Five Reasons Why Churches Won’t Grow

September 19, 2017

dying church

Although never voiced I have discovered that there is usually a degree of internal institutional opposition when it comes to church growth. It is not just that churches don’t grow; often it is they won’t grow. Here are five reasons why:

  • Lack of intentionality. For a church to grow it must plan to grow. It must be purposeful in evangelism. It must expect growth along with anticipating how to manage it. A church that grows is intentional about sharing God’s message; intentional about being hospitable to guests; intentional about assimilating new members in a healthy fashion; intentional about building meaningful relationships. They intentionally plant, water and are ready when God gives the increase.
  • Maxed out leadership. This includes maxed out vision for the church body and maxed out ability to manage the church body. A church will grow only as far as its leadership envisions and leads. When a leadership settles for status quo so does the church. Growing churches have leaders who walk by faith, not sight; who raise up new leaders to share in and expand their vision while escaping burnout; and who create an atmosphere for growth.
  • Apathy. Often churches are inwardly focused—more concerned and urgent about members needs then about outreach. This challenges every church. But beware! Apathy may be comfortable, but apathy dooms churches.
  • Fear. Fear is apathy’s partner. Fear presents all sorts of barriers (both real and imagined) to growth. Fear paralyzes leadership. Fear stymies vision, innovation, boldness and outreach. According to the Bible it is a spirit foreign to God.
  • Tradition. Tradition can be healthy. Some ritual is God-ordained–an essential and extremely meaningful part of our church life. Tradition helps define us as a community of faith, but frequently tradition can also be limiting to growth. Because we have never done it that way before does not necessarily mean it cannot be done that way. If tradition or traditional thinking is limiting a church’s ability to evangelize, then there should be a reevaluation of that tradition and thinking.

Avoid these not-so fab five at all costs! They are preventing churches everywhere from realizing the potential God sees within them for outreach and growth. Haven’t we let them stop us long enough?

(Bible verses referenced include 1 Corinthians 3:7; 11:23-26; 2 Corinthians 5:7 & 2 Timothy 1:7)

 

 

 

 

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Why So Isolating?

June 19, 2017

iso cell phone

I was reminded again recently while grocery shopping with my wife in our local ubiquitous gigantic one-size-fits-all store about how things have changed within my lifetime. As a child I have fond memories of walking the few blocks from my house to our neighborhood grocery market—Lucky Food Store in Greenville, MS. It was small but adequate. Folks frequenting this store knew each other. I could go there unaccompanied at a young age, browse for comic books on the rack while feeling safe and at home. It was a community of sorts.

I felt none of that familiarity in Wal-Mart. No knock on them—it is just the way of things now. It also made me contemplate what is next. Soon it appears the need to shop in the big stores will transition out. On the horizon is online grocery shopping. Need milk and bread? Just order it up on the website and have a drone deliver it to your door. Convenient for sure, but healthy? Maybe not.

What is getting squeezed out in our technology is contact with people, relationship and community. In all of the convenience we are increasingly isolating ourselves.

Everyone seems to have their own personal screen. Just look around the next time you are in a public space. You probably will notice more folks looking down at their phone than interacting with each other. This occurs in homes as well. Vanishing are our dinner times together or even shared TV watching. We are segregating by our own streaming preferences—just me and my screen.

And when was the last time you enjoyed a nice telephone chat with a friend? We text, message, tweet, and maybe still email. They all serve a purpose. Social media is here to stay, but no amount of proficiency with or time spent on social media replaces the benefits of personal contact.

Then there is this. It seems that even the old standby business lunch is fading and being replaced by people eating alone at their desks.

So why my lament about all of this?

God created us not to be isolated, but for community and he created a community for us that we call church. From the beginning God said, “It is not good for man to be alone.”

Our trending isolationism is not healthy emotionally, physically or spiritually. God’s community was designed for personal relationship, hospitality and fellowship. Those cannot be experienced through a screen.

Sure it gets messy sometimes (just read any of Paul’s New Testament letters), but it is worth the struggle. The community and connectivity we enjoy in Christ is but only a glimpse of the fully realized and shared kingdom of heaven that is to come.

This post is not meant to be a deep study of the dangers of our increasing trend for isolation or a detailed discussion of the need for community together as believers.

Certainly it is a lament—loneliness is more common than we imagine—but it is also meant to hopefully spur us to rethink our own tendency to isolate—if we do.

