I am sure everyone remembers what it was like to be an adolescent. I am also willing to bet that no one remembers particularly enjoying that time of their life—the physical changes, the awkwardness, the intense feelings—it’s not an easy life stage. As someone who works with adolescents, I am writing to tell you that your church can have its own period of adolescence as it matures into the church God intends it to be.
Irregular or Unpredictable Growth
I think we can all remember what it felt like to watch the physical changes that took place during puberty: all of the sudden there is hair where we didn’t have it before, without warning our voice begins to crack, and little pustules begin appearing on our once smooth countenance. In the midst of such change, we didn’t know what to expect next, like when we may actually grow a few inches in height or where the next pimple would blossom. There wasn’t a stated agenda for our growth that let us know when to expect what. These changes occurred on their own schedule without warning.
The same is true in church growth. It goes without saying that there is no way to predict how many visitors we should expect on a given Sunday. The growth of a congregation may happen in spurts or slowly over a long period. There will more than likely be some discomfort and maybe even some unsightliness in that growth. Crowded pews and folding chairs for worship can be the pimples of our Sunday morning. A growing congregation may also have to change its routines and procedures to accommodate its growth. Like a twelve year-old who has to start wearing deodorant, a growing church might have to change the way it structures its budget, or even how it decides who gets a key to the building. Of course, as difficult as some of this change is, the result of a larger church that is capable of more ministry is worth the stress.
Searching for an Identity
It’s fairly common to experiment with different identities and allegiances during adolescence. Kids are trying to decide how they want to be perceived by their peers – do they want to be the smart, academic kid or the happy-go-lucky teen with the great sense of humor? Adolescence is a time for trying out different roles, but it can also be a frustrating time when adolescents don’t know whether they fit into the world of young adults or the world of children. Sometimes, they don’t fit into either.
Likewise, a church can suffer from this same dilemma. When a small church begins to slowly grow, it can be a very disorienting situation for the congregation. They are all of the sudden forced to deal with issues of their identity. They’re no longer a small church (one hundred or fewer people), but they might not yet be a large congregation (over one thousand people). They can no longer structure themselves like a large family, but they are not yet ready for multiple, more specialized staff members. This in-between time can be very hard for a congregation. The church council cannot move ahead with big plans for the future and the pastor is frustrated because she doesn’t have time to make all of the pastoral visits she needs to and write a decent Sunday sermon. The congregation starts to lose its perception of itself. The vision begins to break down and, inevitably, some parishioners look forward to the future while the rest look longingly to the past—a time when they understood what their church was. At this point, there are, in effect, two different congregations playing tug-of-war with the future of the church. Conflict is the inevitable fruit of this stage in development.
Life can be very dramatic for an adolescent. How could it not be with all of the hormonal changes taking place in their brains? The neuro-chemical dynamics of puberty, combined with the changes in self-perception already discussed, create a difficult emotional climate in which to handle the everyday stressors of life. Thus, adolescents are often irritable and known to lash out against others over seemingly benign matters. The actual irritant in these cases is the stress of the interior changes the adolescent is experiencing, which may be difficult to verbalize.
Churches in a transitional period suffer from a similar tendency to lash out. Some congregations might dismiss a pastor or other staff member as a scapegoat for their perceived problems. The congregation may turn inward and identify certain parishioners as the cause of its stress. Or, the congregation might embody a sense of pessimism and become increasingly negative about all aspects of congregational life. Whatever exterior behavior the congregation exhibits, the actual irritant is a frustration with the difficulty of being a congregation in transition. The church may be unable to identify this frustration for a variety of reasons. It may be because some churches lack the awareness to realize they are in a transitional period, or, more likely, because these churches are not able or not ready to ask the tough questions: Who are we as a church? Where do we want to be in five years? What is preventing us from getting there and how do we change it?
Strategies for Coping
Patience is a must. Both adolescents and churches in transition can be hard to be around. They’re rough around the edges and not always predictable. Yet, ever so slowly things begin to settle down, tempers mellow, greater responsibility is shown, and eventually the identity that was once in transition has formed. They are a new creation. The process only takes time and the reminder that transition is temporary. As my mother used to say about my brother and I during adolescence, it’s only a stage.
Listening to a church in transition is also key in getting to the other side of the transition. Just as it sometimes help to have someone outside the family listen to an adolescent, I believe it helps to have someone outside the church come and listen to the thoughts and fears of a congregation in transition. People within a congregation often get frustrated by hearing the same ideas and concerns repeated by others in the community. A fresh pair of trained ears coming into the community can often identify the larger anxiety behind the common criticisms of church members. Once that anxiety is identified it can be addressed, with the help of a trained facilitator. Moreover, outsiders are always better equipped to ask the difficult questions related to a congregation’s identity because they carry none of the nostalgia that a lifelong member may have.
Another strategy used with adolescents that can help a church in transition, especially one that is struggling with its identity, is to identify the community’s strengths. A church can then cultivate those strengths into an identity. When adolescents are recognized as having certain gifts, they can be directed in ways to use those gifts, thus cultivating a better sense of identity. The accomplishment of a task, or the feeling of being skilled in some way, contributes to a positive self-image. The same is true of a congregation. The positive feeling of knowing that your church excels at providing a specific ministry can go a long way towards establishing a more positive and better-defined congregational identity.
Once again, an outside observer will be able to identify a church’s gifts more easily than a long-time member. Most churches have “sacred cows”—programs that are close to the heart of a very influential member of the congregation. An outsider would not feel unduly influenced to identify the sacred cow as the church’s greatest strength. Churches should also be aware that its gifts can change over time. These are congregations in transition so their gifts and identities need to be considered temporary. Like an adolescent whose remarkable singing voice doesn’t survive the drop in register, a church in transition may find that what it once excelled in is no longer the indentifying strength it once was.
As we all know, puberty is rough, but it lasts for a limited time period, and it prepares the human body for its next stage of development. A church in transition is also being prepared for its next stage of development. The transition period itself is not pretty, but the outcome is well worth the trials of transition. Change is always uncomfortable, but if we trust God’s providence we will find that the land on the other side of transition is land fertile for ministry.