Replanting a Denomination: Leadership during Stability, Decline, and Death

In The Life Cycle in Congregations, Arlin J. Rothauge advises churches on how to cope with stability, decline, and death. During decline or death, we are aware that there’s a problem, but when we’re plateaued, we tend to figure that we shouldn’t mess with what brought the original growth. And yet the best time to head off is decline is when plateaued, rather than waiting until things start to go downhill.
Stability and the Operator.

At this point in the life cycle the high level of energy and creativity recedes to make way for a growing concern for maintenance. The need for wise administration of the organization and preservation of the traditions requires the type of leader who can operate complex systems. However, “stability” becomes the first period of reshaping-in order to maintain vitality as well as continuity. Consequently, the best “operator” also will be a clever innovator.

All decline is preceded by a period of stability. We have to reach the flat, top of the curve before we begin the descending part.

There is a certain logic to the process of beginning formation over again. The probable steps are as follows:

1. Identity: “Why are, we in business? What are our assets and strengths?” Members rediscover who they are and why they exist as a congregation in this place and time.

2. Vision: “Where do we want to go?” Members reaffirm their obligation to become more faithful to their congregation as it could be in the future.

3. Strategy: “How will we get the job done?” Leaders reequip members and themselves with whatever it will take to reach for their new future. They plot and prepare for the step-by-step progress that will make the dream come true.

4. Experimental Action: “What are we ready to try?” Members choose the highest priority and closest possibility in their plan and commit themselves to a metamorphosis, one small step at a time until the dream turns into a revised vision or a full reality.

5. Reflection: Finally, “How is it going, and what’s next? Where do we adjust our course?” The congregation should always pause for thanksgiving, absolution, offertory, and celebration. The insights and prayers of the membership guide the evaluation of how they are doing.

Stability is not growth. Therefore, to re-initiate growth, you must begin anew. For a denomination, this means becoming a new movement. Rather than seeking to preserve what’s been accomplished — a defensive strategy — the question should be: what needs to be achieved now?

Decline and the Healer. When a group falls into decline, its sense of security gives way to a grief process. The behavior in the group reflects what happens in times of significant loss. Members might try to deny the difficulty, bargain with fate by reviving the past, focus too much anger on themselves, their leader, or outsiders as a cause for the hard times, and finally slip into depression, passivity, and resignation. In this grief reaction, the leader brings healing by understanding, absolution, encouragement, and innovation. The healer, like the operator, completes his or her role by bringing the group back to a level of higher energy and creativity through new vision and the birth of new directions A grief process is healthy unless some pathological extreme emerges. The healer brings balance and discipline to the grief work.

The Churches of Christ are in a time of decline. Mourning for what’s been lost is healthy — so long as mourning doesn’t lead to a fixation on the past. The cure is the same as for stability. It’s just that it’s harder to change in a period of decline because for many, change means defeat.

In the recent history of the Churches, it’s easy to find examples of denial, efforts to revive the past, anger directed at ourselves, our leaders, and outsiders — and even depression, passivity, and resignation. There are plenty among us who feel the situation cannot be changed and we should resign ourselves to the death of the Churches.

Second, decline and redevelopment entail, in addition to redefinition, the restatement of strategy and vision. More disturbing questions point the way forward when another frame of reference is needed. The congregation asks, for example: Why do we have this building and these traditions? Why do we have a pastor? Where is our neighborhood? Are we the same church that our founders envisioned?

In denominational terms, we ask: Why do we have these traditions? Why do we have the denominational leadership we have? Must we bend to the will of the editors? What is the field in which God has equipped us to harvest? Are we still the Movement the founders envisioned? Is their vision still relevant today? Do we need a new vision? How do we recast a 19th Century vision in 21st Century terms?

Death and the “Parent.” When the group moves from the critical phase to the survival syndrome, the leader finds the members exhausted with grief and immobilized by a lack of self-confidence. It may be necessary for the leader to become temporarily a “parent,” allowing extradependency upon their strength and optimism. The “parent” teaches the group how to “talk” again, how to “walk” again, and how to “grow up” into being a different group. Out of the intense care by the parent, a rebirth may come from the terminal situation. If not, the remaining members at least find the capacity to celebrate their past and accept the closure of the life cycle for their congregation.

I know that many have already declared the Churches of Christ, and certainly some of our congregations have died and others are on their death beds. But it’s easy to see signs of great vitality as well. It’s not quite time for the death certificate.

On the other hand, to come a vibrant denomination that’s effectively serving in God’s kingom, the denomination has to die — so that God can resurrect it. We can’t let nostalgia and tradition hold us back. Rather, as we must all individually die so that we can be raised in new life in the Kingdom, so must the Churches of Christ.

