There are cycles in the life of a church.
At the beginning, things are exciting and bumping.
You start growing.
You adapt to the growth. You add more staff. You either move into a bigger venue or build bigger buildings.
Things are exciting. Things are amazing.
Quoting the Lego Movie:
But then — things plateau.
Momentum slows down.
Then instead of plateauing, things start to decline.
People slowly leave.
Extra chairs don’t have to be pulled out anymore. In fact, we tend to have too many chairs out.
Church gets smaller.
We have to eliminate staff positions.
And it’s all around too painful, therefore unpleasant. Tension abounds.
So more people leave.
Then, next thing you know:
Here is the steeple
Open the door
Where are all the people?
I always find it interesting that churches — generally — recognize the need to adapt on how you do things when faced with growth. Yet, when faced with decline we double down on methods that haven’t bore fruit in ages.
It’s the idea of “Let’s move forward by standing still.”
“Let’s move forward by digging our heels into the ground!”
By reading that, we know how absurd that sounds. You can’t move forward by standing still! we’d all scream. And yet… what we say don’t often match up with what we do. Carl Jung says: You are what you do not what you say you’ll do.
We tell ourselves, “It worked before, and our church was full of people! It’ll work again!”
It’s easy to recognize insanity in others.
We’re often too blind to recognize the insanity in us.
There have been too much change in the past years; too many people leaving; too many staff let go — and it’s just too much to bear. We want to prevent that. So we become intensely diligent and vigilant to make sure nothing changes. Sometimes literally over our dead bodies.
Yet we say we want to change. And then we balk at the act of changing.
“Send us a young pastor, fairly fresh out of seminary! They’ll bring us new ideas and fresh perspectives and younger people! We’re ready to change and grow again!” turns into “We can’t do that! Why are you changing that? That’s not how we do it around here! This is how we’ve always done it!”
Maybe to overcompensate or to battle off the idea of decline, what we do is we start doing more. More ministries. More programs. If we’re doing more we may look like we’re alive. So people will surely come.
Then we start throwing ideas on the wall to see what sticks. Our church reflects the Baskin Robbins business model: Flavor of the Month church. There’s no rhyme or reason of what we do or why we do it. We just do it for the sake of doing it. For the facade of looking alive.
But I feel that there’s something integral that our mainline churches don’t seem to get: to be more effective, you have to do less.
You don’t be more by doing more.
You make a bigger impact by doing fewer things with excellence and purpose rather than doing everything poorly.
(Didn’t Jesus say something about pruning?)
Take a look at one of my favorite quarterbacks ever, Tom Brady.
Here is Tom Brady dropping a big pass during Super Bowl LII:
And just for funsies, Brady trying to tackle:
Here’s the thing though: sure, it would’ve been great for him to catch that pass or learn how to tackle — but he doesn’t need to. Because he’s the quarterback.
You’d want him to spend most of his time in practice and training working on throwing the ball, anticipating where his receivers are going to be, reading defensive coverages — you know, quarterback stuff. It’d be a waste of time trying to get him to be the best catcher or the best tackler on the team.
He doesn’t need to be the best receiver on his team.
He doesn’t need to the best defender on his team.
He doesn’t have to be the fastest on his team nor does he have to be the strongest.
He doesn’t need to be the best tackler on his team.
But he sure as hell better be the best quarterback on his team and he better work hard on refining and perfecting his quarterbacking skills.
If Tom Brady was a declining United Methodist Church — he’d be doing catching drills one practice; then tackling drills the next; then he’d be weight training so that he could try to bench the most on the team; then he’d work on his blocking skills; then he’d go and start running defensive line drills; then he’d participate in defensive back drills, working on covering receivers; then he’d work on kicking skills to try to make a 43-yd field goal — oh, Bears fans remember this?
How effective a quarterback would anyone be if they had to do drills for every position on a football team?
You’d want your quarterback to work on quarterbacking drills and skills. That’s it. If he can’t catch, that’s fine. As long as he throws the ball consistently accurate.
There’s no such thing as — when it comes to churches — a jack of all trades. Maybe there was — but not anymore.
You become more effective when you do less.
You become effective when you do a few things with excellence vs. doing plethora of things below average.
I mean, if a boat is sinking, one of the things we can do is start unloading the boat to make it lighter to help offset the sinking.
But with churches, when the “boat” is sinking, not only do we hold onto the existing weight, we try to add more weight.
Wanna float? Throw things overboard.
Wanna fly? Let things go.
Learn from Carl.
And if you watched that clip — what did he leave behind in order to fly?
He left behind his and Ellie’s chair.
Something that was important. Something that held tremendous sentimental value.
But he had to fly. And in order to do so, he had to make sacrifices. He couldn’t hold onto to those chairs and get his house to fly. And instead of choosing to remain in the past — as painful as it must’ve been — he chose the future.
We choose to remain in the past far too much rather than choosing the future…
You want to fly?
You have to let go of things. You can’t carry everything with you if you want to fly.
You certainly can’t move forward by digging your heels in the ground and looking towards the past.
It’s not easy.
That’s why for some churches, it’s easier to die a slow, painful, and fruitless death rather than to choose to create a transformative future and make the necessary sacrifices and changes to grow.
At the end of the day, Jung was right.
We are what we do, not what we say we’ll do.