A friend was telling me 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 fifty-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 ox bow lake organization”. 

You probably know that an ox bow 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 ox bow 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 ox bow lakes. On Sunday afternoon of this week, I flew home from Kansas. As we passed over the Mississippi River I could see clearly 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 ox bow lake churches. Think about it: disconnected from the movement of the main stream, the ox bow is cut off and stands out side 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 “ox bow lake moment” in their history? 

1. When a congregation decides that their survival must be on their own terms, they risk becoming an ox bow church. 
2. When a congregation decides that change is their enemy and not their friend, they risk becoming an ox bow church. 
3. When a congregation puts it’s own agenda ahead of the Kingdom agenda, they risk becoming an ox bow church. 
4. When a congregation assumes their ways and patterns are synonymous with God’s they risk becoming an ox bow church. 
5. When a congregation loses the willingness and ability to self-critique, they risk becoming an ox bow church. 
6. When a congregation cuts itself off from the movement and energy of the Spirit at work in their community, they risk becoming an ox bow church. 
7. When a congregation thinks more about its past than about its future, they risk becoming an ox bow church. 
8. When a congregation spends most of its money on itself, they risk becoming an ox bow church. 
9. When a congregation’s staff devotes most of their time to servicing the needs and requests of its members, they risk becoming an ox bow church. 
10. When a congregation walks by sight, rather than faith, they risk becoming an ox bow church. 

Ox bow 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 ox bow lake congregation. 

Bill Wilson
Dr. William “Bill” Wilson founded The Center for Healthy Churches in January of 2014. This followed his service as President of the Center for Congregational Health at Wake Forest Baptist Health since 2009. Previously he was Pastor of First Baptist Church of Dalton, Georgia, where he served since 2003. He brings over 33 years of local church ministry experience to CHC, having served as pastor in two churches in Virginia (Farmville BC and FBC Waynesboro) and on a church staff in South Carolina. Bill has led each of the churches he has served into a time of significant growth and expansion of ministry. He is the director of CHC.