeal stated "All churches have a shelf-life. That's why we're not talking about the church at Ephesus, Corinth, Thessalonica, etc. as modern pictures of a health and growth."
It's a wake up call for most pastors and church members.
Even in the suburban community where the church I serve is located, we have had to address the amazing demographic changes that have happened in just the past decade. To continue to program and plan to reach people as we did ten to fifteen years ago means that within ten to fifteen years, we may be struggling for survival.
Has Your Church Peaked?
A strategic and honest analysis of the health of your church is needed. To believe that everything is okay simply because there are people attending today is not enough. Since disciple-making is the goal of, and commission to the local church, it behooves us to ensure we (pastors and leaders) are equipping the saints for the work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:12).
I think about the twelve whom Jesus called out as apostles. For three years he taught, led and poured truth into them. This was done for their present situations, but he had a larger story in mind. Peter, James, John, Andrew, Bartholomew and the rest had no idea that the work they would be commissioned to do for the sake of the Gospel would ever be more than the "holy huddle" of the twelve plus Jesus. Then, as he equipped them, he revealed to them their calling.
He is still doing this.
The Local Church Is Valuable
The expression of the local church is valuable and God's design for impact in a community and ultimately the world. While His church will prevail, even when faced against the "gates of Hell" and the power of the Enemy, the reality is that numerous local churches no longer exist. This is not threatening to God or cause for distress. It is, however, a potential wake-up call for the fellowship of local believers.
We have a calling for now. The local church is still viable. However, the local church that becomes so inwardly focused and content to remain in small stories that ultimately do not matter, a funeral is coming. By the way, this is the truth for the mini-church and the mega-church.
We are wise to heed the words of Christ to the seven churches in Revelation (Bob Russell):
- “Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first” (2:5).
- “Be faithful even to the point of death” (2:10).
- “Hold on to what you have until I come (2:25).
- “Be earnest and repent” (3:19).
- “Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die…” (3:2).
Your Church Has Peaked. . .Now What?
In this age where church planting is celebrated in the evangelical world, many established and "legacy" churches are struggling to discover their identity in a changing culture. While some may have to shut their doors and eventually sell their property, not all have to go this route.
Revitalization is key.
To revitalize a dying church requires strategic "heart surgery." I have heard of far too many churches still gathering in old buildings, with rusty baptismal pipes (Baptist churches) and just a handful of senior adult ladies and one or two senior adult men gathering on Sunday mornings wondering what will happen in just a few years.
Until the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change, nothing will likely happen.
However, I have also had the privilege of watching a handful of dying (actually these churches weren't dying - they were actually dead and had been for years. I call them Zombie churches) churches swallow the pride of yesteryear and seek partnerships with growing, healthy and new expressions of church in their community. In some cases, the skin tone of the leadership had to change to better impact the changing community. In other situations, the heart language was different as immigrants have moved into an area. It's the same old story - the community changed and the church didn't respond. The wonderful thing is that in these cases, it wasn't too late.
The original expression of church peaked, but then was re-introduced through a healthy partnership and a newer, strategic vision. This is more than a fresh coat of paint on a broken-down building. This is a rebirth.
These churches have been born again.
Time ran a story a while back on "10 Companies That Radically Transformed Their Businesses" with illustrations of corporations who used to sell certain products then shifted and remain impactful today. IBM still exists because they realized at some point the business of creating punch-cards and tabulating machines would end. Nokia used to be a paper mill that sold rubber and cable works. Now, they make cell phones (though they may have to shift that too as Apple and Samsung seem to have cornered that market.)
The difference in these businesses and the church is that the "core product" is the only thing that will never change for the church. The Gospel is unchanging and always relevant. The means for sharing this Word changes over time, yet the Word never changes.
The local church may peak, but the Gospel never does.
The word to the wise is to know the Gospel, learn from the past, live in the present and look forward to the future. Just don't water-down or change the message.