I was thinking about a video Andrew linked to a while back. The video presents - in parabolic form - the sort of atrophy which often occurs in churches. Somebody plants a church with the burden to reach the lost, the least and the last. They succeed, and the church becomes popular. As the community grows, however, more and more energy is transferred from without to within. Soon the preponderance of resources and time are invested in the community. No longer is the church a 'who', a group of called-out ones who exist that the nations might be blessed. Instead, it's a 'what'; an entity wholly extrinsic from its members which must be sustained at great cost.
Vanier (though speaking of something slightly different) is instructive on this topic...
Creating a community means struggling against all sorts of things. But once the community is launched, energies may be evaporated and people may seek distractions; they may compromise other values. This can be very marked in a therapeutic community. At the start, it accepts people who are difficult or depressed, people who break windows. Then gradually everyone settles down and if 'window-breakers' arrive, they are unacceptable. The energies which used to be there to tackle all sorts of problems and to deal with difficult people have dissipated. A time comes when we feel too comfortable together, and that complacency signals a decline in the quality of unity.
Community and Growth, 119.
This is the gravitational pull of community. People get comfortable with each other. They feel bonded together. But then, comfort becomes king. The thought of introducing new members to the community seems awkward, or even abhorrent. While this community may feel safe and secure, it is actually crumbling internally.
A community which is growing rich and secure, and seeks only to defend its goods and its reputation is dying. It has ceased to grow in love.
The question is, how do we counteract gravity? How do we keep communities on mission? It starts with the leadership. Leaders have a negative and a constructive role to play here. First, they must be sensitive to the principle of atrophy within communities, and sound the alarm when such atrophy begins to take root. This is the negative role; leaders alert everyone that what is happening is bad. It is depriving the lost of life, and it is killing the body. Then, the leader has a constructive task; to introduce changes to get the community back on task. G.K. Chesterton speaks of creating revolutions to recapture the original vision of something. If you leave an organization alone, you subject it to a torrent of change, until it bears little resemblance to what it was originally intended to be. Therefore, reformation is continually necessary to keep a community faithful to its original vision. But what sort of changes should be implemented? Often it seems churches introduce changes by adding something; a new ministry, or an outreach program. But this can have unintended consequences. If people are already heavily invested in the myriad of programs at a church, why should we suppose they will commit to one more program? Particularly one in which they will be called to do difficult things?
Perhaps it would be better if we introduced change by taking things away. A number of books have already suggested this (like this one and that one). By simplifying church, leaders could remind people of what is central; making discipes of all the nations. What does simplification look like practically? Some have suggested that the church only do three things; a weekly gathering on Sunday, small groups, and service to the community. I don't know if this is the magic bullet, but it's certainly a step in the right direction. I realize simplification doesn't ensure mission. Yet, by stripping the church of programs and events that don't reach the lost/make disciples, it forces believers to ask why the church exists in the first place.