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5 observations about the turn inward

| by Brian Thorstad

Sometimes a wrong turn can be tragic, sending a ship to the bottom of the sea, a motorist onto the wrong lane of the highway or a passenger jet onto the wrong runway.

For churches, it’s often the turn inward which sends the congregation on a one-way journey to obscurity. Here are five observations about this tragic mistake:

1. It’s deadly.

Churches almost always begin their existence with an outward focus. Of course, it helps that the new congregation has nowhere to go but up. There’s no building—or not much of one anyway—only a small group of people, little money and little talent.  

Thirty years later, a large percentage of congregations are pretty much irrelevant. There’s a nice building, a healthy budget, a good staff, some gifted volunteers and no outreach.  

In one of the more famous Christian articles ever penned, “The Parable of The Life Saving Station,”probable author Theodore Wedel likened the typical congregation to an ocean-side rescue unit—the citizen-run predecessor to a U.S. Coast Guard station. This devolves from a fearless group of stalwart heroes to a self-absorbed cadre of comfort-obsessed club members.

As a result, the now useless life-saving station must be replaced by a new, outwardly focused station, which, in time, also has to be supplanted by a subsequent group of fearless volunteers.

2. It’s imperceptible.

Church consultant Tony Morgan, writing in his insightful book, The Unstuck Church,makes some startling observations: First off, churches are typically in the maintenance mode (on the downside of the life cycle) for months or even years before they realize it (p. 117).

Second, churches in the “maintenance” phase, on the downside of the life cycle, look remarkably similar to congregations which are in what he calls the “strategic growth” phase – on the upside of the cycle (p.118). The only difference is that the arrows have turned inward,or as Morgan says often, “The voices on the inside of the church have become louder than the voices on the outside of the church” (p.120).  

3. It’s natural.

Try Googling the term, “organizational life cycles, images.”  

You’ll find an almost endless array of diagrams, most of them contributed by the business world, depicting the same phenomenon: a dream for the future, a start-up phase, an improving, organizing phase and a period of success followed by a subtle shift to institutionalization, maintenance, decline and death. 

And it happens in Christian ministries because they are (like it or not) organizations, subject to the laws of organizations.

4. It’s powerful.

The turn inward is as natural and “innocent” as the turbulence experienced while driving your small car behind a large truck. 

Trying to stop the turn inward can be as desperate as trying to wiggle your way out of quicksand (I’ve seen it in movies) or as difficult as trying to push your car uphill (I have tried this, and it definitely didn’t work). 

5. It’s reversible.

Effective leaders dream new dreams. They re-think their mission (what they are supposed to do) and their vision (what they are trying to become). They rework their strategy: the process by which they are carrying out their missions and seeking to achieve their dreams. They stop wasting their time and money on methods that aren’t working. 

And other institutions don’t have what Christian ministries do have, like: the resurrection power of Christ, the indwelling Holy Spirit, the love of Jesus Christ in their hearts and the incredible privilege of prayer. 

The turn inward is deadly, imperceptible, natural, powerful and fortunately, reversible.

Does your ministry need to reverse the turn inward? 

Photo source: istock 

Brian Thorstad

Brian Thorstad is a Redevelopment Transitional Pastor. He is the author of Heaven Help Our Church! (A Survival Guide for Christians in Troubled Churches) and Redevelopment: Transitional Pastoring That Transforms Churches.

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