For One Brief Shining Moment


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.



I maxed out last week. Every day filled with activity and left me scurrying from place to place like a squirrel on amphetamines. I swore at one point I heard a hummingbird yell, “Dude, slow down! You’re like wearin’ me out.”

Around dusk last night and late this afternoon, I took a break in my favorite place, the outdoors. My halcyon time of the year is that holy month of days between mid-May and mid-June. The late spring grows pregnant with possibility for the upcoming summer. Hallowed days swell with life. The sky pulses cerulean. The trees fluoresce with green.

I picked up my binoculars, hoping to catch some stragglers on the spring warbler migration. The gorgeous Cape May WarblerWhile showing my son a Red-winged Blackbird atop one of our sycamores, I happened to spot a Cape May Warbler. On my own property! My neighbor across the street, an Audubon Society local president, blew my mind when he said he saw one of these uncommon birds in his stand of pines last year. Not having a Cape May on my life list, I thought I’d lost my opportunity forever. But it showed up when I least expected it.

Saw a Wild Turkey, too. It’s nice to know America’s bird is coming back. I’ve seen more in the last three years than in the previous twenty-five.

A Rose-breasted Grosbeak surprised me, since I hadn’t seen any on our property before. You tend to see more of them in winter in Ohio, but this one happily flitted through the canopy blissfully unaware of his being out-of-place in May.

An Eastern Wood Pewee hunkered on a spare limb by our pond…patience, patience. Then, zip! Snared a moth mid-flight. Back to the branch. Waiting….

Two Flickers tended their nest in a hole in an ash tree. Yellow Warblers, a Myrtle Warbler, a Yellow-breasted Chat, then pow—the eye-socking sight of the setting sun catching a Baltimore Oriole’s tangerine feathers. Two happy Chipping Sparrows watched me as they hopped around our gravel driveway, scouting for food, chipping as they searched.

Later, I left our forest, walked back to our porch, and pulled up a chair to watch the half acre of trees nearest our house, looking for tiny flashes of movement in the increasingly dense canopy. Here, the locust trees come late to the spring show, fighting with the walnuts to be the last to leaf. I hear the “drink your tea” of a Towhee, spot a Red-bellied Woodpecker as it digs for bugs wedged in tree bark, and hear a tiny Chickadee—its weight not more than a nickel, dime, and quarter together—scolding all 215 lbs. of me. And I’d probably lose that fight, too.

I saw a Cerulean Warbler a couple weeks ago, and I guess the reference to that color should bring me out of my reverie and back to the blog. People don’t want to read about a bunch of birds, do they? No time. People come here to skim some hard-hitting commentary on the latest ecclesiastical buzz, right?

A wise man once wrote,

Four things on earth are small, but they are exceedingly wise: the ants are a people not strong, yet they provide their food in the summer; the rock badgers are a people not mighty, yet they make their homes in the cliffs; the locusts have no king, yet all of them march in rank; the lizard you can take in your hands, yet it is in kings’ palaces.
—Proverbs 30:24-28

I don’t know what happened to wonder. It seems to be in short supply today. In a disposable world where people toss cigarettes and half-eaten bags of fast food out their car windows while on their way to their next appointment, I suppose there’s not much place for wonder.

Wonder goes missing in busyness. Spring warbler migration? What? When? Oh, I’ll pencil that in my calendar for next year, I promise.

Entertainment tramples wonder, since wonder may not be as flashy, not as trendy, not as immediate. Wonder takes a little work. Just a little.

We might not see wonder, but we do see truckloads of pragmatism in our churches. We can teach and preach and prophesy on how to have a great marriage, but most people will leave without any sense of wonder at the person sitting next to them on the drive home. We can spend an hour in worship, yet the second the last note dies out in the sanctuary rafters, we’re scanning our bulletins to see what’s next, hoping that the sermon won’t be too dry or lengthy.

Because we don’t wonder, we don’t pray. We already know what God’s like. Jesus won once and He’ll win again. Yadda, yadda, yadda. Hope He comes back soon—but not too soon. Amen.

When wonder goes missing in our churches, answers replace it. Not questions, just answers. Questions accompany the first signs of wonder, especially when the answers for those questions don’t come easily. And where wonder reigns, sometimes neither answers nor questions matter, only the wonder.

I wish I saw more wonder in American Christians. I suspect that many of us are too caught up in living our best life now to wonder at the way the Wood Pewee pirouettes in space to outmaneuver a zigzagging moth. Or how the craters on the moon form patterns. Or how the brook teems with tadpoles, mayflies, and tiny fish. What are the names of those fish? Does it matter?

I think it matters. I think we’ve lost something in the last hundred years in this country. Our wonder’s fled. I think it’s one reason why so many people take psychoactive drugs. Strip away the wonder and the world turns frightening, cold, and distant. It becomes the enemy. Life takes on a winner-take-all mentality where some win and others lose, and God help us if we’re not one of the winners. Now pass the damned Zoloft, thank you very much.

I think a loss of wonder means it’s far easier to take a gun and shoot at cars passing by. I believe a loss of wonder makes it that much easier for an angry husband to take a fist to his wife’s face. I know that a loss of wonder makes us shallower people.

Loss of wonder is a sin.

We won’t hear that sermon on Sunday, though. Because if we did, it would mean we’d have to start dealing with our culture, a culture that successfully murdered wonder and got away with it. Nothing pains me more than to hear some five-year-old say, “Ah, it’s just a stupid old bird.” Because I know that any child who says that will one day grow up to say, “God? What do I need God for?”

Something to wonder about.