Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Consolidate or Risk?

Years ago I had a conversation with my brother about investments I had made in the stock market.  Over the course of several months I had lost a considerable amount of money.  He encouraged me by saying, “Don’t worry about it.  You are young.  Now is the time to take risks.”  This is common financial advice.  The early years are the years to invest boldly.  The later years are the times to consolidate your investments in more conservative options so that you do not lose what you gained.  This is good advice for finances.  This is bad advice for ministry.

Sadly, this wise financial pattern tends to be copied by churches in ministry.  In the early years, there is a passion for outreach.  There may even be a new church planted by the young church.  Risks are made and rewards are reaped.  Yet as years go on, the desire to invest wildly in the kingdom is replaced by a desire to consolidate based on a fear of losing what was gained.

After about 20 years, many churches tend to stop growing.  Often they start to decline and after about 20 more years they close their doors.  This statistic is not lost on pastors, and at about the 20 year point they begin to fear the decline.  The last thing any pastor wants is to see his church fold.  This fear often leads to one of two decisions.

1) Consolidate:  Pastors and church leaders hold on to what they have.  They do not encourage new church plants.  They may develop new ministry workers, but they seldom develop new leaders because new leaders could mean a loss of control.  They are quick to point out why new ministry investments will not work, and are slow to risk.  They keep ministry under tight control for fear that the church might die.  Such a ministry model can be recognized by leadership that demands to be in the driver’s seat and is afraid to start anything new.

2) Risk:  Pastors and church leaders try something that may seem bold or new.  They take a risk.  They might give up some of their best people to start a new church plant.  They might invest financially in short term ministries that eventually lead to some of their best and brightest leaving the church to go do ministry elsewhere.  They might rally behind a missionary who is opening a new field.  They send out rather than pull in.

I have seen both models.  Most churches are not strictly one or the other, but all churches have a tendency to lean one way.  Those who tend to consolidate actually end up losing what they fight so hard to maintain.  They focus on marketing not discipleship.  The passionate believers in the congregation tend to leave because they want to do ministry and cannot in such an environment.  Those who remain are weaker believers.  They are fed, but are not challenged to grow because the leaders do not want to give up the driver’s seat.  Eventually attrition takes its toll and the consolidated congregation folds.

Those who tend to risk will, in the short run, see a loss in membership.  Like the consolidated church, their best people will leave.  The difference is that they will leave because the leaders release them to do ministry elsewhere.  Those who remain see what it means to actually live what they believe, and some will be inspired to do the same.  New people will replace the empty seats on Sunday, and they will grow because they are viewed as brothers and sisters to be invested in not customers to hold on to.

I have seen both kinds of churches.  In Poland, one of the hardest places to plant a church, there was a Baptist church that had not grown in 100 years.  The pastor took a handful of  his best people and sent them across town to start a new church.  Today both churches are thriving and growing.  People are coming to Christ because of a pastor who was not afraid to give up control.

Sadly, I have seen far too many churches of the consolidation variety.  They exist in abundance here in Bulgaria, but you may not need me to give you an example.  You may be attending one in your home country.  You may even be leading one.

There is good news though.  First of all, there is little to fear from any individual church closing.  Individual churches are organizations.  They come and go.  The universal Church will go on with or without them.  Second, such churches are not beyond saving.  New life can be breathed into them though their membership.  You can be that new life because, as a child of God, you have the Holy Spirit in you.  Challenge your leaders to risk.  Do not settle for consolidation.

We are all still young.  We should all still be risking.

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