From Institutional Preservation to Life Transformation

One of my lifelong friends recently visited a church building in upstate New York. The congregation was established in 1649 and moved to its current location in 1929. The architecture tells the story of a once-thriving congregation that added to its facilities at different times. The basement of one addition has a six-lane bowling alley that was once a thriving activity center in the heart of Albany. 

It’s hard to imagine a modern church leader getting excited about a bowling alley in the basement. Yet, that was an innovative idea of a flourishing congregation. 

Leaving the basement, my friend remarked, “It looks like someone left this room in 1973, and no one has been down here since.”

The building is now for sale, and the congregation is looking for a new place to meet. 

While the transition has been difficult, they have a good spirit. Their people say, “This congregation existed a couple hundred years before we moved into this building, and we can reinvent ourselves.”

I don’t fully understand the decline of this particular church, but my years of church leadership give me clues. 

My hunch is they started focusing on institutional preservation instead of individual transformation. 

Why do I say this?

After working with hundreds of churches, I have had thousands of conversations where church leaders can’t stop talking about the church–the budget, the programming, the facilities, and the attendance. 

And it makes complete sense. Church leaders face enormous pressure on all of these fronts. So, over time, church leaders drift towards keeping the institution running because it screams for their attention. 

At the same time, when I have a heartfelt conversation with these same leaders and ask, “Why did you want to be a church leader?” The answer is about…

  • How Jesus and the gospel changed their lives.
  • How they want other people to experience that good news. 
  • How they want to see lives transformed by Jesus and his gospel. 

This is why our work at Intentional Churches challenges, encourages, and champions the fundamentals of making disciples who make disciples. 

In the first century, the Jesus movement grew through relationships, which is how his movement will grow in the twenty-first century. 

So, while it may be fun to think about the latest innovation like a bowling alley, gymnasium, or coffee shop, don’t let that distract you from leading your church to be full of disciples who make disciples.

After all, my hunch is that you got into this business to make disciples in the first place.

And while this may sound simple in a blog post, leading a church toward this simplified vision of disciple-making is not easy or for the faint-hearted, so take courage and get support.

And if you have gotten distracted by your building or your programming, may you take a page from this church established in 1649 and reinvent yourself. 

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