Doing Church in Tough Times: Create an Opportunity Ethos

There’s no question the times are tough. The economy is in the tank. Unemployment is rising faster than soda pop bubbles. The banking industry is on the ropes. The Big Three auto makers are on their knees. And no one knows who’s going down next. Even the church is in trouble. Reportedly, giving is down as much as 15 percent. Church building foreclosures are higher today than in any other time in modern history. Times are tough.

In times like these, it’s tempting for the church to pull the covers over its head and at best put everything on hold. At worst, the church starts cutting back on anything and everything it can possibly slice. For many churches in North America (dare I suggest most churches?), that’s a guaranteed recipe for either life support (if there are enough endowment funds to outlast the depression) or for a funeral.

On the other hand, in times like these, the church has it’s best occasion to shine like a beacon simply by being the church, that is, the body of Christ. But to do that, we’ll have to heed Paul’s admonishment to “make the most of every opportunity.” Because, believe it or not, there are abundant opportunities to be had even it times like these … or even because of times like these.

Create an Opportunity Ethos

You may already have a plethora of opportunities walking through the doors of your church building. Sunday morning worship guests, community outreach event participants, and the desperate looking for help from the church all may be making a regular pilgrimage into your presences. If that’s true of your congregation, then you can skip this section and go to the next. However, if you’re getting less than a ratio of 5:100 first-time guests each week, if you’re community outreach isn’t getting anyone plugged in to the congregation, and the desperate never come back, you may want to keep on reading.

Alan Bond suggests that the harder you work, the luckier you get. The same holds true for opportunities. Opportunity knocks more often at doors it can easily get to. Creating an opportunity ethos won’t guarantee you’ll grow your church, but it does mean you’ll get plenty of opportunities to do so.

Bury the Hatchet

A church with ongoing conflict minimizes any chance for opportunity to knock. If there’s any conflict in the congregation, deal with it. Ignore it at your peril – it will not go away. Untended conflict is like a spark in dry pine needles – leave it and the forest will soon be in flames.

I’ve written recently a lot on conflict “management.” The Jan-Feb 2009 issue of Net Results has an extensive article on it and there’s some information on my blog at

Be Ready for Guests

If you wait until guests arrive to get ready for them, they won’t return. Why would they? It will be clear to them that they’re an imposition. To get ready for guests, you’ll need to guess who your guests area likely to be. Will they be young families? Singles? Baby boomers?  Seniors (older than the Baby Boomers)? Readiness depends on your guests. If you’re expecting families with children, is your church child-friendly? Do you have excellent nursery care? – Adequate won’t bring guests back.

Take a cruise around your building as if you’re seeing it for the first time. Are the restrooms immaculate, sanitary, and do they smell good? Is there clutter in the back of the auditorium or the fourier? How about signage? Are there anywhere in any hallway that you can’t spy a sign for the restrooms? The sanctuary? The nursery? And is the building in good repair? It’s amazing what a little elbow grease and Killz paint will do to spruce up the place.

Good Enough Isn’t

If you’re ready for guests, then you’re already running at about a 70 percent Opportunity Ethos. Just a bit more to go. The next step is about excellence. Although the church has been called to be the body of Christ, it has all too often given into the temptation to settle for “good enough.” Jesus never settled for just enough – he insisted on excellence in everything he did. The church should be doing no less.

What’s the difference between excellence and good enough? I got a welcome letter from a church I visited the other day. In part, the letter read “I home you had an excellent experience while you were with us.” Home or hope? Now, typos can happen – heaven knows if you’re an eagle-eyed editor, you’ll probably find one in this article. But the welcome note is a form letter that the church sends out every week. There’s simply no excuse for this kind of weekly slip.

The church’s worship service should be top notch too. Whether you’re doing contemporary worship, praise and worship, alternative, or traditional, it should be “tight.” There should be no dead gaps … except for intentional meditation moments, if you can count to five-Mississippi between when one voice stops and another starts, then you’re about two-Mississippi too slow.

And this is a good time to ask the pastor – is your preaching up-to-snuff? Here’s a great rule of thumb. If you don’t see tears every week, whether they be tears of sadness or joy, grief or laughter, your preaching needs work. And if you’re not asking those in the congregation to do something as a result of your message, then you’ve missed the boat. Just going away with “Gee whiz” knowledge shouldn’t be the point of preaching … asking for a specific life change is exactly the point.


Once upon a time, newspaper advertising was one of the most effective advertising modes for the church. Radio was another medium that used to work exceptionally well. Then television took over (back when there were three or four major network channels). Today, however, there is really only one advertising medium for the local church that stands head-over-heels above all others. WOMM.

Word Of Mouth Marketing is hands down the most effective method for creating opportunities for the church. You can have the greatest worship services and the top children’s programming in your community, but if the congregation isn’t telling their friends, relatives, acquaintances, neighbors, co-workers, and everyone else about the exciting, life-changing events at their church, then gravity is going to weigh heavy on your attendance graphs.

How do you get your congregants sharing their excitement about the church? To begin with, it would be good if they’re actually excited about what’s going on. There might be people having life-changing experiences in your church, but if they’re not letting the congregation know about then most will figure the church is just doing business as usual. Rick Warren seems to have perfected the “testimony” time in worship. There is nary a worship service at Saddleback that doesn’t have someone sharing how their life has been altered by a ministry experience at the church.

If the congregation isn’t excited about the ministry of the church, then something’s wrong somewhere. But the problem often starts at the top tier. Church staff that’s not excited and constantly engaging in vision-speak will have followers who are not excited about the tomorrow, let alone the long-term prospects of the church. And it can’t be an act. I recently was with a pastor who was concerned that her congregation was depressed. When she preached, she preached eloquently and with conviction. The only problem was, you only had to be with her for a half-hour before you’d figure out she wasn’t happy with her ministry position, she wasn’t happy with the church’s lay leadership, and she wasn’t optimistic about the future. The congregation could see right through her bravado and they reflected her true spirit. I counseled that she either move on or figure out how the church could move from survive to thrive with her at the helm. It took a couple of weeks of retreating and prayer, but she finally caught a vision and things are a-changing there now.

Making the Most of the Opportunities

In wrapping up this article, let me finish where I started. Creating an Opportunity Ethos is a good thing. It will increase the number of folks who walk through your doors looking for a connection. However, just because you get them there doesn’t mean they’ll be back. Hospitality, getting contact information, follow-up, assimilation, and discipleship are all key systems that MUST be developed and implemented with excellence if you’re going to successfully engage ministry in tough times.

When opportunity knocks, and it will knock even in tough times, the question remains: Will you be ready to meet and greet it with open arms? If you create an Opportunity Ethos, you’ll have a good start.