So, invite someone to lunch. Demonstrate hospitality in your home. Put the screen down and engage someone the next time you are in a public area. Enjoy a meal together with your family. Call someone on the phone just to chat. Start up a conversation with a fellow shopper in the big box superstore. Go to church—regularly. Meet someone new there. Hug an old friend. Celebrate God’s community. Discover the blessings within it.

It is not good for us to always be alone.


Becoming an Effective Assimilating Church

April 20, 2017

This was a presentation I gave in a class at Levy. 

If a congregation becomes successful in becoming a visitor friendly church, a good percentage of guests will desire to transition into permanent membership. That is a wonderful and desired result of a relevant welcome ministry. It also brings with it challenges of assimilation—moving guests into involved membership.

Just as with becoming visitor friendly, assimilating new members into involved membership must be an intentional effort by a church. If not, then many unwelcome consequences could occur—including missing out on the giftedness of new members, alienation of new members eager to plug-in, and of course, ultimately losing the new members altogether. This is why it is just as imperative to become an effective assimilating church as it is becoming a visitor friendly church.

All Have Gifts

In the apostle Paul’s divine efforts to correct the dysfunctional situation among the Corinthian church he left us with a beautiful text on how the church functions as a body (1 Corinthians 12:12-25). Here he emphasized that in order to operate at its highest level the church needs every member in place and functioning efficiently—everyone has a place and everyone is needed in their place for God’s church to be healthy and growing.

Within this text is the idea that every member has a gift to offer and contribute to the overall health of the body. In fact, Paul teaches, God put every member in exactly the right place within the body to best use the gifts he gives them (vs. 18).

So everyone is gifted. God has put every new member coming into the Levy family into the body exactly as he desires. He recreated them to fit and plug right into the body of Christ. It then becomes up to local body to help them assimilate in order for them to use that gift.

Purposeful Assimilation

To become an effective assimilating church means making the transition from guest to involved member as seamless as possible. Included in this process is:

  • Giving the new member an easy entry point to consider how and where to get involved. This is one purpose of our Levy 101 orientation class—to offer an introduction to the church and provide ministry information along with a simple and understandable way to sign up for ministries that connect and relate to each new member. Whatever the method/approach an effective assimilating church will provide each new member timely ministry information and have a proactive process in place to help them find where they fit—along with an encouraging atmosphere for getting involved. Many new members come into the church with an expectation of this—desiring to plug-in and make a difference. This is one of the strongest characteristics of the millennial generation, for example. So it is essential for effective assimilating churches to provide an entry point to involvement.
  • There must be timely follow-up by ministry leaders/deacons, etc. After providing an entry point the next step is to share the information provided by new members to appropriate ministry leaders. Once this information is passed on, the ministry leader should be ready to contact the new members in order to help them connect and become involved in their ministries. This allows the new members to start contributing to the work of the church and the overall kingdom quickly, which also gives them a sense of purpose and place in their new church home. It demonstrates that their new church takes seriously God’s call for everyone to use their gifts for ministry. If anywhere along the way, this process breaks down or is not in place, then it can adversely affect the new member’s relationship with the congregation, while also hurting the church by not utilizing the giftedness of the new member. Going back to the Corinthian context, it is a way for the eye to say to the ear that it is not needed. Our ministry leaders and deacons are greatly appreciated for their dedication in using their gifts to volunteer and lead ministries. An important part of that is to be sensitive to new members, always being prompt in reaching out to them if they have indicated interest in their ministry area.
  • Continuing focus on involvement and growing gifts of ministry. Assimilating churches work to create a climate of involvement beyond the details of a specific welcoming/assimilating ministry. Ministry fairs, tools to help members identify their personal ministry gifts, leadership being open to new ministry ideas from within membership, giving honor and appreciation to those involved in various ministries, etc. all work to help plug-in members and encourage them to grow their gifts of ministry. And while some of this will organically happen (which is also very healthy) an effective assimilating church will be very intentional in helping create this kind of climate.

Closing the Back Door

One significant characteristic of an effective assimilating church is that they limit the number of members leaving through the “back door,” that is, members leaving due to not being involved, becoming distant from the congregation at large, and deciding to go elsewhere. Certainly, involvement must generate from within individuals. Even the best assimilating approach will fail if a person decides not to become active within a church, but the back door will stay wide-open for churches who are not intentionally seeking ways for members—new and old—to become and stay involved in ministry that makes a kingdom difference in their community.

