Dan Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools in the U. S. and Canada, went back to his home town in Ohio to chronicle the ways in which the churches of the community had changed since his family moved there fifty years before. One church was Concord United Methodist Church located in open country when Dan was growing up there. Now the farms that once surrounded the church are replaced by sub-divisions and strip malls. The Concord church building still stands as it did with its stained glass windows and steeple but now as the Concord Chapel Pet Hospital. Aleshire notes that there are thriving United Methodist churches in the area, but “this picture postcard of a church must have been slow stepping when the dance called for quick-quick.”
Churches begin decline when they lose the power of focused vision and come to see “doing ministry” as performing all the countless tasks needed to maintain the church.
What happened? In all likelihood, that picture postcard of a church lost its focus. As with all organizations, local churches face the challenge of focus. In the early years of a new congregation, attention is narrowly focused on connecting with people in the community, providing inspired worship services, and building relationships that hold people together. As time goes by and the church develops with a host of administrative, pastoral, program, and physical needs, attention becomes more broadly dispersed. Churches begin decline when they lose the power of focused vision and come to see “doing ministry” as performing all the countless tasks needed to maintain the church.
At every chapter in a congregation’s life, it must clarify the few things most important for it to take the next faithful step. The other tasks will still be done, but now everything must be viewed through the lens of the vision — that is, the form that the mission takes in this particular chapter, given the church’s context. Without such deliberate reconsideration that takes account of both the church’s identity and its changing environment, decline is inevitable.
Thriving congregations are able in each chapter of their lives to focus on those few essential things required for continued vitality.