One of the biggest obstacles American churches must face is the realization that individual congregations have lifespans, just like all living organisms, and that this is not a bad thing. Churches tend to grow to close to their full size in their first decade and rarely grow much after a couple decades.
Most churches will last 60 – 100 years. But most of that time they will achieve stable size which they maintain for most of their life and then race a decline toward their final years. During the middle years. they can expand the kingdom through multiplying new churches. Older churches have more resources and lots of wisdom to pass on, but rarely grow much themselves. That is not a problem if you have a broad, kingdom vision. but it is a tragedy if you only think in terms of one local. individua congregation.
My wife. Amy and I are in our mid-50’s. We have three grown children and a couple grandchildren. If you ask us how our family is doing, we don’t tell you how many people are at our dining room table on average. We’d have to tell you about 4 homes in 4 cities. At this stage in our life, Amy and I have much to offer our family, but we wouldn’t serve our family well by trying to keep them all in our house. The same is true of congregations. We need to think in terms of generations and extended family.
In most of the world, Christians have a broad, kingdom mentality instead of a local institutional mentality. Their goal is to reach more people and multiply congregations who are transforming lives. The passing of a congregation from old age is a normal part of the larger life cycle of the larger kingdom community. But, for a complex set of reasons, American Christians tend to see our mission as growing a single congregation, or at least maintaining it. That means. when a congregation get past its childbearing years and moves into predictable decline, fear, shame, and grief take hold and the church leaders don’t know what to do. This is particularly true if that church has no vision, strategy, or practice of planting new churches. When such a congregation gets towards the end of its life, the only narrative that it can see is death and failure.
The amount of money congregations spend trying to reverse their aging process and extend the life of their individua congregation instead of investing in new congregations is shocking. But, in the absence of living out a bigger vision, what other options can they see?
Part of what I love about Heritage 21 is their ability to help congregations understand where they are in their life cycle and find the most faithful way to pass on the heritage of faith and kingdom resources God has entrusted to them. For churches who get stuck in myopic fear and failure narratives, H21 can help them rediscover and celebrate the life of their church and find faithful ways to pass on that life beyond their congregation.
At this stage in the history of churches associated with the Stone-Campbell Churches of Christ. there is probably no ministry more important for our future than the Heritage 21 Foundation. We have thousands of congregations near the end of their lifespan who can make a massive contribution to the expansion of the Kingdom if they can develop a larger kingdom vision and overcome their needless shame cycles to find their place in God’s unfolding mission in our country and the world.
I can’t emphasize enough just how important is the ministry of Heritage 21. They empower churches to see themselves afresh as God’s beloved people who can serve his mission and pass on their faith to another generation both home and abroad. If You are in a plateaued or declining congregation, I’d suggest you reach out to Heritage 21 and begin the conversation about the future of your faith. They will help you discern God’s call for your congregation and find faithful paths forward to be good stewards of what God has placed in your hands for his mission.
For the kingdom,
Dan Bouchelle, MRN