Way back in 1994, Peter Drucker wrote a piece for the old Net Fax network on “Jumping the Sigmoid Curve.” (Click here for download It seems things last forever in cyberspace!)
Drucker pointed out that one of the more useful tools in understanding the natural life cycle of a product, an organization, a church or even a relationship is the sigmoid or S curve. The secret to constant growth is to start a new S curve before the first one ends and the right place to start the second curve is at point A when there is the time, energy and resources to get the new curve through its initial stages before the first curve plateaus and declines.
Most organizations, of course, do not begin a new cycle until point B. The reason is that at point A everything seems to be going fine, so why change things. Another reason is that change may initially produce a drop during a time of learning and acceptance, as shown in the shaded area, and so change is filled with anxiety.
As I speak to congregations about becoming missional churches, I often point out that churches go through this same life cycle of mission. I’ve made up a little chart using a fishing analogy.
When a congregation first starts out, it is focused around being “fishers of people,” and built upon the Great Commission. As time goes on, however, attention shifts from fishing to maintaining the shed. The congregation still knows where the fishing tackle is and still pulls it out for regular “evangelism” activities, but the energy of the congregation is on keeping the shed in good repair and those within it comfortable. Finally, a congregation may reach a stage where most of its energy is focused on maintenance and finance and structure and serving the needs of those within the shed. The bones of mission are dragged out a couple of times a year for a sermon or two, but they are not part of the fabric of the congregation.
Another illustration I use is this one. When a congregation starts out, it has mission and vision in the driver’s seat, but as time goes on, finance and structure move to the front and mission and vision take a back seat.
How long does the cycle take? For some congregations it takes only ten years, for others much longer. An expert in mission planting once said that the best place to plant a new church is not necessarily a new community or a growing community, but a community where all the churches are at least 35 years old. By that time most congregations have reached the peak of the sigmoid curve.
Where is your congregation on the sigmoid curve? Where are you in your own ministry? I found that every seven or eight years I had to do something significant to jump start my ministry like starting my doctoral program or taking a sabbatical. And every year I need to commit to regular reading and workshops and continuing education. Congregations need to do the same thing. How will you jump the missional sigmoid curve in 2009? Where will you begin? (Hint: Start with theology, not programs. What you need to do is change the culture of your congregation from an establishment culture to a missional culture. Your “culture” is like the default setting on your computer. A particular program may change the default while that program is being used, but unless the default (culture) is changed, you go right back to the default when the program is ended. Culture change starts by examining your theology and ecclesiology.) Who will help you change? Gather a group of like minded people and seek out a mentor for yourself.