Established churches in North America, once giants of innovation and passion, are now on the brink of irrelevance and boredom. In the span of thirty years a large number of established churches in North America have gone from riches to rags. Systems theorists tell us that in times of great change, such as today, most highly successful organizations fall on hard times. Very few “Fortune 500” companies of 1950 appear on the list today. Several reasons could explain the similarly rapid decline of established churches.
1. Too many churches are declining because they have forgotten what business they are in. They have “lost their first love” (Revelation 2:1-5). Declining churches are afraid to talk passionately about Jesus Christ. They are afraid of not being inclusive enough, or worse, of being bigots. As a result, they say little or nothing about Jesus, and the fire goes out of their denominational bellies. They no longer exist to introduce people to Jesus Christ or to reach areas in his name. Lay people always ask me why their pastors never talk about Jesus.
I’m convinced that the number one issue facing Protestantism today is Jesus’s question, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15). Without Jesus Christ, it’s easy to be content with shuffling the deck chairs around on the Titanic or soothing our consciences by adhering to the “righteous remnant” theory (i.e., the smaller the church becomes, the more faithful it is). Without Jesus Christ, our congregations are nothing more than clubs on the lookout for just enough new dues-paying members to help them support their programs and keep their buildings.
On the other hand, we must find ways to profess Jesus Christ as Lord without being bigots. Wed must never allow our acknowledgment of Jesus Christ to become our only basis of fellowship. Not an easy combination, but I find it in all churches that are growing spiritual giants.
2. Churches are declining because they have organized around this loss of passion for Jesus. Instead of organizing to spread the gospel, they organize to run the institution. In effect they circle the wagons and focus on organizational correctness and effectiveness.
It is not unusual for key leaders to spend most, if not all, of their time working within the church’s premises, attending committee meetings. Too many church members find their sense of “belonging” in the building called the church instead of the community called the church. Going to meetings and preserving church facilities is now the number one rival to the First Commandment.
Healthy churches and denominations focus on transforming people and society, not on the well-being of the clergy and laity. For example, for two centuries my denomination’s unwritten goal was to “spread scriptural holiness throughout the land and to reform a nation.” The only way my denomination will return to effectiveness is if we organize once again to spread scriptural holiness and reform a nation.
Effective churches integrate mission and their organization. For example, let’s say that the mission of Community Church is to “relationally and lovingly invite people to Jesus Christ; disciple those who respond; and send disciples out into the world to serve in the name of Jesus Christ.” With this mission, Community Church could organize around the words Invite, Disciple, and Send. The following diagram displays how this organization would look. Everything would revolve around the mission, including staffing, budgeting, ministries, volunteers, and evaluation.
Integration of mission and organization insures that ineffective ministries are phased out. Leaders (including paid staff) are hired, trained, terminated, and evaluated on the basis of the mission. Core ministries that enhance the mission receive the primary share of the church’s time, energy, and money.
For example, most churches try to start a contemporary worship service on a shoestring. Launching a new church or new service is one of the primary, innovative ministries in which people of today can experience God, yet it seldom receives the lion’s share of the resources (staff, time, prayer, and money). A large church’s leaders told me that they did not have the funds to do a contemporary service the right way, so they were not going to do it. In the next breath they mentioned the $500,000 they had just spent on remodeling the organ, which will have little if anything to do with their future.
3. Churches are declining because they listen to and care more for their present members than for those outside the church. Like many successful organizations, they base what they are going to do in the future on what their present members want. For example, few older church members value contemporary music, so most churches reject it even though it would reach many more people than their classical service music. When church committees discuss what new ministries to begin, they should get opinions from people who are not attending any church, because their needs will be much different.
Providing only the services wanted by members is not a problem unless the world evidences a severe shift in new generations’ attitudes and needs. However, quantum changes are occurring in the way people perceive and experience truth. People born before 1965 are not likely to have a good understanding of the needs of unchurched or pre-Christian people born after 1965.
We must keep one thing clear: Mission and core values do not change, but vehicles used to get the mission and values across in changing times do change. For example, the type of music that conveys the gospel today is much different from the music that conveyed the gospel in the past. Our business is to use whatever music will convey the good news. Music is nothing more than a vehicle through which to convey the mission. Music is good music if it conveys the gospel; music is bad music if it doesn’t convey the gospel. The mission does not change, but the type of music might.
It’s time we integrated our mission with the way we make decisions and carry out our lives as the Body of Christ. It’s time to do what we say we believe. Those churches that do will discover that the younger generations are just as willing to become a part of the Body of Christ as any other generation, just as willing to serve in the name of Jesus, and equally good stewards of all that they have as any other generation before them.
Change for the Sake of the Gospel
Christians have a remarkably poor history dealing with change, even for the sake of the Gospel. It has been my experience that when people are deeply in love with Jesus Christ their longing for others to experience such love overcomes a multitude of fear. When people reach this level of spiritual maturity, they do not resists change if the change helps spread the Gospel. Like Paul, they are willing to become all things to all people so that “they might win some.” Christians have no choice in the matter. It’s in their DNA.