Death, however, doesn’t mean ceasing to exist. Death means submitting to God’s re-creating hand and letting him reshape us into a new creation.

(2 Cor 5:17)  Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!

(Col 3:3)  For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.

(Rom 6:9-11)  For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. 10 The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11 In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.


11 Responses

  1. Jay

    The first oil company I worked for is a good example of stabity, decline and death. In our decline rather than hire an innovative team of upper and middle managers they promoted from within from a group that understood marketing but did not understand the core of our company, oil and gas exploration and production. Rather than adequtely fund more drilling for restoring oil and gas reseves they built filling stations but were out gunned by other major companies who understood marketing much better. Then in the late 80’s we were aquired by an aggresive company who understood oil and gas exploration and were not in marketing

    My company died so to speak but most of or the core was rescued from poor management and become a viable part of a dynamic, low staffed but highly inovative team of pro’s. To this day, I’m retired, but the company is doing great.

    The same can happen to the church but it needs leadership whose goal is to satisfy the great harvest; Jesus said ” Math.9:37 The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.” Jesus saw the crowds during this trip to Galilee and had compasion. The teachers of that time were more concerned about legal correctness, more than helping and teaching the poor and ignorant and preparing the way for their salvation.

    Why are not as concerned about the salvation of those around us rather than to quest for political or doctrinal correctness? I believe , his compassion was to shed tears of sadness and frustration over both the problem then and he forsaw the same problem today.

    Donna and sold our house in montgomery texas were we had access and friends and to many coC and evangelica churches . We moved to Bastrop texas and now we have no friends ither than our non beliving nieghboors. We do have a consrvative Christion church Pastor across the street. He and his wife are grear folks but we are still trying to find a COC in Bastrop or close by with very little luck. We have arttended one four times without so much as a letter or anything. We are being very carefull not to offend or show frustration. They are nice people but without any direction or innovation.

    This why I harp so much about how to treat a visitor. RThe visitor could be an un saved person and if we don’t help them in their search we are worse than a heathen or the teachers in Jesus time.

    So if the church is in decline there are many ways to retsore it’s vitality. Seek and save the lost, Love your nieghboor and vistor as yourself. Pay attention to essential doctine but tolerate those who are not as advanced as you think you are.

    All this takes elders and preachers who are moved by the spirit versus the adherency of doctrinal correctness.

    God help us in this last quest to do his work. So far it is not working very well at all.

    Grace and peace to all


  2. Jay,

    It seems to me that we in the assemblies of Christ’s people need to remember what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:31 – “I die daily.” Until we see that it is our full and unconditional submission to God, to become His people involved in Whatever He is doing Whenever He and Where-ever He is doing it in order to continually be vital in the harvest and in the continuing cycle of life and growth, this will continue to be a distasteful and arduous process and we will shrink from doing it. The missional churches get this right, at least – this is an ongoing process that cycles and never ends. When we plateau, just by doing so we prove that we have left the cycle…and so we have also left the harvest, not to mention the planting and growing parts of the cycle. Plateau is resting on laurels that were never ours to rest on.

    When we can begin to take a longer view of God’s family and God’s power to draw those who are not His yet into proximity through His people, we will begin also to see that this cycle is continually at work within each of us, and also within and/or around all of us who live on this planet. Nature is always in a continual cycle of generations and regenerations, going from renewal to fruitbearing to harvest and hybernation again to prepare for another renewal and fruitbearing and harvest and hybernation and another etc., etc.. Somehow, as a collective body of people, many have missed this vital truth. And until we see this cycle as vital to every aspect of our ministries, we will continue to see the churches follow generational ebbs and flows until we either break the cycle of forgetfulness or lock into it too long to recover as a viable people of God. God will not lose His way, but we certainly can.

    My prayer is that we wake up, along with our brethren in other denominations (note I did say ‘brethren’ – meaning those who have come to saving faith, having come to Christ on His terms) before God starts finding rocks to sing His praise and help in the harvest!

  3. Amen. You csn say it better than any man Iv’e know

  4. Bob H,

    You make a good point. A good businessman knows that he must be constantly reinventing his business or else his business will fail. People change, the culture changes, needs change, you change, your understanding of your product changes.. In church, God never changes, but people’s way of finding God, their needs, and their wants change. More importantly, we’ve learned a lot about God we didn’t know 50 years ago. We have to change, not because God changed, but because everything else has.

  5. Jay

    As you can see from other postings I am very frustrated about our need to change to attract the unchurched , to attract the lost and to retain our youth. The leadership in many of our congregations don’t feel the urgency as did Jesus when he said “the Harvest is ready”.

