As sure as train traffic increases with the fall harvest, each year I’ll work with a handful of churches nearing the end of their life cycles. I see a symbolic relationship between the two.
The Lesson of Aging Churches
I empathize with church leaders who know their church will close in the next two to three years. They view themselves as caretakers of 80 or 100 or 120 years of congregational heritage. Often their grandparents or great grandparents were influential in developing the church. It’s a painful season.
By this time, the leaders know the church might receive a bequest to continue for a few years. It might form a dual parish with another congregation and extend life for another decade. But it will take a miracle for the church to start a new life cycle.
They learn this lesson: If the church wanted to continue for another 50 or more years, it needed to make a major change decades earlier.
Automobiles verses Trains
Today, business leaders use catch phrases such as “nimble” and “flexible” and “pivot.” They long for the ability to rapidly create new products or enter new markets. In short, they want their companies to function like cars, able to quickly change directions
Churches are trains. As God is unchanging, so they desire to minimize change. Congregations are built to hurtle along twin tracks of doctrine and values, not veering to the left or right. This is one of the challenges in the survival of churches today.
Churches shouldn’t change “what” they do (make disciples of Jesus). Congregations can’t change how God makes disciples (through His Word). Churches can switch who they are discipling.
- Churches whose members commute from suburbs can switch to reaching the residents within three miles of their facilities.
- Churches looking to start a new worship services in current facilities can switch to forming a new campuses for the new services.
- Churches with facilities that appeal to the older generations can switch by remodeling the campuses for younger generations.
- Churches that provide ministries in one language can switch offering ministries in more than one language.
- Churches with virtually no members living in the neighborhood can switch locations, selling the current facilities and relaunching the churches.
The Church Needs Switch Operators
The challenge for church leaders is recognizing the need for this switch long before the church is at risk for closing. Major change requires a great deal of leadership, resources and time.
What churches need are courageous and discerning switch operators.
As a child, I stood in awe of train switch operators. It didn’t matter what the weather – freezing drizzle or driving winds or withering sun – the switch operators had to manually throw the switch.
If the operator threw the switch too early, the wrong train might switch tracks. If the switch was thrown too late, the train might crash.
Churches need skilled switch operators, or congregations will suffer the same fates. Switch too early, the congregation will not embrace the change. Switch too late, the church will crash.
The switch operator couldn’t successfully make the train switch tracks alone. At the very least, the engineer usually had to slow the train.
It doesn’t matter whether you see the pastor as the switch operator or engineer. Likewise with lay leadership. Both must work together for the church to successfully make such a significant switch in directions.
It is possible some readers are members of churches that experienced a turnaround at the very end of their life cycle. It does happen. I love those stories.
Still, it’s wiser for churches to listen their switch operators while the congregations still have a strong ministry. Congregations are much more likely to successfully switch directions at age 40 than at age 80.
What lessons have you learned about leading change in churches? Share your thoughts in the comments or shoot me an email.