It is an entire church initiative. All of us—even if we are not a ministry leader—can help in the assimilating process and help close the back door. There are social aspects involved as well. We can all greet and welcome new members. We can invite them to lunch. We can take the time to get to know them and make them feel at home. An old study revealed that new members need to make seven new personal connections at a church or they would exit in just a matter of months. Regardless of the accuracy of this statement—it is true that unless new members are made to feel at home, involved, needed, and a part of their new church, they likely will take the back door—sooner rather than later.

Be Sensitive and Proactive!

So in whatever capacity that we can—be sensitive to helping our new members assimilate as quickly as possible. If you are a ministry leader do not neglect to contact new members if they express interest in your ministry. If a new member volunteers do not ignore that—put them to work! Greet all new members. Go out of your way to make them feel welcome. Put the power of prayer to use on their behalf. If we are truly working to build a strong family for the glory of God, all of this should be a central focus of that goal.


Five Ways to Be a Healthy Church

February 12, 2014

For years I read every church growth book on the market. I hung on the testimony “experts” shared. I rode the waves of the church-building trends. I wanted my church to grow; to be relevent; to be on healthy churchthe cutting edge (as much as allowed within my congregational setting, anyway); and to attract others. Eventually, however, I learned that while all of this could produce activity, it was not always healthy activity. What was good for that happening church in the metropolis, was not necessarily good for my church.

Churches come in all shapes, sizes, and traditions. Before importing the latest and greatest from a successfully growing church, we all need to thoughtfully consider if it really fits into our church context. Some things may; some things may not. The key to me is in understanding our own church–and working within it to bring about congregational health–just as we are. I wholeheartedly believe that regardless of worship style, church tradition, location, etc., every church can be healthy and productive in the Lord. Here are five suggestions on how to be a healthy church–just as you are; right where you are:

  • Be Real. This is foundational. Churches that demonstrate a genuine faith struggle attract fellow strugglers. This is the opposite of Christianity as performance. This is church–not about how proud we are to be church; how exceptional our preacher is; how cutting-edge our worship is; how amazing our building and campus is; it is about real folks who have found forgiveness and fulfillment in Christ. It is about demonstrating and celebrating the real difference Christ has made in our lives. It is about being true to him, his will and who we are in him. No pretense; no put-on. Jesus is our identity. He is the reason why we worship. It is not trying to be something we are not. If we can learn to become genuinely transparent with our faith at our church–our church will be healthy and being healthy, ready to be used by God in fantastic ways.
  • Be Welcoming. Truthfully, many churches are not that welcoming. They think they are, but in practice they are not very sensitive to the experience of guests. To be welcoming means to be intentional about it. It is more than just a friendly mindset, it is an intentional atmosphere created within a church to make every guest’s experience as pleasant and encouraging as possible. All churches have people who visit. What is the reception they receive? Are they greeted? Are they assisted in finding their way around? Is there informational material to share with them? Is that material updated? Are church members interacting with the guests? Why is this so key to being a healthy church? Not only does it greatly assist guests–ensuring a great church experience for them and an incentive to return; it creates an outward focus for the church. Unhealthy churches have an inward focus. Healthy churches seek ways to serve others. Being a welcoming church is where an outward focus can start.
  • Be Your Best. This point really speaks to worship and worship styles. Perhaps nothing has harmed churches more over the last few decades than worship wars–people feuding within churches as to which worship style will be practiced. None of that has been very healthy. What is healthy is when we simply do our best (within our worship context) to worship God “in spirit and truth.” We put our entire heart and soul into our Sunday gathering. We do not hold back in our devotion and praise to God. Certainly, we use gifted people to lead and assist us, but it is also our best God desires. We can have the latest technology; the most gifted leading us; the most contemporary song selection and still not have healthy worship. Healthy worship is when we are all engaged–offering the best of ourselves to God as we worship. When we do, it will be a tremendous witness to our faith and relationship to God–a witness other’s will notice and from which they will gain strength. Healthy churches do not get lost in an over-focus on the latest worship bells and whistles–they engage the heart of the worshipper to bring out the very best we have to offer.
  • Be Grace-Filled. Healthy churches realize that there are none perfect (“not even one”- Romans 3:10) and operate in God’s spirit of grace. Forgiveness is fundamental among healthy churches. Healthy churches welcome everyone to journey as fellow grace travellers. Healthy churches are not judgmental nor self-righteous. Healthy churches offer a safe place of refuge for all who are weary in the world. God’s grace oozes from healthy churches.
  • Be Flexible. This may be the most difficult! Not speaking of any type of Biblical or value compromise here, just the ability to adjust to changing culture. Think Paul here–becoming “all things to all people” in order to spread the gospel to as “many as possible” (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). Healthy churches do not get stuck in the rut of tradition to the point that they fail to live in the present. The church is called out to minister in our time and place. Healthy churches have enough flexibility to adapt to their changing communities and offer a compelling contemporary message about the old rugged cross.