    Forgive my bluntness but many of our services are boring and do not attract the modern person who see’s much more excitment on T.V and movies. You as well as I know the type of entertaining pesentations that people want and it presents a dilema to our leaders to recognize the need because they see exciting modern presentations in a church service as sinful.

    In the 1990’s at the spring woodlands texas we started the praise team concept with Darrel Bledsoe, now doing the same thing in the church at Amarlilo, Texas. We used the CARE ministry to attract the visitor. By 2001 we had an attendance nearly 1300 up from 800.

    Our services were exciting and the congregation was on fire with enthusiasm. The singing was so loud that any instrument would not have been heard.

    What can we do to return to enthusiasm, excitement and love in our services. I was looking at some of the music generated by Hillsong which is an Austrailian some what pentecostol group. But when you see the excitement and happy mood generated by these groups it make me wonder why can’t we come up with something like that.
    As you know we have the Fellowship of the Woodlands with a membership of 20,000 in the Woodland Texas . Yes the music is loud, instrumental and very entertaining. But most of the 20,000 ten years ago were reading the Sunday Houston Chronical Sunday morning and did not attend a church.

    Wher we are now the attendance is 120 in a new building that would hold 450. The services are dull, uninspiring but very scriptural. The congregation is in a trance and the semon unispiring by a preacher who has been there for years and has a business on the side.

    In a quest to do thing according to a pattern as taught by Foy Wallace we have fallen into an apathy and an indiference for evangelism and the joy of serving the Lord.
    What to do. I don’t know if I have another miracle in me to wake the flock up. Maybe we should start a new congregation starting with bible study at our house.

    Thank you for you great postings. I hope you can ressurect the dead coC.


  6. For whatever it is worth, I read the following online and could not help but be reminded of it as I read this thread. It has to do with Dominoes Pizza. You see, they were the undisputed #1 fastest growing pizza delivery chain who’s popularity decreased. Recent polls have suggested that other pizza chains are tasting better to the people of today. What did they do (rather, what have they decided to do)? They have apparently decided to change everything that had taken them to the top and to re-invent themselves in hopes that the people of today will find them better tasting (as people’s tastes have changed). Forgetting what made them #1, they now will have a new sauce, new cheeses, new crust, etc. If thtis doesn’t work….they will undoubtedly inquire of the new generation as to whatever else they could possibly change to be more popular. No doubt, whatever else they could do to be more popular with today’s society….they are prepared to do it. They have said as much. Here is what I read:

    “I haven’t tried it yet, but did you see the story about WHY they’re changing?

    The marketing geniuses in the Domino’s ivory tower saw some survey listing Domino’s as last among the big pizza chains in the category of “taste”. They completely panicked. Nobody bothered to tell them “Hey, guys…how’d we get to be tops in our field?”.

    Of course, because Domino’s is the world’s most popular delivery pizza, they’re the easiest target for critics. Put up a “best pizza” thread, and NOBODY will mention Domino’s because nobody roots for Goliath. Put up a “worst retail store” thread, and Wal-Mart will be #1, even though more shoppers choose it than any other on earth.

    You don’t become #1 in the world unless your flagship product tastes just fine to the millions of pizza buyers who MADE you #1. Those who LIKE Domino’s as it is will now be asked to accept this change, and those who DON’T like Domino’s will have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into trying the new batch.

    However, the geniuses listened to the critics instead of their fans. Those who don’t learn from the mistakes of history are doomed to repeat them. I wonder if the Domino’s execs ever heard of New Coke, or of the reformulated, Bud-like Schlitz (after former A-B brewmaster Frank Sellinger became Schlitz’s CEO), and what happened to THOSE.”

    Now, as a business….they have no choice. They HAVE TO give the population of today whatever it is they want.

    But is such the case with the church of Christ? Err….Church of Christ.

  7. I can tell you what the lost and the unchurched want. They want to truth of the bible taught and applied to their lives. They want to belong to a church where Christ is preached
    and a place where they feel wanted and needed. they want to apply what they have been taught.

    The unchurched have dropped out because they were not taught Christ and the truth of his light. They don’t want all the infighting and little social circles most churches have.

    They want leaders who inspire and lead y example.

    They want a service that is dynamic with Spirt filled Christians to inspire them.

    I could go on but you get the point.

    We are here for God’s purpose, that is to serve as he directs us. Donna and I work at times in food pantries and visit the old folks home. We talk to people at the grocery store,Walmart and wherever we can tell about Christ. Our home bible studies are for our nieghboors who have very little understanding og the bible.

