I came across this little slide show summarizing concepts from a book called “The Plateau Effect” by Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson (Dutton, 2013). The writers talk about different ways people and groups get stuck in plateaus, and things you can try to re-gain growth and vitality. I haven’t read the book, but these slides were helpful for me in thinking about ways churches get stuck in plateaus that eventually lead to decline. A few examples:
- Immunity means we keep trying harder to do the same old thing even as it becomes less effective. Elsewhere I have referred to this as “bringing bigger balloons to Rally Sunday.”
- The Greedy Algorithm is the idea that we choose short term solutions (Let’s have a bake sale!) over long term positive outcomes (Let’s become more generous Christians).
- The Step Function refers to that problem where you know what you need to get out of a slump, but you don’t have the resources at your disposal. As a remedy, the writers suggest finding partners for mutual support. An example in churches might be partnering with another church for joint educational programs, joint mission projects, sharing a building, etc. (oh, and by the way, those other churches are not “competition”; they are fellow disciples!)
- When I read about Choke Points I think of the naysayer in the church who always seems to stop anything creative from happening by reminding us of all the bad things that might result if we take a risk.
- Distorted data results when we “measure the wrong things or inappropriately assess risk”. Partial information may freeze everyone with fear or suppress change. In one church, the data showed their income was dropping dramatically, but one leader kept repeating the mantra, “Somebody always comes through with a gift to save us.” Then, nobody did.
- Failing Slow: Decline has occurred so slowly that no one notices how far they have sunk until it is too late. (One solution: stop over-functioning and fail faster so you can get on to the next project that might be successful).
- Distraction: We get so focused on the inside of our little church bubbles, we stop noticing the world we are called to serve. We are distracted by our own interior conflicts and needs. The writers call in this instance for radical listening, the “Yes, and…” that not only listens for the truth from outside ourselves, but builds on it with adaptation and more truth.
- Perfectionism: Here is my latest beef: churches that spend a lot of time formulating new “policies”. While I know some policies are necessary, too much policy writing prevents us from actually doing anything. Instead, try just doing something, and if it bombs, you can always make a “policy” not to do it again. But there is also a chance that you may actually do something well!
Those are just a few ideas to think about if you and your church are feeling stuck in a plateau that may lead to decline.