Ray Ortlund passes on an observation about three stages in a local church’s growth and decline. It’s vital to humbly self-examine because what can be observed as strength can be the rigidity that is precursor to decline.
A healthy church is born as a burst of positive gospel energy. It’s a Pentecost-like explosion of joy, a vital gospel movement. Such a church has a sense of mission, even a sense of destiny. It’s exciting to be in this church. Think of a steep upward trajectory.
Given human weakness, after a time, this movement becomes a monument. The spirit of the church changes from hunger to self-satisfaction, from eagerness to routine, from daring new steps of faith to maintaining the status quo, from outward to ingrown. It’s easy not to notice this shift. The self-image of the church might still be that of a vital movement. But deep within, everything has changed. Think of leveling off.
If the trend toward mediocrity is not arrested, the church will decline and become a mausoleum, a place of death. The church as an institution may have enough social momentum and financial resources to keep churning on. But as a force for newness of life, it no longer counts. Think of steep decline – indeed, a death spiral.
The responsibility of a church’s leaders is to discern when their movement is starting to level off as a monument. It is at this crucial point that they must face themselves honestly and discover why they have lost their edge, go into repentance and return to the costly commitments that made them great to begin with. They may need to deconstruct much of what they have become, which is painful and embarrassing. But if the leaders will have the humility, clarity and courage to do this, their church will go into renewal and re-launch as a movement once more. Jesus will become real again, people will be helped again, and those bold, humble leaders will never regret the price they paid.