How many times have you heard there are three kinds of people in this world? One memorable version of this is from the 1960s “spaghetti” western starring Clint Eastwood that referred to the good, the bad and the ugly.
When talking about the people around Lake Wobegon, Garrison Keillor says that the men are good looking, the women are strong and the children are above average.
How about congregations? As a congregational prognosticator, I often use categories to describe them. Simple categories are small, medium, and large. Then there are growing, plateaued, and declining congregations. Some congregations are attractional, while others are worshipful, and still others missional.
One pattern I use is fruitful, faithful, and fearful. Fruitful congregations are impacting the lives of people and transforming their community context. They are like a car in drive that is moving forward. Faithful congregations engage in quality worship, discipleship, and ministry, but seem to be in neutral in terms of making kingdom progress.
Fearful congregations suffer from the Wallenda Factor. They are floundering and afraid of failing and falling. They are like a car in reverse. Their transmission is often stuck in reverse, or they are afraid to put it in drive because they see too many obstacles ahead.
The Wallenda Factor refers to the high wire circus act family who walk the wire without a net. The godfather of this family fell to his death several decades ago on a wire between two buildings in San Juan, Puerto Rico. His widow said she knew this was getting ready to happen because her husband Karl had talked more in recent months about the fear of falling rather than the joy of walking the wire. Do you know any congregations like that?
Too many congregations give in to fear rather than claiming a faithful stance or embracing a fruitful ministry. They are the inheritors of the phrase, “we’ve never done it that way before.” Their fear of loss is greater than their belief in the joy to be gained by moving forward.
Among their characteristics are the following:
1. They have intertwined their theological beliefs with their cultural perspectives and cannot see the difference between the two.
2. At minimum, one-third of their active congregation are “60-40-20 people” who are at least 60 years old, have been professing Christians for at least 40 years, and have been connected with this congregation for at least 20 years.
3. Many of their favorite stories about their congregation are stories of things that happened in the past. They have lost the ability to talk about future stories of what God is yet to do in and through them.
4. They have decided what is Baptist [or Methodist, or Presbyterian, or Lutheran, etc.] and see the new things happening in many congregations — even theirs — as not fitting their denominational ethos. Robert Webber, the father of blended worship, would say these people have confused the substance and structure of church with the style of church.
Congregations who give in to fear may claim they are faithful or fruitful. Often this declaration reveals they do not understand what it means to be faithful or fruitful. Unfortunately the congregations who live in fear may be upwards to 50 percent of all congregations. Which word—fruitful, faithful, or fearful—best fits your congregation?
Transforming a fearful congregation is more difficult than it appears. They do not really want to change. Here is a formula for congregational action: the perceived benefits of change must be at least two times greater than the perceived loss that will occur if change is embraced. Transition people first to where they gain an understanding of benefits before you engage in significant change.