Of The Great Tree Fallen and Declining Churches

Oregon’s largest tree, the Klootchy Creek Giant which is located southeast of Seaside, Oregon on Highway 26, fell victim to this week’s series of major storms. Hurricane force winds brought the tree down hard. I remember a series of news reports in the past year concerning the health of the tree. Forest officials warned that the tree was at risk of falling due to its failing health and impending death. In fact it wasn’t so long ago that they declared it dead, although it remained standing in all of its majesty, a momument to an era soon to pass. The officials went so far as to prevent the curious from getting to close to it anymore. It was only a matter of time.

Yet, due to its popularity, many people insisted that the tree be allowed to stand. At about 750 years old, they could not tolerate the idea that the tree should be cut down for safety reasons. There were so many memories. So much history. It was the grandest tree in Oregon, and the largest of its kind in the USA. Surely it should be preserved for future generations. Surely something could be done.

Nature had different ideas. Sometime in the violent passage of night, the tree splintered at its fifty foot mark, falling in a cascade of furious wind and rain.

Churches can have similar experiences. Over the course of their histories, they develop reputations in the community. They foster memories, both wonderful and sad. Weddings. Funerals. Baby dedications. Building projects. Life-impacting spiritual decisions and experiences. Family. And when those churches begin to experience decline which becomes evident to the faith communities they serve, many things can happen. Denial. Mourning. Anger. Reminiscing about the way things used to be. Efforts to initiate change to breathe new life into the congregation.

Typically declining churches have become disconnected from the culture in which they are physically located. Sometimes they get to a point where they only serve the elder population, the younger families having gone on to churches which seemed more likely to meet their needs. Others have had such traumatic interpersonal conflicts that recovery seems nearly impossible outside of the intervention of God.

It is not inevitable that a declining church should die. In fact many manage substantial recovery with new seasons of growth and vitality. But that recovery is not a given. There must be an intentional process involving prayer, reconnection to the culture, strong leadership, and trust-infused congregational participation in the change process.

Consider your church. Is it declining? How do you determine states of decline? Is it spiritual? Numerical? Programmatic? Cultural connectedness? Community connectedness? Relational? Leadership? Under each of these headings I could expound further avenues of consideration. For example, when we think of decline we usually refer to the most obvious indicator, numerical membership and attendance. However, that is usually a late stage indicator. Before it comes to that point, there often are other more subtle indicators that not every thing is as it should be. The forestry officials recognized this concerning Oregon’s largest tree long before the general public had a clue. Do we as leaders recognize the signs in our churches?

And here is a sobering thought. I would suggest it is possible for a numerically growing church to be sowing the seeds for its eventual decline even while it seems to be experiencing great success. Often this occurs in terms of interpersonal relationships between leadership and the faith community, as well as the culture in which they minister. This is why in my workshop on Leading Change in Children’s Ministry, I take time to discuss the need for consistent seasonal re-evaluation of the church’s ministries and impact on its culture. It is not enough to evaluate once every ten years. By then it may be too late. It is easier to make minute corrections based on regular evaluations, than to initiate change in a situation with late stage decline indicators. This does two things. It causes leadership to have more openness and humility and the congregation to take ownership of the process in healthy partnership with the leaders.

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