I once met a man who had been a trusted lay leader in his church for many years. He served on the search committee that called a new pastor. He helped persuade the congregation to build a new Sunday School addition and add an elevator to make the building more accessible. He thought he was doing the right things for his church at the time.
But now, years later, he says, “I think I led us in the wrong direction”. The pastor that was called didn’t work out, and after two years he had resigned. Controversy arose over the building addition, and some families left the church when they did not get their way. Ten years later, he looks around and sees a church whose membership has declined steadily instead of rising to fill the new Sunday School space. He blames himself.
Maybe one reason churches stay in denial about decline for so long is that facing the truth means facing their own mistakes from the past. We operated with unrealistic expectations of the future forever exceeding the past in prosperity. We built our churches for comfort instead of faithful discipleship. We made room for more people, but didn’t know how to invite them in or even what we were inviting them to.
Nevertheless, what I loved about this man is that he was a leader who chose to take risks. To call a pastor is always a risk, and adding space is risky, too. Sometimes risks lead to failure. But would his church be healthier today if they had not enlarged their building? Would it have more vitality if they had allowed a mediocre pastor to stay? I doubt it.
All I could say to this lay leader was: sometimes we make mistakes, and God looks at them and says, “Hmm. I wonder what good I can make of this.”
Instead of wallowing in guilt that we have tried and failed in the past, I believe the only way to a healthy future for churches is to take more risks and make more mistakes. Every time you step out and try something new, you act not out of despair, but out of hope; and you increase your chances of having a successful experience.
There’s a Japanese proverb:
Fall down seven times, get up eight.
Get up and brush yourself off. God still needs you.