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10 Signs Your Church May Be an ‘Oxbow Lake’ Church

A friend was recently talking about an organization that is struggling to adapt to some very necessary changes. While not a church, the observation she made about their inability to adjust to a changing world rings true for many of us.
Her observation focused on the group’s resistance to change. They have a 50-year history of doing what they do in a specific and familiar pattern.

While that way worked well in a simpler, less complex world, it has struggled to find constituents and customers in recent years. When suggestions about innovation are made, the reaction is defensive and dismissive.

My friend’s analogy was helpful. She said: “If they are not careful, they will become an oxbow lake organization.”

You probably know that an oxbow lake is formed when a meander in a river is cut off from the main channel and forms a lake. The name comes from the lake’s unique u-shape, which resembles the bow in a yoke of an ox.

Some oxbow lakes are large, while most are not. Nearly all suffer a similar fate. Without a current to move the water along, sediment builds up along the banks and gradually fills in the lake.

I know about oxbow lakes. I love flying over the Mississippi River and seeing the evidence of the many shifts the river channel has experienced over time.

It is fascinating to see how the great river is never at rest, always reinventing itself in the midst of floods, droughts and development.

It’s probably not too much of a stretch to suggest that the metaphor fits the current challenges faced by local congregations. Without meaning to, many of us run the risk of becoming oxbow lake churches.

Think about it: disconnected from the movement of the main stream, the oxbow is cut off and stands outside the life and energy of the river. It becomes irrelevant to the commerce and activity of the river, relegated to recreational activities.

My friend was making an observation about a group that had grown comfortable and had lost the capacity to innovate and be creative. With the change in the currents of culture, they face a bleak and “cut-off” future.

What are some signs that a congregation may be facing an “oxbow lake moment” in their history? A congregation risks becoming an “oxbow church” when it:

  1. Decides that their survival must be on their own terms.
  2. Decides that change is their enemy and not their friend.
  3. Puts their own agenda ahead of the Kingdom agenda.
  4. Assumes their ways and patterns are synonymous with God’s.
  5. Loses the willingness and ability to self-critique.
  6. Cuts itself off from the movement and energy of the Spirit at work in their community.
  7. Thinks more about their past than about their future.
  8. Spends most of their money on themselves.
  9. Has staff that devotes most of their time to servicing the needs and requests of members.
  10. Walks by sight, rather than faith.

Oxbow lakes are formed by the unrelenting forces of deposition and erosion. Over many years, the river deposits massive amounts of material in areas of lesser movement.

Simultaneously, erosion works to break down riverbanks as the river continually seeks the most direct route from one place to another.

Congregations must guard against our own forces of deposition and erosion. Our deposits might be all our preconceived notions about how church must be done.

Those deposits create barriers to the fresh wind of the Spirit as they form immovable attitudes and obstacles. Wise leaders watch for, name and deal with such dangerous deposits.

Anyone who has lived near a stream knows that erosion will eventually win out over our efforts to control it. Many churches can attest to the fallacy of ignoring or trying to manage the movement of God’s Spirit across the ages.

Wise leaders constantly listen for, look for and invite fresh expressions of our timeless story of God’s redeeming love for the human race and all of creation.

Let’s work to make sure no one ever labels us an “oxbow lake congregation.”

Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Congregational Health in Winston-Salem, N.C.