As a result of not enough love for Jesus, church members place too much of their faith in “their” buildings and ask “their” pastor to be “their” personal chaplain. They serve the institutional church more than the living Christ. The Good News of the Gospel becomes “their” private property, with the church, the pastor and the programs of the church existing primarily for them. The idea of “for the sake of the Gospel” is at the heart of overcoming church member’s resistance to change. It is time that we name it, and take the heat.
Too many church members have too small a vision of what it means to be part of the Body of Christ. Often it seems that the Body of Christ refers only to “their” church and any encroachment on “their” territory is met with resistance. Otherwise why would church leaders of dying churches become angry when their denomination plants a new church in close proximity to them in the hope of reaching the people not being reached by those churches? If spreading the Gospel was their goal, what difference would it make if another church was in “their” territory? For the sake of the Gospel is at the heart of overcoming church member’s resistance to change.
How then do pastors help church leaders to overcome their resistance to change? Certainly not by buying into the dysfunctional wisdom of most Protestant leaders that pastors should spend the first year or two getting to know the people so that they will know where and how to lead them. Such wisdom assumes that church members want to go somewhere. In reality, most haven’t given it any thought. Not yet at least. Jesus understood more about people than denominational leaders do and so he called them sheep. Sheep never go anywhere in particular; they just follow the easiest path of grazing. Don’t get mad, just listen to what the still small voice is saying to you.
Only one thing is necessary to overcome resistance to change: church leaders have to want it badly enough to find a way. If the passion is great enough, they will find a way to overcome people’s fear of change. Here’s a personal example.
When l felt the call to consult with churches nine years ago, I found that often, long, repeated travel was necessary. However, I had a tremendous fear of flying (I had only been on a plane twice in my life). I found myself taking tranquilizers just to get on a plane. I would sit there white-knuckled, flinching at every bump in the air. I arrived worn out and unable to give my best. I had to do something. I knew consulting was where God was leading me for the rest of my life, but how could I do it?
I searched for an answer and a friend suggested that I learn how to fly. A year later I got my pilot’s license. Although I never became a great pilot, I fell in love with flying and overcame my fear. I now fly commercial planes over 100,000 miles a year. My last three books were written on a plane and just this year I fell asleep on a commercial flight for the first time.
What drove me to take flying lessons and overcome my fear? I simply could not live without doing so. The call to share with other churches what I was learning was too great. The same will be true for any leader. If your call to bring about change is great enough, you will find a way to bring about that change.
What You’re Willing to Risk
Leaders have to sense God’s passion for their life and be willing to follow that passion. Change for the sake of change is not the goal. Leaders must have a vision of the future that they cannot exist without fulfilling. Call it what you like, but they sense it is God’s will for their lives. They are willing to risk most of what they are and have the hope of finding their place in God’s world. The one thing they will not risk is not doing what they feel is God’s will. They even risk the audacity and ridicule of thinking they know God’s will. Church leaders have to be consumed by such a passion to bring about change.
Church leaders, it’s time to find God’s passion for your life! Stop being busy long enough to listen to what God wants from you. Take time out if necessary. Go off in the wilderness if necessary. Tell the church to cancel all of the meetings for the next six month and gather for prayer. Do whatever you have to do, but get a vision! Vision is what causes church leaders to accept change.
Now a word of caution: A Vision is not an idea or new program. Vision has nothing to do with restructuring. Vision is something for which you are willing to lose almost everything in order to put the vision into motion.
When you find God’s passion for your life:
● Preach it, over and over again;
● Talk about it, everywhere you go;
● Bring it to every text, it will change the outcome of your study;
● Write it on your forehead, you can’t help focusing on it;
● Recite it when you get up in the morning and when you lie down at night, it will inspire you and assure you;
● Gather a group of disciples to pray about it, because it is bigger than any one person;
● And above all, yes I mean above everything else you do, live it so enthusiastically that others are caught by its passion.
Every church I have ever worked with is filled with wonderful people. Some of these good people are so good that they would rather be nice than Christian when it comes to a taking on the bullies that try to hold back change. Many of these good people love the Lord so deeply that they are willing to risk failure “for the sake of the Gospel.” All they need is a leader or board who refuses to play “pastor fetch” and who will nurture them, equip them, and help them find God’s passion for their life. When they do, all resistance to change melts away “for the sake of the Gospel.
Being a leader who makes disciples is risky business in today’s environment. Ask God for strength and focus on the Great Commission. Neither will ever fail you.
What to Do Now?
Consider the following if your church leaders and members are ready to integrate their organization with their mission.
Step One: Develop a mission or purpose statement that is not more than one short sentence.
Step Two: Decide on the church’s core values that you feel are absolutely essential to being part of the Church.
Step Three: Reorganize, staff, and budget around the mission or purpose statement. E-mail, the Internet, web pages, and networks will be fundamental.
Step Four: Develop self-organizing, self-governing, self-ending teams based on clearly defined ministries arising from the mission or purpose statement. Accountability, not control, must be the organization’s hallmark.
Step Five: Seek to develop partnerships or alliances with groups of any denomination with similar missionary objectives.
Step Six: Acquire and/or equip flexible, innovative, risk-taking, visionary leaders.