If you work around educators much – or a host of other disciplines – you are familiar with the term, the Bell Curve. As it applies to the graphic above it might illustrate, for instance, that the brightest group of students in a classroom is on the left, the slowest learners on the right, and everybody else in the middle. I know that’s a raw translation but you get the idea.
In church talk we might use a similar graph to describe the life cycle of a congregation. Say that a new church begins, usually with just a few members but a lot of momentum and a steep growth line. New people bring new people; every Sabbath is a celebration. They build a building, start a school. However, quite often within a few years growth begins to level off, practices become set, and after a time satisfaction (often spelled Laodicea) sets in. A bad case of predictability surfaces, systems are put in place, everybody knows everybody, survival is not at stake so prayer becomes less fervent. Often no one even notices the change of temperature – at least no one wants to talk much about it. It’s comfortable in here.
But as we track down the right side of the curve by and by it becomes evident that it isn’t as difficult to find a spot in the parking lot as it once was. Some folks who were as regular as the sunrise are tending to miss from time to time. The Kindergarten class has some empty chairs. The Deacons find they have to work harder when it’s time to make the appeal for the church expense offering.
Here’s what we learn from those who study these things. As the malaise deepens, the church enters a scary spiral. As the speed increases down the right side of the curve it becomes more certain that the church will slide into community irrelevancy and ultimately to closing the door and selling the building. You can find variations and exceptions; don’t let them fool you.
How long does it take? Many factors influence the process, but it’s not uncommon for it to generally follow the life-cycle of a person. Sixty…seventy…eighty years.
Unless… Unless something supernatural happens to re-cast the vision. Unless the members reach out for a new visitation of the Spirit. Unless the leaders – and the followers – become convinced that God is not honored by a church on life support.
Three questions: Where would you place the dot for your church on the Bell Curve? What part do you think He would want you to play in any change He might want to make? When?