Congregations are organisms that have a cycle of life. It begins with the fragile stage of birth. A group of people gather to pray, and search for God’s call and purpose for the church (through scripture) leads to an inspired vision. Vision opens the way to a passionate mission. However, new congregations, just like newborns need a lot of nurture and support.
As the fledgling group meets they begin to learn to know each other—each has a story and as it is shared friendships and connectedness develop. As the group matures they take on a mission emphasis—reaching out to new people (“Come join the journey” is the invitation), they adopt a mission that is relevant to where the congregation is beginning its new life—creating a soup kitchen, planting a community garden, starting a health clinic for the underinsured or some other discerned ministry. However, all of this is done with passion and readiness to serve the purpose of God. Finally, as the body of disciples matures into a community (a congregation) they establish a gathering place for worship and training in discipleship life, a constitution to outline their understanding of congregational order, and develop norms by which they will live together.
As a congregation matures it is easy to slip into a less stressful stage—generally enough people, sufficient money and a good program to feel like the congregation has legitimacy. It is easy to take a long rest and take for granted that all is well! If a congregation is not sensitive to its stages of life it will lose track of the fact its vision has become less clear and exciting; and its mission is not as passionate and relevant to its surrounding mission field. The congregation forgets what Alice Mann in “Can Our Church Live?” suggests are the four critical questions of vision and mission—Who is God and Jesus? What difference do they make in how we choose to live? What ministry has God called us to in the congregational setting? And, who are our neighbors today? When this happens a congregation begins to decline; it is subtle at first, but soon people begin to leave or die (and are not replaced in the community of disciples). Questions of survival begin to be a regular fare at the table of our mission planning. We wonder how we can keep finances strong in order to preserve life and activities as we have become accustomed to them. We lose sight of who our neighbors are, and our hope is centered in struggling to survive.
But the organism known as a “congregation” has a greater hope. It is found in the resurrected Christ who invites new life. A congregation can rediscover its purpose and begin to recapture a vision, even an extraordinary vision, for its reason to exist. After rediscovering who its neighbors are and what they need, a congregation can tap into its faith, gifts and abilities, as well as a passion to become the presence of Christ for continuing the work of Jesus. Resurrected by a new vision and passion for ministry a congregation can grow in spirit and numbers to be faithful servants of the one who said. “I am the resurrection and the life; those who believe me, even though they die, will live and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11: 25 & 26 NRSV)