I’m sure we would all agree that our world is changing faster than at any other time in our lifetime and most likely in all of history. And with such fast paced change we are watching many of the tried and true principles by which pastors have led and grown churches are no longer valid. More than that many of the tried and true principles that have led to growth are now the main reasons our churches are in decline. So I want to examine some of these out-of-date growth killer principles because if we are to be effective going forward we are going to first have to unlearn some principles that are now causing our decline.
“Build it and they will come.”
In 1969 I restarted a church and the “build it and they will come mindset” was still in effect. You could build a beautiful facility in a good location and people showed up. People actually came to church on their own, especially in time of personal trouble. But when I left that church twenty-four years later that mindset was gone. Fewer and fewer people came to church on their own. We had to go to them. Today, almost no one comes to church on their own and churches that rely on their facilities to create visibility are left in the dust. Now we have to equip our people to share their faith in their everyday life.
“Find a need and fill it.”
There was a time in my consulting I taught that if you found a real need in the community and filled it your church would grow. And the truth is, this practice often leads to growth. The trouble is, it leads to a church filled with consumers. Consumers don’t share their faith. Churches that have this mindset might grow but they do the Kingdom a disfavor because they aren’t making disciples, just consumers. Instead we need to fill our people with a passion for the lost and send them out to share their faith. If people don’t come to church on their own and our people won’t go to them, guess what? We spend more and more money on advertising and less and less on discipling our people and sooner or later the Kingdom suffers. Instead of find a need and fill it we need to find people and fill them with a passion to go out and share their faith.
“Education is the answer.”
As long as people came to the church on their own, the main goal of the church was to educate people in their faith. Knowing the Bible was one of the main emphases of Sunday school. So while the world was changing and people were not coming to church on their own churches continued to focus on education rather that transformation. Sunday School or even small groups became little more than a “data dump.” People knew more about the Bible but less about how to share it with someone else. Now we have people who have been in Sunday School all their life and have never shared their faith with anyone. So it’s time we realized that transformation and application rather than more education is the way forward. Instead of being smarter we need to be more passionate about what we do know.
“Pass the plate and turn off your cellphone.”
In the vast majority of dying churches across the U.S. the offering plate is still the primary source of income and the use of a cellphone is considered rude during worship. When I left the local church in 1993, cellphones as we know them today didn’t exist and the primary source of income was the offering plate. Now, more and more thriving churches are reporting that most of their income comes from online or church kiosks and cellphones are being used as part of worship.
“I entered the ministry.”
I remember in seminary hearing students talk about entering THE ministry. It was as if one had to be a pastor to be in ministry. And in many ways this was the perception of most people in the church (noticed I didn’t use the term “laity’). Sharing the faith and doing religious acts was the role of the clergy. “Don’t ask me to share my faith, I’m just a layperson” was often heard. But we are learning today through the church planting movement that there aren’t enough ordained and trained clergy to win the West back to Christianity. Instead we are going to have to rely on non-seminary trained everyday people, both to plant churches and to share their faith. We have to get rid of this clergy-laity distinction that is killing our ability to equip and send people into the market place.
“The way to plant a church is to get more butts in the seats.”
For as long as I can remember accumulating more people was the goal of most successful churches. In fact, I have taught that, until recently. Now the metric of success is slowing shifting to how many people can we send- send into the community to share their faith- send to plant new churches. These churches are taking Jesus at as word when he said, “Go make disciples” and “as the Father has sent me, so send I you.” I’m convinced this shift is the most important shift in ministry in my lifetime. We are learning that churches that release their people to go out into the community in the name of Jesus for any reason are usually growing.
“Location, Location, Location.”
There was a time when the location of a church was one of the driving forces of its growth, but not so much so today. We are seeing more and more churches starting up in the most unusual places. Instead of location driving the growth, now it is a passion for reaching people far from God. This is not to say that location doesn’t have its merits, because it does, just not as much as in the past. Relationships are to today’s generation as space was to an older generation.
“Church Plants need clergy.”
One of the phenomena that caught my attention while doing research for my book on Exponential Church Planting Movements (TBD) is the fact that many, if not most, of the churches that are planting multiple churches are using bio-vocational, non-seminary trained individuals. They are doing this for four reasons: there aren’t enough seminary trained clergy interested in church planting; as a rule seminary trained pastors aren’t heartbroken over those far from God; seminary trained pastors are too expensive to plant multiple churches; and finally individuals raised up in the planting congregation have the appropriate DNA to plant churches that will plant churches.
The Way forward
If you were trained prior to 2000, the odds are most of what you were taught is passé and the key to your future will be open to the winds of change. I’ve probably seen more gut wrenching changes in ministry in my lifetime than most of you who are reading this. Born in 1939, I’ve had to endure enormous changes in the way I either pastored or consulted. As I look back over my pastoral ministry, I can chronicle three major cultural shifts in my ministry. The best way to explain them is to take a look at the mission statement that drove my entire pastoral ministry.
In 1969 when I restarted the church I stayed at till 1993, the original mission statement was “Every member a minister.” The assumption was that people would naturally join the church and then be equipped to minister to one another.
In 1982, the mission statement changed to “Every person a minister.” We were seeing people attend worship, become tithers, be engaged in ministry but never get around to joining the church. In fact, most of them said they never join would because their commitment was to Jesus not the institution. That was the same year we began to notice children coming to Sunday School who had never seen a Bible.
In 1990, the mission statement changed to “Every person a missionary.” Between 1982 and 1990 the landscape of the U.S. had dramatically changed. Our culture was in the initial stages of secularism replacing Christianity as the gold standard. This meant that if the church was to reach people it had to think like a missionary and go out to reach people in their language, technology, and culture.
You will notice that the driving force of our mission statement didn’t change – the goal was still to produce disciples who were engaged in ministry. But in the span of twenty-four years the context for ministry shifted from the four walls of the church to the vast expanse of the community. People quit coming to church on their own and the church had to equip its people to go to them.
I’m convinced that now we are entering the final stages of secularism’s advances. Over the next decade we will witness a brutal frontal assault on Christianity. We will no longer hold a place of privilege in our country. The nominal, consumer oriented Christian will become a dinosaur, setting the stage for the next chapter in Western Christianity.
Now, this assault may prove to be North America Christianity’s only hope for the future. We have learned from the scripture and from the experience of other nations that persecution often leads to a thriving Christianity. But the next two or three decades will prove to be brutal to those churches that try to find a need and fill it, or hold to the myth that if you build it they will come, or that think education is the answer, or that embrace the clergy/laity understanding of ministry. So don’t hold on to these growth killers. Instead hold fast the faith and this too shall pass and on the other side of these cultural shifts brought about by secularism just may lie a world where people worship out of desire rather then guilt or habit; and where Christians actually live a life like Jesus. If that happens, it will be worth the ride. So hold on.
Great stuff as always! You have been a leader in innovative thinking for years. I have benefited greatly from your writings. Keep up the good work!
Thank you Bill for this article. I’m passing on to our Board now. This articulates so well the paradigm shifts in our world and in the Church. I hope it can help our people better understand the urgent need to make disciples who make disciples and send them out to take the Gospel into all of Life.