Any homeowner can tell you concrete cracks. Metal rusts. Wood warps. Caulk fails. Paint peals and sunlight fades everything.
Sometimes, we can get by with touching up our home’s age spots. But, if we own the house long enough, we eventually face a remodeling job.
The process at work in an aging home is nothing less than the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
If you don’t remember your high school physics definition of this law, don’t worry – I’ll summarize it for you in three words: “Everything breaks down.”
The Second Law of Thermodynamics explains why we always have to change the oil in our cars, why the interstate is always being repaired, and why home ownership is frustrating.
Everything breaks down. Our cars, our highways and our homes need maintenance or repair.
And despite our best efforts, sometimes they need overhauls, repaving or remodeling. None of them can last forever in their current states.
I learned how the Second Law of Thermodynamics applies to churches as a young associate pastor.
I had responsibility for the weekly training of adult Bible study teachers. I developed a good program and had excellent participation. For about a year.
Then attendance decreased slightly until, at the end of the second year, less than half the original participants still attended.
I lamented the situation to a man in the church who happened to be a professor. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “It’s the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Everything breaks down.”
From there, we had an interesting discussion of why programs “age out” and become less effective.
Original participants age, die, get sick, move or have changes in life circumstances. Their initial vision becomes tempered as other interests subtly compete for time or attention.
New participants ease into the program with interest but less ownership. Enthusiasm is diluted. Eventually, the program exceeds its shelf life and becomes ineffective.
Any of us who lead in churches know the frustration of having to retool a once-effective outreach program.
Even the best stewardship campaign themes have an expiration date of two to three years. Everything breaks down.
Regular maintenance helps, but sooner or later some programs need an overhaul or remodeling.
Traditionally structured churches currently face the effects of the Second Law of Thermodynamics in several critical areas.
One is Sunday school. Bible study that solely focuses on Sunday mornings in age-graded classes simply isn’t the final answer for how congregations must train members in the knowledge and use of the Scriptures.
Look at attendance figures across a wide range of congregations. How many have a Sunday morning Bible study attendance equal to the attendance 20 years ago?
Communication is another critical area. The printed newsletter cannot carry the brunt of delivering timely information to members. Even email is fast losing effectiveness as a tool. What comes next?
So that we don’t lose sight of the big picture, behind all these individual programs is the overall vision of the church.
Given enough time, it too will give in to the forces of physics and break down. A once vibrant and inspiring mission can suffer from the effects of old age.
One of the convictions of the Center for Healthy Churches with which I work as a coach is that intentional maintenance and intentional remodeling of church programs can create new passion and purpose within a congregation.
It is possible to create fresh cycles of energy and growth. As with a home or a car, planned maintenance or replacement of a vision is better than the crisis of unexpected repairs.
If you are frustrated with a program or process in your church that is less effective than it once was, don’t feel defeated.
Even the most effective programs have expiration dates. The best ideas have a normal shelf life. Things break down.
But with regular maintenance good programs can last longer. Remodeling a vision can be planned and exciting.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches. A version of this article first appeared on the CHC blog and is used with permission. His writings can also be found on his website, The Substance of Faith.