Wouldn’t it be interesting if the expiration date for a church were stamped on it as clearly as it is on a package of meat at the grocery? The expiration date tells you how fresh the package you hold in your hand really is. If you’re like us, Debbie and I always dig in the back of the case for products with an expiration date as far in the future as possible. Unfortunately for churches, that’s not always possible. As a pastor or church leader, you don’t get to choose the freshest church. You’re already in a church and it may be closer to its expiration date than you think.
Eight Stages in the Lifespan of a Church
Dr. Israel Galindo, in his excellent book The Hidden Lives of Congregations, identifies 8 stages in the lifespan of a congregation:
- Establishing. This is the start-up, the everything-is-new-and-aren’t-we-excited stage. Lots of energy, lots of enthusiasm, simple mission — survive.
- Formation. Once survival seems fairly certain, now what? At this stage congregations begin to self-organize like ants-in-a-hill. Things start to stabilize and there is a collective sense of “we’re actually going to make it work.”
- Adolescence. What does this sound like? High energy, lots of activity, lots of trying out new stuff, lots of growing up.
- Prime. Everything is working at this stage. Energy, organization, guidance, relationships, and manageable anxiety. The key here is staying here. Often churches only recognize this stage after they are through it, as in “Remember back in the ’60s when the building was full?”
- Maturity. This is the well-oiled machine, aging, but still running strong. Maybe not quite as strongly as before, but everything looks okay. Unless you realize that the trajectory is toward decline and dissolution. This is often a stage of denial and self-satisfaction. “We’re not as big as we used to be, but the quality of our members is much better.”
- Aristocracy. Not all churches become aristocratic, and probably none should. This is the era of the archives room, commemorating the glory years of the congregation. Links to prestigious pastors, pride in classic buildings, and other characteristics of the “church as museum” come to play.
- Bureaucracy. Even if you skip the aristocracy phase, this is an unavoidable and unmistakable stage. The numbers tell the story — lower attendance, offerings, budgets, baptisms, and energy. The denials might still continue, but the decline is obvious and depressing. The solution? Let’s tighten the rules. Watchdog the budget. Form more committees. Rewrite the constitution. Energy goes to rearranging the deck chairs while the Titanic takes on water.
- Dissolution. The end. Period. No more church. Property is sold or bequeathed, missions gets a big check, and folks go away from the funeral saying, “She died with dignity.” Or maybe not. But the result is still the same. A church out of business.
The stages are Dr. Galindo’s, the descriptions are mine. While the specific timeline may vary from church-to-church, the results are the same. But there is hope. These stages are not inevitable if church leaders, including the pastor, can recognize the stage a church is in and offer leadership appropriate to that stage.
The question your church has to ask itself is “What stage are we in and what should we do to revitalize ourselves?” That’s what we’re dealing with here in Chatham. I’ll let you know how it comes out. And while you’re waiting, get a copy of Galindo’s book. You’ll be glad you did.