For One Brief Shining Moment

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These are the tales of several real churches I have known, either because of my own experiences as a member or through the experiences of friends. Each church shares the same peculiar reality.

Church A—A long-established congregation in a just-outside-the-city suburb, it flourished with the confluence of several pastoral streams that yielded a sum much greater than the parts. With vibrant leadership, plenty of wealthy families, a “somehow it just works” blend of worship styles, and a healthy mix of ages within the congregation, this church had it all. Conservative, Spirit-filled, evangelistic, and biblically solid, it was the place to be for about 15 years. Then, for no apparent reason, most of the leadership resigned in fits and starts over a two year period. The most influential laypeople left for a different church. Then came the inevitable church split. The neighborhood around the church changed, and both slid into a decline from which they have not recovered—and probably never will.

Church B—After the chaos subsided at Church A, it seemed many of its refugees ended up at this church, which was already being christened as the new place to be. Visionary leadership coupled with a hip vibe and a “this ain’t your grandpa’s church” feel combined to bless many and give the city something unique.  Soon, this church garnered both local and national attention.  But when its senior pastor fell ill, powerplays within the leadership played out in messy ways. The vision that had driven the church through 15 years of growth and influence waned when the church got caught up in Church Growth Movement shenanigans. A purge cleaned house of some of the powerplayers, and the church is making some inroads toward regaining its past vision. Sadly, it fell far enough that it has a long road ahead, though it is working hard to recover.

Church C—Once the area’s one true megachurch, this congregation was known throughout the city. For about 15 years, anything of importance to the Christian Church in the city had some input from this congregation. Besides the local kudos, the pastor and his staff were highly respected in the national denomination. I saw 2nd Chapter of Acts, Dallas Holm, John Michael Talbot, and others there during this church’s 15-year heyday. But a sex scandal in the children’s ministry tore the church apart. Now, I know no one who attends there.

Church D—This church thrived because of the large number of families with kids. All the youthful energy created a dynamic center of creativity and eagerness for Christ. Though a mainstream Protestant congregation, the pastors preached the Gospel and loved the people in the seats. Illness forced the senior pastor to step down. The kids in the church grew up and moved away, never to return. The congregation greyed and the neighborhood around the church grew poorer and more needy. Still, for about 15 years the church was a source of energy and Zoe-life.

Church E—Located in the city, this church was as diverse as they come. White, black, prostitute, lawyer, rich, poor—somehow they all got together to focus on Christ. The leadership team unswervingly upheld the Scriptures and ministered powerfully. For about 15 years, this church commanded the respect of many, with pastors from Churches B and C both claiming it as an inspiration for their own ministries. But the senior pastor grew older and funding for the church grew harder to come by. Folks who lived in the suburbs but drove to the city to attend dwindled. The top-notch music ministry fell on hard times when the pastor of music was let go due to budgetary constraints. I’m not sure what has happened to this church, but I know that people don’t mention it like they once did.

Anyone notice the one uniting factor of all these churches that have suffered decline and eclipse?

I call this Camelot Syndrome. For one brief shining moment these churches had everything going for them. Folks would walk in and feel the Spirit dwelling. They knew this was the place to be because people encountered God powerfully and had their lives changed.

And in each case, that moment of glory lasted for about 15 years.

Almost all of these church had been around for decades, but something happened in a 15-year span that took them from good to great. Equally, something bad eventually happened that tarnished Camelot. In these cases, the bad took on the following forms:

1. A loss of dynamic, visionary, Gospel-true leadership, either through resignations, age, political maneuvering, illness, compromise, or a combination of those elements

2. Demographic changes in the neighborhood surrounding the church

3. A failure of young people to return to the church after leaving to pursue a college education or better work opportunities outside the church’s geographic reach

4. A scandal or infighting that split the church

5. A failure to stem the loss of mature laypeople who comprised the backbone of the church

What troubles me is that I see few exceptions to Camelot Syndrome. Influential churches have about 15 years of glory before they run into a mass of issues that precipitate decline. The all-too-brief rays of the sun shone down...What’s even more distressing to me is that it’s not just influential churches who suffer; smaller congregations tend to face this same syndrome.

My question: Can this be prevented? (Crazier addendum: And should it be?)

