by Tim Woodroof –
There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens. (Ecc 3:1)
I’m getting older.
Can’t run as fast or long as once was true. I ache in places I never noticed before. I wear tri-focals. My memory isn’t what it used to be. (Where did I put my iPhone?) It’s enough to make me yearn for younger days.
One of the fundamental rules of life, however, is that everything has its season. We move inexorably from childhood to youth to adulthood to decline to death. We cannot go back. We cannot evade the demands of time or the changing of the seasons. Embracing this reality permits us to age gracefully. Denying this reality makes us pathetic (think varicose veins and hot pants).
The Seasons of the Church
Churches, like people, have their seasons. They move (inexorably?) from birth to messy adolescence to productive adulthood to decline and death.
Certainly, congregations have a few more options about “stages of life” than individuals do. It is possible for churches to “turn around,” find fresh energy, and relive various seasons. Churches can experience renewal and revival. In practice, however, most churches march through seasons as predictably and reliably as individuals. One church in a hundred experiences a second “youth.” Most never do.
Churches that accept the reality of “seasons” can embrace various stages of life and respond to the call and mission of God—whatever season they find themselves in. Churches that deny this reality descend into nostalgia, regret, and a wistful yearning for younger days—the ecclesiastical equivalent of a sixty-year-old yearning to wear mini-skirts again.
An Example: The Jerusalem Church
Acts gives us a birds-eye view of a congregation going through various seasons of life—the Jerusalem Church.
Its birth was long and messy. Conceived in the ministry of Jesus (who preached relentlessly to crowds composed—in part—of listeners from Jerusalem); gestated by events such as his death and resurrection (witnessed personally by many who first joined the church); labor-induced by Jesus’ return to the Father and the baptism of the Spirit—the Jerusalem church was famously born on Pentecost. Peter played midwife. In those early days, the church was raw and messy. Lots of energy, but little structure. People joined in droves. But they needed basic teaching and care—the “feeding and diapers” of early church life.
Churches that accept the reality of “seasons” can embrace various stages of life and respond to the call and mission of God—whatever season they find themselves in.
The childhood and youth of the Jerusalem church unfolded over a brief, three-year period (Acts 3-11). Great emphasis on miracles and evangelism, courageous witness and warm fellowship, growth and persecution. Members were immature (e.g., Ananias and Sapphira—5:1ff). The church was disorganized (e.g., the “Grecian widows” problem—6:1ff). Leaders almost wore themselves out preaching to the lost, teaching and maturing those they found, enduring the bullying of opponents, and managing the daily problems of church life.
With the explosion of persecution that broke out following Stephen’s murder (see Acts 8:1), the church had to grow up quickly. Over the next fifteen years, representatives of the Jerusalem church—driven from their home—birthed other churches: Samaria (8:4-25) … Damascus (9:1ff) … Galilee (9:31) … Caesarea (10:1ff) … and, most significantly, Antioch (11:19ff). It was during this vigorous adulthood that Jerusalem Christians crossed borders, sailed seas, changed language and habits, and questioned old assumptions—all in their commitment to reach people and preach the gospel.
Acts 15 (the Jerusalem Council) marks the boundary between the church’s vigorous and productive adulthood and its long, slow decline. By Acts 21, the Jerusalem church was still strong in number (“see how many thousands of Jews have believed”—21:20) but stuck theologically (“all of them are zealous for the law”). Christians there had focused on matters like circumcision and Jewish customs and temple rites (21:21-26). They began sending out representatives who (essentially) preached that Gentiles must become good Jews before they could be true Christians (see Acts 15:1; 2 Co 11:4, 22; Gal 5:2-12). The Apostles moved on to other places, other churches. The center of church activity and leadership migrated from Jerusalem to Antioch and Ephesus. [The meeting between Paul and the Jerusalem elders (reported in Acts 21) is the last mention made of the Jerusalem church in Acts.]
According to an excellent article by F. F. Bruce on the history of the Jerusalem church (http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/cbrfj/church-jerusalem_bruce.pdf), the church went into exile when Jerusalem was sacked by Titus in a.d. 70. Even in dispersion, these believers continued to call themselves ‘the church of Jerusalem,’ but the zeal and courage so characteristic of earlier seasons was gone. The church lingered—dwindling and ineffectual—for several centuries.
Seasons and the Life of the Church
The Jerusalem church provides a clear example of “seasons” in a church’s life. Looking at it (and thinking about our own church experiences), we can recognize the reality of various seasons … and our pronounced seasonal preferences.
For all its messiness and struggle, we like that season when the church is young and growing and enthusiastic. Because of its productivity and power, we love that season of church life when—as ecclesiastic adults—churches spawn and spread, exert and experiment. We can even tolerate that season of a church’s life when stagnation sets in—when churches get stuck—because there is safety and stability in such seasons. What no one cares for (apparently) is the season of decline, a church that is dwindling and dormant. (As I approach my sixties, I can understand why people and churches dislike the closing seasons of life!)
A few observations:
- Churches may be no more immune to seasons of life than individuals. With few exceptions, churches (like individuals) will march from birth to death, experiencing the full range of seasons in between. While we may have our seasonal preferences (who wouldn’t want to be part of the Jerusalem church in those heady, early days!), those preferences must be tempered by the reality that “wishing don’t make it so.” If churches intend to age gracefully, they must embrace their particular season of life.
- It is not “unfaithful” for a church to cross from one season into another. No church can stay young and vigorous forever. But “young and vigorous” is not the yardstick God uses to measure faithful churches. (Think hard about this statement!)
- There is a way for churches to be “faithful” and to pursue the purpose and mission of God in every season. In order to do so, however, churches must be willing to change yardsticks along the way; to redefine what God expects of a church, how he measures “effectiveness” in a church, as seasons change.
- Each season of a church’s life has its strengths and weaknesses, its opportunities and dangers. Wisdom would advise us to play to the strengths and avoid the dangers of each season. There is a season, for instance, when brashness and boldness are characteristic of a church—and can be perilous to the church’s future. There is a season when churches tend to get “stuck” (which leads, often, to decrepitude). Do we know what those strengths and weaknesses are? Do we know how to build on the one and evade the other?
- It is wrong (worse, it is unfaithful!) for a church to waste time “wishing” it could experience some other season of life. It is what it is. You are what you are. Healthy churches embrace that fact and refuse to live in longing for future seasons or lament of former seasons.
- If a church can experience “revival”—and, by doing so, extend a particular season of its life—it should do so. Revival is good. But revival is not a “cure” for the inevitable march of time and changing of season; it is a temporary treatment. Nor is revival the norm—most churches don’t get second chances at youth. Nor (and I say this boldly) is revival the only way for a church to honor God: churches in decline can honor God (in their own way) as fully as churches in ascendancy.