Will Sudworth reflects on how the mighty fall – and why some churches never give in.
'Decline can be avoided, detected and reversed.' So begins Jim Collins' latest book How the Mighty Fall, based on four years of research into companies which found that decline is 'largely self-inflicted'.
Below is a re-wording of the main findings, using 'church language' to see if it helps our exploration of inherited church and fresh expressions.
The five stages of decline that proceed in sequence
Stage 1: Churches become insular
Church members believe their church is 'entitled' to exist, losing sight of the true factors that originally established it.
When people are saying 'We're established because we do these specific things' instead of the insightful 'We're established because we understand why we do these things and under what conditions they would no longer work', decline will very likely follow.
Stage 2: Undisciplined growth
When a church grows beyond its ability to fill key leadership roles with the right people, it has set itself up for a fall.
Stage 3: Denial of risk and peril
Internal warning signs mount, yet membership and attendance remain strong enough to 'explain away' disturbing data or to suggest that the difficulties are 'temporary' or 'cyclic'.
Church leaders start to blame external factors such as culture rather than accept responsibility.
The vigorous, fact-based dialogue that characterises healthy churches disappears altogether.
Stage 4: Solution grasping
Church leaders respond by grasping for quick solutions – eg, introducing a new charismatic visionary leader, instigating a dramatic cultural revolution, or merging established churches.
Initial results may appear positive, but the results do not last.
Stage 5: Irrelevance or closure
Repeatedly grasping for quick solutions erodes financial strength and individual spirit to such an extent that all hope of building a great future is abandoned.
In some cases, the church leaders just sell out; in other cases the church atrophies into insignificance; and in the most extreme cases, the church simply closes.
Specific findings relevant to fresh expressions of church
It's not as simple as 'they failed because they didn't change'. Churches that change constantly but without any consistent rationale also collapse. There's nothing wrong with keeping specific practices, but only if you understand the 'why' behind those practices, and thereby see when to keep them and when to change them.
To disrespect the potential remaining in the inherited church – or worse, to neglect it while focusing on fresh expressions in the belief that the inherited church will continue almost automatically – leads to decline. Even if you face the impending demise of the inherited church, that's still no excuse to let it just run on autopilot. Exit definitively or renew obsessively, but do not ever neglect it.
With a map of decline in hand, churches heading downhill might be able to reverse course.
The signature of the truly great is not the absence of difficulty, but the ability to come back stronger than before from even cataclysmic catastrophes.