How all of this will look– lived out in churches is as different as the churches themselves. It is not presented as some exhaustive check-list–just what I have observed over the years within healthy churches.

 

 

 

 


Come to Church! Five Compelling Reasons Why

January 21, 2014

coming to churchOne of the my earliest sermons was entitled, “Forsake Not the Assembly.” It was based upon the “go-to” verse on this topic–Hebrews 10:25. Since then, I have spent a considerable amount of energy trying to urge; convince; beg; encourage; and challenge folks to grasp the eternal significance of gathering weekly with the church.

I will give it another shot. Here are five compelling reasons why you should worship with the church every Sunday.

  1. Church is a big deal to God. How big? Christ started and endorsed the church–Matthew 16:18; His sacrifice purchased the church and made it whole–Acts 20:28; Ephesians 5:25-27. He married it. The church is the bride of Christ–Revelation 19:7-9; 21:2,9. The idea that we can have Christ without the church is unthinkable to God. From heaven’s perspective there is no “take it or leave it” option when it comes to the church. God is all in on the church. Jesus gave all to the church.
  2. Worship matters. What goes on in church is also a big deal. When we gather with the Spirit of God in our midst, events of eternal importance occur. Communion takes us to the cross and beyond. It anchors our gathering with reflection, thanksgiving, and anticipation. Our singing is designed to encourage, teach, and build up each other. Our prayers are like sweet incense to God. Biblical teaching expands our understanding of God and his will for us. The sweet fellowship we enjoy strengthens and refreshes. None of this is accidental. It is thoroughly God-designed–just for us. Why deny ourselves this incredible blessing?
  3. Church is a redemptive community. It is usually at this point in this discussion when all the church warts are pointed out. Yes, it is true. The church is made up of all sorts of less-than-perfect people. Folks in the church do dumb things and often fail to model Christ consistently. It is also a fact that our exercise of worship can occasionally seem repetitive and less-than-inspirational. We are after all, human. But we are not what makes the church such a compelling place. It is Christ and his redemptive work within us. The apostle Paul recalled the sorry former state of some who made up the Corinthian church. But that was before Jesus. He tells them, “Since then, you’ve been cleaned up and given a frest start by Jesus, our Master, our Messiah and by God present in us, the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:11 MSG). This is the church–full of a bunch of sinners given another chance by Jesus. The church celebrates; reflects; and embodies his redemptive work. When we can focus on that–on him; our attitude about church and our experience in church will likely change.
  4. We need you. You have a place in this redemptive community. God has arranged it (1 Corinthians 12:18). You belong. You fit. We need your giftedness; your heart (especially if it is broken); your presence. Your background does not matter. Without you here, we are not complete. Please do not ever believe otherwise–we need you.
  5. God loves you. Ultimately this is what it is all about. Earlier, I referenced Ephesians 5:25-27. It is a beautiful text on many different levels: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” The church is about the love of God working in you to bring about transformation; to bring about God’s eternal will for you to enjoy a relationship with him forever.

To the skeptics; to the burned out; to the suspicious; to the bruised; to the turned-off; to the struggling; to the disappointed; to the disillusioned; to those who no longer believe; to those who doubt; to the tired: to the former faithful; to anyone who has given up on or never were interested: give church a chance. Come and worship with us Sunday. It will be far from a perfect experience. But that is why we are here. We need redemption. We need Jesus. And yes, we need you.


