I’ve been asked: how do church leaders recognize that critical moment in a church’s decline–that turning point in the life cycle when we need to stop talking about how to keep the church alive and begin planning for radical change or closure?
That’s a good question, but I want to tackle a different question:
What, exactly, is a “critical moment”?
A critical moment can be defined as a moment of decision, when you are forced to choose one course of action over another. In one church I interviewed, this moment came when the church leaders announced they had run out of reserve funds to support their operations.
A critical moment can also be thought of as a “tipping point”. One by one, members begin to see that the church they once knew no longer exists and new behavior is required of them. Some may talk about these issues without the behavior of the church changing. But finally, a “tipping point” event will cause a shift in consciousness and a change of behavior in the group will begin.
One church I heard about had become so small it was down to one family. The patriarch died and the matriarch took over leadership. One Sunday after church, she stood up and said, “I think it’s time to quit. We’ve done what we were called to do.” The five other worshippers spontaneously agreed. They had an impromptu congregational meeting right then and there.
Another definition of a critical moment is a “moment of opportunity”. God may place an opportunity before the congregation, and they must discern how to respond. One urban church I studied was approached by a multi-cultural center to share their space. This move was supported and fostered by its Presbytery, but the congregation resisted the change at every step. While openness to the partnership might not have “saved” the church, it could have opened the door to some new ministry venture. But the opportunity was missed.
Yet another definition of a critical moment is a kairos moment. Kairos, in the bible, is “the fullness of time”, when God allows the right thing to happen at the right time. It is not our job to make that time happen; that’s God’s job. But it is our job to notice that the moment has arrived and to give ourselves to whatever God is doing in that moment. Whatever happens in kairos time may not make sense to us, but we trust that it makes sense to God.
Some people believe that the decline of current forms of the institutional church is occurring in a kairos time, in which we are being called to let go of old models and venture into new ways of being Christ’s Church. We can help our congregations discern the kairos they are living in by watching for signs of God’s activity and inviting people to respond to it.
In discerning what constitutes a critical moment in the life of a church, leaders should watch not only for signs of danger and decline, but also for moments of decision and opportunities to follow the Spirit into new connections and behaviors. God is constantly doing a new thing, and it is our job to notice it!