Dan Dick’s excellent little book Vital Signs: A Pathway to Congregational Wholeness sketches out four types of churches: decaying, dystrophic, retrogressive, and vital. The two names that might be unfamiliar name the church type that is growing in numbers but ultimately unstable and with a small impact for its size (dystrophic) and the church type that is stable and producing significant impact on the world but shrinking in size.
The book offers in-depth portraits of the four types and a concluding chapter on pathways toward vitality. Near the end of the book he offers this:
Every United Methodist Church can work to increase stability and strengthen sustainability. It may require slow, incremental, “baby steps,” but it can be done. The story of every vital church describes a path from dystrophy or decay through retrogression. The elimination of non-essential effort, the prioritization of work that forms faith, establishing standards of participation, the flattening of organizational structure almost guarantee a short-term loss of less active, less engaged members. This is not a message that will attract a lot of support. …
At the heart of the issue is a very important question: Who do with think we are? If the church is essentially about us, then it doesn’t much matter what our driving motivations and values are. …
Certainly the church is for us, at its very best it is us, but it isn’t about us. It’s about God and God’s vision for all creation. If any church is truly vital, its vitality comes from God, and it is the unrelenting focus on God that keeps it vital.
So I find myself asking how to start with the little decaying church I pastor.
Dick suggests that a decaying church needs most the stability that some depth will create. It needs to identify one or two areas that it can move beyond shallowness and build on those. The long-term goal is to develop those and then find more ways to build depth so that the congregation eventually has both depth and breadth.
The fear is that depth will lead to change or raise demands that will drive away members and push the congregation from dying to dead. But I find myself — today at least — realizing that we are dealing with matters of if not when in such cases. A dying or decaying church will die if left to drift on. It may revive but only if it is not allowed to drift.
Oh, for the wisdom to lead without killing the patient.