I transplanted 2 strawberry plants, a rhubarb plant, and a blackberry bush 2 weeks ago into the same plot of ground. The strawberries and rhubarb are doing well and the blackberry is struggling. Last week on a noon-hour gardening program, I heard how our alkaline soil in the Calgary area is hard on plants that need a slightly acidic soil, and I suspect that may be part of the problem with the blackberry. If I can verify that pH is the problem, I can easily fix that by providing some acidic supplements to the soil around the blackberry.
Sometimes churches are transplanted into communities where the pH is wrong for the church. Sometimes churches import programs that do not fit the church. Fortunately, churches can change how they function, and sometimes they can change the pH of the community like spruce trees change the acidity of the soil where they grow. They can also recognize and end programs that do not fit them. But it is important for the church to recognize there is a problem. For the blackberry, the sign is the slow yellowing of the leaves and other signs of failing to thrive. The thriving part is key for the church: participation, atmosphere and enthusiasm for ministry are indicators that are important to me.
When an organism is introduced into a new environment, there is a period, normally, of little growth at first. Once it is established, growth takes off exponentially until the available resources begin to limit growth. Once resources are used up, a period of decline, slow at first, then increasingly rapidly occurs ending in worst case scenarios of the extinction of the organism. In an open environment with balancing factors, the population size can vary up and down. In the course of human history, we see similar patterns. A great civilization developed in the Indus Valley about 6000 years ago that collapsed when irrigation improperly applied caused the soil to become too salty to grow crops. Cooler climates causing crop failures pushed the Vikings to raid other places and move to avoid starvation. Many empires rose and fell. Fashions, music, and technology go through a variety of cultures. Not everything declines though — when the promoters succeed in responding to changes in society, some things keep on.
Peter Drucker was a business guru, a successful entrepreneur who inspired many others. He recognized that success can cause failure, when the success puts an end to innovation. One of his rules was that when an enterprise slowed down in its growth, it was time to look for something new.
The long term success of a church depends on watching for signs of failure to thrive or, sometimes, even a failure to keep expanding a form of ministry. Fortunately, when the signs first appear, most churches have the resources to change, to adapt to their situation. A few use the same model as annuals: they are all the same generation; when a new generation grows up, they start new churches for that generation and allow themselves to die. Some are like perennials and allow the new growth to replace the old growth. Some are like trees and keep the young on the outside and at the top while the previous generations provide the stability and support. Some are like aspens and send their roots into new places looking for the water and nutrients they need. Some trees do not respond to challenges, and they die. Some churches do not respond to challenges, and they die. It seems God or the Spirit cares more for what organisms and churches are doing now than what they did in the past.
Church members who care about the future of their church need to find answers to questions like the following:
- Is our church growing new disciples?
- Are we providing for the needs of the community around us? How do we know?
- Which of our programs seem to have run their course and need to be allowed to end? Which need to change?
- Are we mission oriented or past oriented?
- What makes us excited about being a church?
Biology and sociology teach us that life can be harsh when we do not respond well to change. Knowing that there are many people whose lives need what loving faith communities can provide, I hope churches will choose responding to change over relying on past successes.