George Barna recently came out with a poll reporting that the majority of Christians don’t believe in either Satan or the Holy Spirit. Since then, I have received a small mountain of emails with Christian leaders crying “Where did the church go wrong?” I suppose these questions probably deserve and answer, but I’m not going to be the one writing treatises on where the church failed – at least not with this blog post. The sad fact is, that anyone who’s suddenly astounded with reports like these are woefully out of touch with the “real” world anyway.

The real question that needs to be answered isn’t about where the church went wrong. The burning question that begs an answer is “What are we going to do about the sad state of Christianity in developed nations?” Just a reminder for those who are unaware, the world of Christianity is doing very well on a global level. Figures show that global Christianity is gaining some 90,000 converts each day. However, Christianity in the West is doing, shall we say, rather poorly. The ARIS report that came out a couple of weeks ago showed that Mainline Christianity has lost over 6 million adherents since 2001 and that Christianity itself has shrunk from 86 percent of the USAmerican  population in 1990 to 76 percent in 2008. Of course, any religion that can claim 76 percent of the population should really be making a difference in the culture, but that cannot be said of Christianity. With less than 15 percent of us showing up for organized worship and discipling on any given weekend, it’s clear that our practices don’t match our verbiage (there are lots of other examples, but that one will have to suffice).

The problem with the problem is that it’s so encompassing that it’s paralyzing our church leaders. It’s one thing to say “Think glocally,” it’s quite another to do anything differently. Since I seem to be particularly fond of lists of five, here are three steps to start turning things around in your world.

  1. Build a foundation of faith beginning with you. It’s been said that Billy Graham once estimated that only about 10 percent of church goers were practicing Christians. Hearing his pronouncement, a prominent sociologist reflected that Graham was being generous. As James put it (2:17–18), it’s one thing to say you’re a person of faith – it’s something else again to put it into practice. So, let me ask you a couple of questions (that you’ve no doubt heard before). What did you read last week in the Bible that intrigued you? If you’re a pastor, add the proviso “outside of your sermon study.” Here’s another one – with whom did you personally share your faith story last week and what were the results? Again, pastor, sharing your story in the pulpit gets no credit. And one last one – who have you personally encouraged in their faith journey today? If you’re not praying, reading scripture, encouraging fellow Christians, and sharing your faith with the unconnected then, frankly, you’re contributing to the problem, not to the solution. Without a foundation, the rest of this is pointless.
  2. Get excited about what’s going on in your church, or get another church. And when I say “get excited, “ I mean Prius owner excited. According to Ron Crandall, the number one issue facing smaller congregations is self-image. Let me add that it’s not just the little churches that struggle with self-worth. Any church over forty years old is faced with the temptation of looking back on the “good old days” of yesteryear. John Maxwell observed that if what you did back then looks pretty big now, then you haven’t done much today. I’m coaching a congregation that is struggling with that very issue. The reality is that they have a lot going for them, but they’re facing some tough decisions for the future. Some of these decisions are painful, and so there is a feeling of dread amongst many in the congregation. This malaise has perpetuated a sense of “we’re not worthy” or “we’re not good enough” across the congregation. And a member who feels that way isn’t going to invest much in the future of the congregation. They won’t invite their friends, acquaintances, neighbors, or co-workers to the church’s worship service. They won’t write large checks, let alone tithe checks, to support the work of the congregation. The truth is, there are a lot of churches “out there” that are going to continue to choose tradition over  faithfulness to mission. The solution for the faithful is to either instigate a change or to find a new congregation. And when I say “instigate a change” I don’t mean wait it out. I mean do something to bring about the change or leave. If there aren’t enough of the faithful in the congregation to out maneuver  the bullies and terrorists, then leave them to themselves. Get excited or get on down the road.
  3. Major on the majors. The Paraeto Principle states that 20 percent of what we do brings 80 percent of the results. The corollary is that we spend 80 percent of our resources dealing with those activities that waste our time. We see this demonstrated in the church regularly. Twenty percent of the leaders do 80 percent of the work. Twenty percent of our programs and activities bring 80 percent of the results. But in a church, what are the majors? I’d tell you that it depends on what your mission is, but if you’ve read almost anything I’ve written you know that I’m a real believer in the “there’s only one mission” of the church school of thought: make disciples. Making disciples includes both making new disciples and making more effective disciples – but you can’t have one without the other. What we’ve found is that most churches do neither effectively. Why? Because they don’t major on the majors.

Emphasizing the majors means putting the church’s resources into those activities that net real results. Although that sounds easy, there’s really little that’s more difficult. It begins by being honest – ruthlessly honest – with your programming and activities. Ask the question of each activity on the calendar, “Will this activity facilitate making more disciples?” If it’s a choir tour of Anglican churches, the answer is obviously no. If the answer to the first question is no, then you ask the second question, “Will this activity help the participants become more effective disciples?” That’s a trickier question. First, you’ll need to determine what an effective disciple looks like. In many churches, an effective disciple is obviously defined as someone who’s heavily involved in the church’s activities. If they show up for committee meetings, Sunday school, board meetings, all church clean-up days, bake sales, choir practice, worship, and Bible study, then they’re deemed “faithful.” They may not have shared their faith with an unconnected person in over twenty years, but they’re “active” in  church, thus they must be a faithful disciple.

Once you’ve defined what a disciple is like, then you can take a stab at measuring your activities. If your activities aren’t helping Bob and Sheila to become more effective disciples in their “real” lives, then it’s probably something that should either be “tweaked” so that it does or else it should be abandoned completely.

I get a good bit of pushback on this, generally because someone has a pet project that fails both tests, but they want to do it anyway. I’m not suggesting that everything that fails the two tests should come to an end, but I am saying that these activities must expend a minority of the church’s resources. But in most churches, that means that there are a bunch of pet projects that are going to end up on the cutting-room floor. Save the annual all church picnic, if the doors would close without it, but do away with the other resource wasters. Simply put, if an activity isn’t making more or better disciples, then it shouldn’t be on the church’s calendar and the church shouldn’t be investing any staff, facilities, or financial resources on it.
So, there you are. Three concrete and practical tasks to start turning around the church. Will it change the minds of those who don’t believe in Satan or the Holy Spirit? Probably no time soon. But in the meantime, it will change the face of your congregation.