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The Mark Of A Church In Decline

Thomas F. Fischer

Number 207

One of the most common things found in leadership literature are listings of various indicators of health and un-health, growth and decline. One such listing is George Barna's "Twenty-Three Marks Of A Church In Decline." The twenty-three marks he suggests in his book, Turnaround Churches, include the following (cf. pp. 33 ff.):

  1. Demographic Changes
  2. Inadequate Leadership
  3. Poor Management
  4. Old Blood
  5. Building Campaigns
  6. The Ingrown Family
  7. Resistance To Change
  8. Spiritual Health
  9. Divisive Internal Politics
  10. Inadequate Christian Education And Training
  11. Dilapidated Facilities
  12. Frequent Changes In Leadership Positions
  13. Pastor-Centered Ministry
  14. Emotional Discouragement Among The Congregation
  15. Unreconciled Theological Disagreement 
  16. Absence Of Ministry Opportunities For People
  17. Financial Decline
  18. Loss Of Key Lay People
  19. Loss Of Critical Staff Members
  20. Lowering Of Ministry Standards
  21. Denominational Meddling
  22. A Shift Away From Bible-Centered Teaching
  23. Absence Of An Assimilation Program
The Fundamental Flaw

The above listing certainly does describe the marks of a church in decline. Of that there is no dispute.
 
But this and other listings share a fundamental flaw. They look at the symptoms, not the causes. They are objectively rather than subjectively oriented. They look at what they can see and measure. But so often they do not deal with the real fundamental issue.
 
Intimacy: The Overlooked Fundamental
 
In a society enamored by success, performance, and the bottom line, it's easy to overlook what really matters. This is not to say that robust, growing ministries do not matter. They do.
 
The age-old dilemma, however, is that not every church which addresses each one of Barna's twenty-three marks of decline will experience a reverse in decline. Some congregations will simply not respond to endless, energetic pleas to address assimilation. Other congregations simply can't make the turnaround from what Barna calls "old blood" to new blood.
 
Several of these "Twenty-Three Marks" are often simply out of a congregation's or leadership's control. Certainly none of them can be turned around overnight except in the most optimum conditions, conditions which are frankly in the hands of God.
 
The "Twenty-Three Marks" Re-Considered
 
What one might find striking in Barna's listing are items which are really relationship or intimacy issues. When one takes a second look at this listing, this fundamental dynamic becomes rather obvious.  
 
Once one begins to see how issues of intimacy drive congregational and ministry life, it becomes ever more clear that the real dilemma for leaders is to deal with the multiple dynamics of growth and decline in congregations from a totally different perspective. That perspective is the perspective of intimacy issues.
 
Consider again the "Twenty-Three Marks Of A Church In Decline."
* Which of these marks are really indicators of failed intimacy patterns?
* In what ways do these marks work against healthy intimacy patterns?
* Which do nothing to foster the basis of healthy Christian intimacy including
       love, trust, forgiveness, lack of fear, risking, vision, feeling passion,
       expanding and extending relationships, vulnerability, humility, and sacrifice?

Intimacy Is Fundamental!

When the above items are examined from the perspective of intimacy, it becomes more obvious that "The Twenty-Three Marks of Decline" and other such listings are, at best, really only a symptomatic, descriptive analysis of certain congregational phenomena. This is not to deny that they may be helpful. They are!
 
But they do not tell the whole story. They merely--and literally--only scratch the surface. Where they often fail to tell the whole story is in the most fundamental area. This listing, as well as other symptomatic approaches to leadership, growth and organizational renewal fail to recognize the predominant importance of patterns of intimacy within organizations systems. (For a more detailed analysis see the upcoming Ministry Health Article #290 "Symptomatic Approaches To Church Health: An Analysis").
 
If, as Peter Steinke stated, "The congregation's health and the people in it are connected" (Healthy Churches, Alban Institute, p. 81), then patterns of intimacy must become the essential focus of any intervention or strategy designed to promote congregational health. Unfortunately this is not easy because, as Rabbi Friedman noted, churches have a poor reputation for developing mature, healthy people (Edwin Friedman, From Generation To Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue. New York: The Guildford Press, 1985, p. 59).
 
Ramifications For Your Ministry In Jesus Christ
 
If intimacy issues are fundamental to leadership and congregational ministry, then it follows that pastoral leadership must re-think the focus of its efforts.
 
It has been said that the focus will need to shift from program to people. But this may not be far enough. The focus must shift from people to intimacy patterns.
 
God's people, from the most highly-placed denominational leader to the average person in the pew, have needs. Their greatest need is for intimacy, connection, and relationship. This occurs best when they have achieved intimacy, connection and relationship with God.
 
Jesus' Prayer For Intimacy
 
In His "High Priestly Prayer" Jesus prayed, "Father, may they be one as You and I are one" (John 17:21). Jesus didn't pray for programs. He prayed for people.
 
More specifically, He prayed that God would build on the grace-based intimate connection with His disciples and all believers. His prayer also was that His disciples would recognize and exhibit this intimate connection.
 
This connection can only be made by the Spirit of God graciously working in His inerrant Word. It is here that all those who minister God's Word find their highest task. They are God's agents of intimacy. They are agents of reconciliation who convey God's forgiveness. They are called to bring humanity into fellowship with God. They are called to proclaim the peace and freedom which only an eternal, intimate relationship with God can bring.
 
The Challenge
 
The challenge which remains, then, is this: Which current ministries in your congregation are directed toward building healthy patterns of personal and congregational intimacy toward God and others? Are the leaders in your congregation willing to risk becoming intimate with God and give up those ministries which hinder true, biblically based intimacy?
 

If not, then perhaps the denial of intimacy is the
most telling mark of a church in decline!

If it is, the minister and ministry are highlighting freedom in the Gospel. They are proclaiming comfort and peace to the masses. They are bringing people to repentance and reconciliation with God and others. They are witnessing the Holy Spirit create, sustain and expand deeper and broader fellowship which permeates and transcends the boundaries of the congregations. Most importantly, they are bringing the people to meet God, "face-to-face" in the loving arms of His grace.
 
The Goal: Face-To-Face Intimacy With God
 
One of the most memorable passages in Scripture was the record of Moses' desire to see God "face-to-face." He wanted the greatest possible intimacy with God. It is this longing which must engendered through the many styles and modes of ministry. It is easier for us, however, than for Moses, for

"We have seen His glory, glory as of the only-begotten of the Father,
full of grace and truth" (John 1:14).

Are you ready to lead your people to greater intimacy with God? Are you willing to grow in greater intimacy with God?  Start coming nearer to God. He will come nearer both to you and to those entrusted to your intimate care. Now that's not a mark of a church in decline!
 
Thomas F. Fischer

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This page was revised on: Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:03:18 PM