Jesus tells a parable about your church in Matthew 13:31-32. He says that your congregation is like an acorn which is planted and becomes, in time, a mighty oak. OK. Jesus uses a mustard seed instead of an acorn. If he were preaching in your church, I’m sure he would choose a plant familiar to your people. His parables were meant to be simple. Too often we get hung up on the fact that there are other seeds smaller than the mustard and other plants more majestic than the mustard bush. This all misses Jesus’ point. The church (kingdom of heaven) is meant to grow until it becomes shelter for the birds of the air. Church is meant to serve the kingdom of God by meeting the needs of others.
Using the acorn illustration, we can think about the life of a congregation passing through three stages. First, there is the small beginning. At some point, group of Christians gathered together to form a fellowship. Your congregation was born. Over time the acorn grew. Your congregation entered a second phase. It became an oak tree. Your church provided a nurturing place for faith in the midst of the community. There is for every congregation, a third phase. Just as there is birth and maturity, there is also death. Eventually the congregation closes and, hopefully, its assets are prayerfully distributed to help God’s Kingdom to carry on in a different form. This is the lumber or legacy phase of a church.
Using this parable, consider the following:
1. How does it feel to be a church leader during each of these three phases?
+ In the acorn phase, there is a lot of enthusiasm but not much structure. Newly birthed and growing churches are exciting places to be. While the congregation may be small (and fragile) the sense of progress encourages everyone to make sacrifices.
+ In the Oak Tree phase, the focus of the church shifts to programs. The job of the leadership is to keep the sap flowing and ensure that every bird that lands on the tree gets what it needs to make a nest. This phase can last for decades and cause people to forget that they ever were an acorn, or will one day be lumber.
+ When you see your beloved tree fall and become lumber, it is easy to feel depressed. Leadership gets burned out. This is a important time, however, for the kingdom of God. By leaving an appropriate legacy, a dying congregation can continue to serve God. The leadership can insure that every member finds a new church home and every asset a missional use.
2. Is it ever possible to go backwards?
+ Obviously, churches on the verge of becoming lumber would love to go back to being healthy oak trees. Church experts are in agreement that the only way to move to a previous phase is to be radically born again. Transformation stories alway involve dying to who we have become and choosing to accept a totally new and frightening future.
3. Who are the birds
+ When I look at Jesus’ original parable, I am fascinated with the birds. Your church is meant to provide spiritual shelter and hope for a wide range of people. Some birds flutter through and briefly perch to catch their breath. Your mission must extend far beyond your membership.For more information on the congregational life cycle see Martin F. Saarinen's work at Alban Institute