1. No life application from the Bible. When preaching, teaching and Bible study become ends in themselves rather than means to an end, something is badly wrong. The aim of no passage of scripture is that we should simply know what it says without the knowledge translating into discipleship and worship. Just as the aim of no Bible passage is that we simply know it (the Devil does that!) but that we follow, obey, submit and worship, so Bible studies and preaching must never exist entirely for their own sake but to see faith, worship and discipleship among the believers
2. A church becomes afraid to ask radical questions. Perhaps a pastor knows that things are foundationally wrong but knows he will be severely resisted (or sacked) if he raises the issue. Perhaps certain activities have passed their sell-by date but have become too dear to those who participate in them to ever deliberately stop them. Churches accrete new activities much more easily than we stop redundant ones and gradually stall under the weight of them. The danger is that people start to equate serving the church with living out the gospel. Few churches regularly evaluate every aspect of church life against their core vision
3. Confusing Christian activities with discipleship. The myriad of opportunities within and without the local church to spend time doing churchy things makes it very easy to believe that doing those activities automatically means we are growing as disciples. This reason for stalling churches is subtle and hard to spot because it may outwardly seem that people are doing good things: attending Christian conferences, going on Christian holidays, sitting on church committees, even ministering or leading in church. All of these can be valuable. The danger arises when we assume that these things are the same thing as living out the gospel. They aren’t
4. Not understanding how to release and encourage everyone in the church to use their spiritual gifts for the building up of the church. This stall can take several different forms: the church (or the leader) that expects the leader to do everything and everyone else to do nothing; the church that thinks that everybody participation is not a matter of identifying and utilising gifts but of exercising a vote at a church meeting; the church that doesn’t want to be challenged out of a cultural comfort zone and that insists that its leaders act as their chaplains for meeting exclusively internal spiritual needs. There are two types of DNA in churches. One type of church says “we exist to have our personal spiritual needs met”, the other “we exist to impact our locality and the world with the gospel of the grace of God in Christ.” The first type is a stalled church
5. Moving into maintenance mode. At some point all churches take decisions that tend towards stalling. No church was stalled at the point that it was founded. At the beginning all churches were adventures in faith and daring risk for God. No one actively decided for comfort over risk, but at some point the mindset shifted from uncomfortable faith and daring passion for the Lord to comfortable mediocrity. From an externals to internals, from a frontier missions mindset to a homely maintenance mindset. One point this can happen for larger churches is when the initial vision is met. If the founding vision was to see 200 people saved and a full building of converts, it is very easy when this is achieved to move into keeping everyone happy and simply building up those who have come in. But that is to betray the founding vision. When it is reached it is time to ask what the next step of faith should be. However this is always uncomfortable, especially if you have a full building with lots of activities that people enjoy and find unthreatening. The mantra of the maintenance mindset is “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” But just like buying shoes for growing children, if structures don’t take account of future growth then fellowships end up stunted and deformed. We need to plan for structures, buildings, teams and leaders to grow at the point where the building is full. Any other decision is by definition a decision to stall sooner or later.
One component of leadership is discernment, the ability to bring clarity, vision and sense to situations. The final straw that will lead any church into a stall is when leaders are unable to do so. This might be because they lack skill, opportunity, they face implacable opposition or because they are wounded and isolated. One of the tragedies for sole leaders is when a congregation knows that it only has to dig its heals in enough and it will wear down the ability, capacity and energy necessary to bring vision and change. Stalled congregations are often comfortable being stalled and fiercely resist any attempt to move them out of the rut. The leader ends up drained, permanently discouraged and pulled this way and that by every demand of the congregation.
It is critical for a stalled (or stalling) congregation to ask “how did we get here? Where is the hole in the fuel tank?” But even more crucial is the question “will we look for and follow leaders who can discern, identify, and fix the problem?” The answer to this question will finally determine whether the stall is fixable or fatal.