Further, I would like to know if it’s possible to restore a church’s glory once tarnish taints Camelot. I see Church B striving to avoid becoming an also-ran, but the list of churches that have successfully fought against entropy and won seems to me to be vanishingly small.

I wonder also what must be done to avoid pinning too much of a church’s success to dynamic leadership. In almost every case, the influential leader(s) in my church examples handed the ministry to less-effective folks or to those who were unable to find their own footing before the lifeblood of their church had bled away to some other congregation.

Is the loss of the cream of the laypeople crop inevitable? How can churches keep their top laypeople during transitions, thus avoiding decline?

Lastly, how does a church keep its young people and retain its relevance in light of changing demographics within its surrounding neighborhood?

Your thoughts are welcome. Please leave a comment.

20 thoughts on “For One Brief Shining Moment

  1. Peter P

    Evolution.

    The Church leaders have to be prepared to step aside/step back and allow the young blood to come through and take the church where God is leading them to take it.

    We also have to be careful to not make the church all about the pastor. What’s going on at the Crystal Cathederal in California is evidence of this. The big-name pastor has stepped back and people are leaving in droves. Not because the church is any less of a family or is any less dedicated to its mission but because they were only there to follow the pastor.

    It’s sad but it must be avoiced at all costs – including teh cost of damaging mr big-shot’s ego!

    • Peter,

      Fact is, most people in most churches are only there to follow the pastor. The main reason most Christians like or dislike a church comes down to the pastor. I think that’s the wrong way to look at it, but you might as well try to blow out the sun because that’s how Westerners think. You would need a massive culture shift to get away from that kind of thinking. It’s one of the reasons that our community-making in so many Western churches fails; people don’t think about the community, but about one or two dynamic leaders. The Chinese Church is doing a much better job in this regard because they see everyone as expendable, including their leaders. From a cultural perspective, we just don’t think that way–but we need to.

  2. I think it is human nature to attach ourselves to a personality, to look for dynamic, charismatic leadership that kind of draws us in to create the personality and “image” of the church. When that central personality goes away and the dynamics fade, it is human nature to fade away with it. We remember the “good times” and the “way things were” and when we don’t feel the same, we long to feel it again. So a lot of people – most maybe – end up becoming nomads in the church if they don’t fade away completely. I’ve seen it in churches I’ve attended – I became a Christian in a church that was well on the down slope after its founding pastor left to lead a much larger church and most of its members were very attached to that pastor – and I think there is a certain degree of inevitability to it. The only way to circumvent it may be to have diverse pastoral leadership preaching on Sunday mornings, and avoid an overt dependency (or co-dependency if you will) on one individual. If the congregation sees leadership coming from a lot of different directions I think it will lead to a longer term, healthier identity of the church that isn’t so laser-focused on one person. One could probably look at events like the Welsh Revival, Azusa Street, etc. also and ask the same questions and why did those eventually fade, too, or move on.

  3. “I wonder also what must be done to avoid pinning too much of a church’s success to dynamic leadership. In almost every case, the influential leader(s) in my church examples handed the ministry to less-effective folks or to those who were unable to find their own footing before the lifeblood of their church had bled away to some other congregation.

    Is the loss of the cream of the laypeople crop inevitable? How can churches keep their top laypeople during transitions, thus avoiding decline?

    Lastly, how does a church keep its young people and retain its relevance in light of changing demographics within its surrounding neighborhood?”

    Keeping the focus on the gospel. Staying away from ‘fads’ and getting too wrapprd up in what the culture wants (when it comes to the things of God the culture always gets it wrong. Not worrying about numbers, per se, but reaching the lost with the pure gospel and the sacraments.

    Tough sledding. But He never said it would be easy.

    • Steve,

      Even in Gospel-centered churches, too much focus remains on the pastor, especially if that pastor is viewed as being particularly attuned to the truth. I keep wondering what will happen to MacArthur’s, Piper’s, and Hayford’s churches when those men step down or die. I would be hard pressed to believe that the ministry of those churches would go on and flourish in the wake of their departures. And I would think that those guys preach the Gospel as much as anyone.

      Personally, I believe the only real hope is to decentralize the ministry of a church so that no big name rises to the top. Anyone should be able to step in to fill someone else’s shoes at any time. Putting the emphasis back on the Christ (Head) & Church (Body) ideal will shift more emphasis onto the community as a whole rather than on any one dynamic individual. That’s the way most underground churches function, and I think that’s a healthier long-term perspective.