    We go to church to praise, give thanks,commune and learn more about Jesus. We go to be encouraged by like minded people. But today our churches are not supplying most a what I am saying. They are boring and the music is awfull. People do not sing only the song leader who is usually very inadequate. But we tolerate that because in the first century talent as we know it was not an issue. They met , not to be entertained but to love each other and pass the word by memory as bibles were old testament scrolls.
    But one gerat thing they did was to pass the word of Christ to every one they met. And today we don’t care about that. We don’t serve anyone.

    The coC today is all about old traditions and sacred cow doctrins that are ill defined and vague. and not about spreading the Word to a lost and dieing world and serving the community. We set in our boring classes and are taught great truths but are never told how or even encouraged to apply the knowledge to the world, Yes we let the Salvation Army do it for us and all the little gospel missions in the slum area teach more than we do. We have many degrees in bible but never get a job to apply it. What a waste.


  8. One more point. I am a Petroleum Engineer and am experienced at solving problem with sick oil and gas fields. you keep trying various methods until you find a solution all based on known technologies ans science. Can’t we do the same with the church? We do need to stay with bible solutions but many of us have different interpretaions, understandings and gifts.

    Why can’t we combine these efforts to produce what the Lord wants? Jay has tried to post many good ideas but constantly is challenged by the conservatives as being to liberal.

    We can do it but the dialog hhas to tone down.


  9. Forgive my bluntness but many of our services are boring and do not attract the modern person who see’s much more excitment on T.V and movies. You as well as I know the type of entertaining pesentations that people want and it presents a dilema to our leaders to recognize the need because they see exciting modern presentations in a church service as sinful.
    In the 1990’s at the spring woodlands texas we started the praise team concept with Darrel Bledsoe, now doing the same thing in the church at Amarlilo, Texas. We used the CARE ministry to attract the visitor. By 2001 we had an attendance nearly 1300 up from 800.
    Our services were exciting and the congregation was on fire with enthusiasm. The singing was so loud that any instrument would not have been heard.

    Bob, I hear you. I have a great deal of respect for what you’re saying, and I agree with a lot of it (although you really did rake Hank over the coals pretty hard). But I have a hard question to ask, and one that I mean with every bit of respect and Christian love in me: did your success in attracting people to church lead to transformation of those people and/or the world around them?

    The big fear that I have about such claims is rooted in John 6: how often do we take the next step? Jesus got his numbers up pretty high, and then he shattered them with a serious incarnational challenge. I think he did that, in part, to teach us a lesson about drawing huge numbers — that sometimes we have to intentionally do something to shake loose the folks who aren’t sold on the mission.

    And here’s something else that’s tangential to your thoughts: Our gatherings are never going to out-do TV, film, and/or concerts in sheer excitement — at least, not by our direct intervention. We’re not gonna get more people clapping in worship than John Mellencamp will when he does “Jack and Diane.” We’re not going to get more excitement than American Idol by trying to boost the excitement and suspense. What’s next, hiring Michael Buffer to come out and shout, “LET’S GET READY TO REPENT!!!!” as the praise team appears from the ceiling with fireworks and strobelights?

    No — we’re not going to out-do professional marketers and performers in generating excitement.

    Do we give up? OF COURSE NOT. We refocus on the mission. We out-do them in love. Love for one another, love for our neighbors, love for the alien.

    When we’re out-doing the rest of our community in love, the Holy Spirit will attract more people than we think we can handle, and there’ll be more TRUE excitement as lives and communities are transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit.

  10. It has become more and more obvious to God’s Chosen, worldwide, that the typical expression of what is known as “church” has been influenced by the enemy, and through worldly culture. Our understanding and expression of “church,” in generation after generation, around the world has been led down a Machiavellian path of shallowness, pride, greed, lukewarmness, worldliness, and Ishmaelic infrastructure. In the institutions of today, the quality of the sermons and teaching is sometimes good. I hesitate, after visiting many hundreds of “services” of every conceivable denomination and “non-denomination,” to say that “most” teaching in these assemblies is Truth-filled. But, certainly some of it is quite good. Sometimes the “worship time” is “encouraging” or “inspiring.” We need to add, though, that accomplishing this has often required Spiritual prostitution to acquire “talented” musicians to “lead”—in spite of the fact that they may have little or no real relationship with Jesus. Their unregeneracy, or worldly life is often overlooked in order to accomplish our desired end of a wonderful worship experience to attract larger numbers. Frequently the “programs” of modern religious assemblies have targeted “worthy” objectives, such as feeding hungry unbelievers, building homes in Nicaragua, or distributing tracts to passers-by in an urban area. Many groups have a formidable number of creative efforts ongoing, many or most of which may be good things to be involved in. And yet… More at's-Awakening-Call

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