Mission or Maintenance
I know a congregation that meets in a glorious French gothic cathedral. It’s one of the most magnificent buildings I’ve ever seen. But if you visit there on a Sunday morning, you’ll only find twenty or thirty people meeting for worship in a sanctuary designed to hold thousands.
We’re all aware of churches in decline. It’s happening in old mainline denominations across this country and in Europe. Why does it happen?
I think the most important reason is that churches lose their vision of the great mission of God. They gradually become more invested in maintaining what they have rather than giving themselves in mission, and forget the passion that marked their earlier days. The Bible warns that can happen when it tells us, “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18). And Jesus tells us, "For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Matthew 16:25).
When a church’s focus moves from mission to maintenance, it begins to separate itself from the surrounding culture. The church develops its own traditions and language. It becomes easy to lose touch with the needs of people who live in the church’s own neighborhood.
Gradually, the church declines. Its members may worry about its ability to sustain the programs they enjoy, and may try to reach out. But it’s hard to succeed as long as the object of reaching out is to find people to sustain current programs, rather than introduce others to Christ. After all, why should people help us maintain our structures? Jesus didn’t call the world to go to church; he called the church to go to the world!
When aging churches enter into a cycle of decline, resources dwindle and have to be scaled back. With each reduction in program, the church becomes less attractive for the unchurched, until the church can’t sustain itself any longer. I know of one former church building in Pasadena, a red-brick gothic style, that’s now a bar and grill. I know of many other churches who have sold their property to more outreach-oriented, independent congregations.
There is a way out of decline, and it becomes clear when a people develop a God-sized vision. If a church is willing to change, and to give itself away for the sake of others, then the story of a church’s life will have a very different outcome. I think there's nothing God can’t do through a church that learns to care about what Jesus cares about and is willing to give him the credit for its success.
This vision is possible if it’s what God is calling us to do. Because dying churches say, “Here’s what we have, come participate,” but growing churches ask, “What do you need,” and then look for ways to meet those needs for those who haven’t yet heard the good news about Jesus.
One more thing—when we develop a God-sized vision, that’s when the faith becomes exciting, no matter how many years we’ve been around. I pray we can be a high-risk, low-anxiety congregation, one that cares about the needs of those who are outside the church as much as those on the inside. May all of our congregations become churches our communities can’t live without.