  4. Man I miss church B. Watching the leadership from that still flounder hurts as well….

    I think when there is a strong visionary leading (and there always is), that visionary has to not only recognize the other visionaries around them but not have King of the Hill syndrome and fully allow those visionaries room to grow and flourish…. not doing so means they grow to a certain point, find no way to express what God has implanted within them and eventually 1) die to those deeply seated dreams and desires totally 2) learn to live unfulfilled 3)walk away to find more fertile ground. None of these perpetuates the concept of reaping and sowing within a body.

    I’m under a strong visionary right now. God’s moving incredibly and I myself being a visionary as well, am watching and waiting to see what happens over the next few years. The awesome thing is He is exactly on the same page as the dreams and desires within me, so there is a true partnership here as in I don’t feel a need to walk forward without them in any area. Rare, but awesome. Granted I also know full well that when and if the time comes that I do, He will encourage and support me in whatever that is, IF God is really there in it. That’s the difference. A lot of visionaries get the King of the Hill syndrome and there can only be one king and one hill and that isn’t how the Kingdom works. This dude walks in such humility he is like, here, let me help you on that hill… and THAT is Unity!

    • Ronni,

      Church B was a startling example of what happens in the shadows. People with agendas get into higher positions and even some of the best/key leaders didn’t know what is happening on their watches. I could comment a million ways on this one, but I’ve already said too much.

  5. Dan,

    I think you’ve hit it there.

    I know that in my small congregation, our pastor is great, but many do not like him. They stay because …well, who knows why they stay.

    We have a liturgigal form of worhip and even if the pastor doesn’t know or communicate the gospel very well it is going to be given away in His Word which is in the liturgy.

    And in the Lord’s supper.

    This too, often take sthe reins away from a cult of personality.

    Thanks Dan!

  6. Dan,
    I have to wonder if the Camelot Syndrome would matter if it were not for the physical capital invested in brick and mortar and the emotional capital invested in establishing institution. Since it is natural for sheep to attach to a shepherd, perhaps even supernatural (why else did God devise pastors?), why should the migration of sheep from one shepherd to another cause a raised eyebrow? What is really at risk? If our conception of church is out of synch with the Spirit’s reality of church, the incongruity is bound to manifest itself in puzzling disconnects between fact and theory.

    • slw,

      I’ve read some interviews with pastors of churches in former communist countries and they all say the same thing: You are born into their church an you die in their church. Brick building or not. Pastoral change or not. Political change or not. Misunderstandings or not.

      Why is their congregants’ perspective so much different than ours?

      • Dan,
        I’ve heard the same thing. I don’t know if it represents an improvement, however. Prosperity and the freedom to be self-absorbed definitely have their negative impacts on the church, but I’m not sure that persecution and oppression don’t have impacts just as bad. I don’t think Satan would use them as weapons if they didn’t screw the church up. Was it not the Roman persecutions that gave rise to such strong pastoral offices in the first place?

        In my area we have families who trace their lines back in particular local churches for near 200 years. It doesn’t make those churches, or those individuals, less dead. People move for bad reasons, for selfishness, to avoid discipline, or labor, because of boredom, or to catch a new buzz, but some move for life. I don’t know what we can do about it and not have the cure be just as bad as the disease.

  7. Josh

    As others have already pointed out, it’s largely because people focus on the pastor. It makes life easier on them. I think that one of the great dangers of having a Charismatic leader is sometimes laypeople will try and live the faith vicariously through the pastor instead of actually doing it themselves. And I also am left to wonder how many pastors actually disciple others within the church who might actually rise to take his place some day? In the Early Church we see the Apostles mentoring young men like John Mark, Clement, Ignatius and Polycarp, who go on to be excellent Church Fathers in their own times later.

  8. Matt

    Personally, I believe the only real hope is to decentralize the ministry of a church so that no big name rises to the top. Anyone should be able to step in to fill someone else’s shoes at any time. Putting the emphasis back on the Christ (Head) & Church (Body) ideal will shift more emphasis onto the community as a whole rather than on any one dynamic individual. That’s the way most underground churches function, and I think that’s a healthier long-term perspective.

