Several years ago, I stumbled while walking down the steps from my office on the second floor of my house. I was looking down and reading a paper I was holding. My feet got tangled, and I fell down the last seven steps. I landed on the floor by the front door.
My fall made a loud sound. My wife came running, afraid I was terribly hurt. I was not. Nothing was broken. I just had a bruise or two.
I was not paying attention to where I was headed and what I was doing.
Not paying attention
Stumbling churches have a similar experience. They stop paying attention to where they are headed and what they are intentionally doing to get there. Then they stumble.
God’s vision that once empowered their spiritual and strategic journey is no longer impactful. Their actions focus on preservation of what they have done in the past.
Rather than focusing on their future with intentionality and innovation, they keep doing the same things and expect different results.
This sounds like insanity to people looking at them from the outside, but to them it seems natural. It is about the things they love to do and want to keep doing.
The reasons their programs, ministries and activities are not working anymore are a mystery to them. Their community context has changed, but they believe the new residents ought to respond to what they are offering.
They cannot understand why young families with children no longer join their churches in the large numbers of past years. Even their own adult children and grandchildren have moved to different churches.
A stumbling church is not captured by God’s empowering vision. Management of programs, ministries and activities, plus financial and building resources, is their focus.
The leadership wants a short-term fix, not a long-term solution, and may be considering changing pastors. They need a new vision for their spiritual and strategic journey but lack the necessary readiness for change.
Many stumbling churches were once strong or even soaring churches with a clear vision supported by programs, ministries and activities that were well aligned to fulfill their vision.
When their context changed, the church membership aged, and they did not engage in continuous innovative transition and change and so they plateaued and then declined.
Their response was to push harder to do the things that once worked rather than asking God to reveal a fresh vision for a new season of ministry.
Pushing harder increased their decline and encouraged the growth of spiritual insight cataracts that hindered their ability to see God’s future for them.
They often measured success by how well their programs were doing and whether they were reaching their budget. They kept expenditures within their budget and did not use the reserve funds they had saved for the proverbial “rainy day” that seldom happened.
Many stumbling churches delayed routine maintenance and watched their buildings and grounds deteriorate.
Others called on the financial faithfulness of their members and used the “if we build it, they will come” approach to provide a fellowship or recreation building, preschool and children facility or some other structure they believed would revive the church.
Stumbling churches fantasize about once again serving as a soaring or strong church, but they are not ready. They have a vision of the past and programs, ministries and activities positioned to rebuild the past.
They are the kinds of churches that would be ready if the 20th century returns tomorrow. But until they are willing to admit this, they cannot move forward.
The peer learning communities and coaching processes that help soaring and strong churches take their next steps in ministry will not work for these churches.
They need a change of heart and direction. They need answers to questions they do not know to ask. They need a consulting and relearning approach for the next seasons of ministry. They need — with a consultant’s help — to visit churches that were once stumbling but have discovered a way forward.
This will require resource people experienced with working with stumbling churches who are sponsored by the association or another area of the denomination.