What is Your Trajectory? Decline or Restart?

A group of people from a local church approached me recently very concerned about the survivability of their congregation. As I listened, I heard them say that they only had fifteen active adults left in the church and that there was no hope for survival. I reminded them that most new churches start out with fifteen or fewer adults meeting in someone’s home. I challenged them to consider themselves as a new church, shut down the old and start something new.

Only fifteen adults! Is that good or bad? Well, it depends on your trajectory. If you are a church planter just staring out, then fifteen adults meeting in your living room is a good thing. It is especially a good thing if they are excited about the prospect of a new church reaching their community. I once heard a comedian say that your first birthday party is eerily similar to your last. At both parties you have almost no teeth and hair; you are not really sure of what is going on and you don’t recognize hardly anyone there. You probably eat your birthday cake the same way too! If your church is an older church with only fifteen people in an empty sanctuary, you might not feel as positive about your future as a new church plant.

However, if you shut down the church for a period of time, move the people to a much smaller venue and tell them that they are a core group for a new church; you could change the trajectory of death to birth. It is not really that easy, however. The old church has to reverse the aging process and eradicate whatever diseases were killing it in the first place. The downward trajectory has to be reversed. A new vision for a preferred future needs to be cast and the remaining disciples need to buy into it.

 

What is impossible with man is possible with God. (Luke 18:27)

New churches tend to be missionally focused, while older churches tend to be more inwardly focused. To reverse the aging process, we have to change focus. There is no biblical mandate for a church to turn inward. There are no commands to meet the demands and personal preferences of self-centered church members. However, Jesus told the Church at Ephesus to return to her first love. Evidently, this church had turned inward and needed to be revitalized. Jesus told John to write to the church and to tell them to go back to doing what they did when the church was first started. This command was followed by a threat, if the church did not change her trajectory, Jesus would shut it down. Restarting a church involves getting back to the basics of why the church exists in the first place.

Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first.  Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. (Revelation 2:4-5)

New churches tend to focus on sharing the gospel, discipling believers, developing new leaders and multiplication. Older churches are often susceptible to diseases that cause the body to feed on itself, resulting in death. When a church restarts, these diseases can easily infect the new church unless care is taken to eradicate them. Church diseases are caused by vision drift – when the eyes of the leaders and the congregation shift from a focus on Christ to a focus on the organization. It is important for a restart church to diagnose and eradicate these diseases through repentance and church discipline before restarting.

A church restart requires a fresh vision that is Christ-centered and results in the fulfillment of His mission for the church. This kind of vision originates from God, is grounded in his word, and is delivered by His appointed leader. In the restart process there will be all kinds of suggestions for the new focus of the church and these should be taken into account. However, ultimately the leader has to cast vision. There is no room for any other vision than God’s vision for the church delivered by His appointed leader.

Diversity is a good thing in a church. Diversity of cultures, generations, languages and leadership are all good and healthy for a local church. However, diversity of vision leads to deadly cancer. More than one vision is di-vision and that is a tough way for a church to start out. I often tell church planters that there is nothing that they should be doing as a pastor that they should not allow anyone else to do except for casting vision. That job belongs to one man in the church and one man alone – the lead pastor.

The lead pastor is the vision caster of the church and it is his job to create buy-in. In a church restart, this is especially critical, because there will be those who want to hang on o the past. Celebrating the past is good for the church that just died, but the pastor of the restart church has to constantly remind the old-timers that that church no longer exists. A new day has dawned, a new church has been birthed and the orientation is toward the future of what Christ wants to accomplish through the mission of His church.

Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you. (Hebrews 13:17)

These disciples in the new church must be submissive and supportive of the lead pastor and be of singular focus with him. There is no room for self-centeredness and personal preferences in a missional church. The disciples must focus on making personal sacrifices in order to love and serve the community with which they are sharing the gospel. A Christ-centered focus on fulfilling His mission will bring about the unity that will eradicate disease and set the direction for the restart church. The new trajectory is future-oriented resulting in new growth and multiplication.

A vision that extends beyond the local church and points to global evangelization is much more energizing than focusing on taking care of the sheep that you already have. I know of a church that had a pastor with a heart for planting churches all over the world. They develop a process for training disciples to become multiplying leaders. When the pastor left to lead a para-church organization, the church turned inward. The elders felt that the current church members had been neglected and that it would be a good idea to focus on meeting their needs instead of training them to reach the world. The result? Church attendance was cut in half in just over two years. The bottom line is that not many people really want to be a part of an inward focused church. Maturing followers of Christ want to be a part of bigger movement. They want to reach their community. They want to know that their church is having a global impact. They want to be involved in reaching the world with the gospel of Jesus Christ. They want to be involved in a church that has a future.

It is not easy to do, but it is not impossible to turn a church that is in a downward spiral toward new life as the body of Christ. With a focus on the Word of God and the mission of Jesus, a new vision for a preferred future can motivate true followers of Christ to throw off the old, disease riddled practices of the past and to become healthy again.

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