    I think you hit it on the head here, Dan. Even the use of the concept of “laypeople” (that horrible word!) and the structure of church as we know it in the west is all geared to create the exact problem you describe, a church that is personality centered and has such high “performance elements” that it is designed to draw a crowd, get people buzzed, entertain them. When the religious professionals heading it up fade away, move on, die off or flame out, it is questionable if anyone with that level of talent will emerge to keep the show going.

    I haven’t fully entered into it myself yet, but I think part of the answer to truly decentralizing the ministry of the saints is moving toward a simple church or organic church structure. These churches are alive, full of the Spirit, and truly impacting culture from the grassroots. They’ve already transformed countries like China, India, and parts of Africa, and they are coming here to the US finally. They promote networks of simple churches that grow like wildfire and are constantly self renewing, getting disciples off their seats and into the streets–a true “everybody gets to play” culture.

    If you read Paul’s letters from within this paradigm, things like the use of spiritual gifts from 1 Corinthians and the 5-fold ministry gifts all make a lot more sense and become quite compelling models that can actually be used in an authentic way, as opposed to trying to force these concepts into the current 1 minister/300 people ratio structure.

    Just some thoughts for you, anyone out there who has been a part of any organic church movements who can comment?

  9. Diane R

    Here in Los angeles County (and I imagine some other places too), your last sentence under Church A is one of the main reasons churches here ae in trouble–at least the “white,” English-speaking ones. In many of our suburbs here the “white” population is under 50%. In my town it is 20%. The Latinos go to their church in their language, the Phlipinos go to their church in their language, and so forth. Their children, when they turn adults, cannot afford to live here. Take Hayford’s former church for example (he hasn’t been the pastor there in years by the way). They lost a few when he stepped down, but they didn’t hemorage. But now their city is majorly majority Latino. They do have a Spanish service there on Saturday evenings, but the English speaking service is diminishing. They’ve started another “campus” in an area nearby that has mostly English-speakers and alot of younger adults. Churches haven’t seemed to have figured out how to handle this except to hang on until the English-speaking congregation dies out; or they move elsewhere.

    As to pastors, in the first church they had several teachers, prophetic teachers and pastors. Some peoplel eave a church because they hear the same things from the same person year after year and they don’t grow. We need to do it the way they did in the first chruch. I personally enjoy hearing others teach. Both you and boethius really hit it on the head as to how co-ependent we are on this ONE person. But to do this today, the church leaders (plural-elders and pastors) would have to really explain why they are changing things. Many times people get upset because there are poor exlanations as to why things are changing.

    • Diane,

      They still show Hayford preaching on his show “Spirit Formed.” If he’s not at Church on the Way, then where are they filming those teachings? I know he’s the head Foursquare guy, but it sure seems like he has some base of operations somewhere.

      Anyway, I’m blessed to be in a very collegial church with a solid pastor who defers to others and makes strong use of the elders and laypeople.

    • My nephew’s mother goes to First English Lutheran in our city from time to time. It is called “First English” because it was a German-speaking church that opened a mission church to English-speaking people. Fancy that. Now there are hardly any people speaking German in my city.

  10. Diane R

    Dan,

    He hasn’t been the pastor in years. I beleieve these are old programs. However, sometimes as the pastor emeritus he might be a guest speaker and perhaps some might be from there, I don’t know. The pastor now is named John and he has been there for a few years. Before him was Scott who was Hayford,s son-in-law and he had been there a few years before he died.

  11. I don’t have answers. The church where I work and worship has never had “one brief shining moment.” She has slogged through 52 years of living together, trying to be like Jesus in her neighborhood, serving others, growing steadily from a handful to about 1,700. Moved once in 1972. Only three preaching ministers in the past 25 years, each unique but none of them recognized as “super-apostles” in our fellowship. We also have three youth ministers, a body life minister, a children’s minister, a pastoral care minister, a worship minister. There’s a director for the Family Life Center and a director for the day school. There are staffers like me to tend to other operations (I handle communications). The elementary school that meets in our facility is a whole separate entity with its own staff and teachers.

    So far, our church has managed to avoid a mid-life crisis, although she’s come close in the past few years.

    But I don’t think there’s ever been a time when she’s ever had everything going for her; any “glory days” that anyone looks back on with inordinate wistfulness; any crowning achievements that make all others since pale by comparison.

    Maybe that’s not a bad thing.

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