November 20, 2014
I recently heard of another church closing. The news is rarely good, but the reasons are often universal. If there is one over-arching theme to most closings its this: The church was unwilling to change. Its a sad refrain that's been repeated too many times.
Now I do admit that a church closing can be a good thing. Especially if its become toxic or irrelevant. I've often wondered how many congregations would have been saved the hurt of watching their church fold and become dark had they been willing to change at the first sign of trouble.
I've put together what I believe are the essential areas of ministry we need to constantly evaluate as church leaders in order to protect ourselves from decline. As a frame of reference for these I want to state that I believe the church should be a place where non-believers can come and experience the hope and grace of the Gospel.
I don't see the church as exclusive to believers where the signage states "members only." The closing of a church doesn't happen overnight. It consists of a gradual decline over time. For the most part few ever realize the descent into obscurity until its too late. So, with that understanding, here is my list of the areas a leader needs to guard from becoming irrelevant or unimportant.
Unless your last name ends in Graham the days of large tent meetings with people coming forward is gone. In fact, one of the largest hurdles in our culture is convincing people that they are lost in the first place. We are ministering in a world that promotes that we are born good and at worst, make bad mistakes.
But the concept of being a sinner that needs saving is a foreign one to many. Therefore, evangelism needs to be more relational than proclamational in order to gain a hearing. The rub though is obvious. Churches that do not grow through new believers have only one option for growth. Take from other churches, and though some may be proud of this method of growth, the problems with it are legion and fodder for another blog.
2. Doctrine I've heard for years that doctrine divides and causes rifts. That may be true but it has been muted on so many levels. Doctrine has taken a back seat in an age of experience. Experience may be important, but it needs a foundation from which it can be understood and filtered. Also, doctrine communicates that we stand for something, an important distinction that gives the Christian faith its credibility in an age of fluff.
Most have been sold a bill of goods by culture that is in many respects, empty and vacuous. Instilling teaching and spiritual disciplines into people will not only enrich their lives, but those of others as well.
I keep hearing that preaching is dead. Can't say I buy it. Why are people clamouring to mega-churches and TED Talks, and why are they able to tolerate a 3-4 hour movie? If the communicator or program is dynamic and inspiring, people will watch and listen. I'm not talking about entertainment. But I am talking about the ability to hold an audience.
Why is it that some can tell the Christmas story (which is the same every year) and make it come alive while others tell it and you want to die! Jesus was able to captivate crowds because he was able to communicate in ways that touched people where they lived while never watering down the message.
For most, church is a tired series of repeats and reruns. In an age where creativity and imagination can be spawned from a young child on an iPad, how can the church continue to lag behind when it comes to music or the arts? Simply put, we lack the imagination needed that will capture the imagination of others.
The history of Christianity is replete with artists who devoted their craft to elevating God, yet we've lost the sense of being the creative representatives of a creative God. Being creative forces us to continually find new and imaginative ways to communicate and spread the Good News!
This one will not be popular, but our prayers have become vapid and self-consuming. For the most part, the overwhelming majority of prayers that I hear are for personal needs or the needs of others. Rarely do I hear prayers that are focused on God, His character, or His will for the world and the church. Did Jesus not pray for God's will to be done on earth as it is in heaven?
Don't misunderstand what I'm saying. I'm not saying that you have to stop praying for needs, but what I am saying is that they should be a fraction of what should consume our prayers. I think the church in North America has become impotent because of this one issue. We no longer pray for God's agenda above our own.
You've heard the adage, as the leadership goes, so goes the church. Yet, in an age of distrust and individual autonomy it is difficult to be in a leadership role even though it is often the single largest factor in the growth of any organization. Here is my main reason for including this.
Often, the change needed to sustain an organization comes through its leaders, and without the needed change, stagnation follows and with it comes death. So, anything bent on protecting the status quo will likely be a death sentence. Good leaders are advocates and instigators of change. Secondly, successful leadership is not about individual legacy but building succession. If you've not invested in the next leadership whatever you've built will crumble anyway.
7. Strategic Engagement
Every church leader knows that serving is one of the key engines for growing people in their faith, but not every church has a plan for engaging people at every level. The more you are able to enlist the more growth you will experience. Not just wider in a numerical way but also in a deeper spiritual way. The caveat here though is not to burn people out. That will actually work against you and create an environment where serving is akin to forced slavery.
8. Invest in Youth
This one is so painfully obvious but so practically ignored. It is also, as argued by many, the group that takes the most investment yet yields the least return. At least not immediately. In fact, the tendency will be to cater to those whose resources carry the church, therefore, music and programs will tend to favour and follow the money. Here's the problem.
A lack of significant investment in our kids will eventually lead to no kids at all. Families always migrate to the churches that have created significant environments for the youth. And when the youth begin to evaporate, the road to decline begins.
9. Technology I'm convinced that if Jesus were walking around on earth today he would be using technology to reach more people. I recently heard someone who researched church websites state how many never communicate any form of the Gospel. I can't say I was surprised.
If the majority of people who have any interest in a church check out the website first, doesn't it stand to reason it should be our first opportunity to state what we believe? And that is saying nothing about Facebook, Twitter, and the myriad of other social tools that exist. Communication is no longer limited to Sunday mornings.
The main point I think is important here is to build a community that people want to be a part of. It should be authentic, hospitable, inviting, and contagious. I realize that it is hard to manufacture these, but you can be aware of the people who naturally invite this type of environment and give them the freedom to do so.
Also, I'm not crazy about the imagery of a family when it comes to church because it can have the connotation of being exclusive, even though the positive qualities of the imagery are definitely to be promoted. Community on the other hand is a better picture of a group that is more open to people of varying types, without being homogeneous.
That is my list. Your church may have some or all of these dialled in. If not, I hope this list can help you assess the areas of your church that may need to change. I didn't include money in this list, simply because money is not the end game for churches. Discipleship is, and when you invest in these 10, issues like money become secondary. Would love to hear your thoughts.
photo credit: James Whitesmith Whitby Abbey Sunset via photopin (license)
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