Five Reasons Why It Is Easy to Bash the Church

January 15, 2014
  1. It is easier to criticize than to praise. It requires much less effort to point out what is wrong, than to celebrate what is right. A church may be engaged in all kinds of encouraging, life-changing ministry, but it is the flaws that seem to get most of the focus. And there are flaws and always will be. Which means…
  2. The church is an easy target. Yep, we have hypocrites, liars, the immoral, the insensitve, the intolerant, and the self-righteous. Often we seem out-of-touch and archaic. Name it (and the critics do) because we got it. Never mind that we also have the faithful, the loving, the pure, the servant-hearted: you know, folks trying to model Jesus. Forget the fact that by its very nature the church welcomes all of the above to enter into a transformative relationship with Christ. Ignore the reality that we are and will contiune to be (until Christ returns) a work in progress– never claiming perfection. Our mistakes just make too big a target for many to see beyond.
  3. Misery sells. Good news creates much less buzz than bad. The media has grasped this for decades. Church bashing simply has broader appeal than church praising. It has become a cottage industry.
  4. Everyone is an expert. Just ask and you will discover that almost everyone has an opinion (usually a strong one) about the church. These opinons usually contain criticism complete with a “how to fix it” plan. Very few experts see themselves as part of the problem, however.
  5. It is self-serving. For many church bashing serves to create justification for their own choices. “The church is bad therefore I will not support it” or “The church is bad and I need to change it” or “The church is bad therefore I will oppose it”- is the idea. Obviously, this is not true about criticism across the board, Also, it must be acknowleged that some have suffered genuially terrible experiences in churches, which has created difficult personal spiritual struggles. But for many criticizing the church simply serves their own purposes.

There is a difference, of course, between healthy criticsim which seeks to instruct and improve. I see the apostle Paul engaged in this kind of criticism as he dealt with the first century churches. He pointed out their flaws; their sins, but always with the goal of correcting them in the most productive way in Jesus. He never engaged in bashing. His was redemptive criticism. Some, who survey the church today and offer a critique do so in the same spirit and for the same purpose. We need that. It is healthy.

What we do not need is the type of critcism reflective in my five reasons. It is counterproductive and damaging.


Watch Out for Falling Bricks!

March 25, 2013

The church is falling; the church is falling! Run! Don’t get hit by the bricks crashing down from the old sanctuary! Hurry, run quickly to the new, hip church in town and don’t look back! If you do you will turn into a pillar of yellowed paper made from the pages of old KJV pew Bibles!

Maybe it is because I am getting older. Maybe it is because it all starts to sound the same after a while.  But I have had enough of being told about how my church is irrelevant, uncool, too old school, and ready for the scrapheap.

The volume of material out there that exists to remind me how totally un-with-it my church is seems limitless.

I suspect that you know what I am talking about.

Common among the do-or-die directives is how we must change our worship; change our name; change our leadership; change our image; change our culture; change our language. We must become missional; we must be emergent; we must become cool.

Bricks are falling all around us and we do not even realize it! Wake up church before it is too late!

To be sure, I am well aware of all of the stats reported from various sources that do clearly indicate a decline in church membership and an increasing lack of interest in organized religion in an American culture that no longer values churches as it once did.  I am well acquainted with the challenges all of this creates within a local church setting.

I also know about newer growing churches—megachurches that have that cool factor; with hip preachers and multiple campuses. Praise God for them! I rejoice that they exist and are effective in their outreach. Jesus is being preached and glorified through them to a vast amount of people

But we cannot all be them. What about all the churches who are not located in major metropolitan areas? What about the majority of us who worship, serve, raise our kids, marry and bury folks in the old, definitely unhip churches that remain all over the land? Should we just go ahead and shut our doors?

Lost in all of the heavy weight of the negative numbers and glorification of the latest church-of-what-is-happening-now is the value of the old church house on the corner—existing to serve its community and members. They may not be full of the most desired demographic. They may not have their curriculum based on the latest best-seller by the hottest Christian writer. They may still sing some songs from the 20th (or even- heaven help us- from the 19th century).  They may not project everything on multiple screens; they probably will not have a praise team; And yes, they probably have a brick or two that could use some fresh mortar (and some within their leadership who could use a fresh idea).

But they are still God’s people. They are still his church. They are still striving to make a difference. They are still of much value in the kingdom of God.

Years ago while in college one of my professors took our class on a field trip to a small country church next to a cemetery. The church building itself was unattractive, cramped, and in some disrepair. Our professor triumphantly proclaimed that the cemetery was more alive than that old, pitiful, tiny church- and predicted their quick demise.  I became and remain acquainted with this church. It not only still exists, but in the years since our visit has blessed hundreds of people in the name of Jesus. It remains small and totally uncool, but definitely alive and valuable to its community.

From a biblical perspective I get the idea that Jesus views his church quite differently than us. I think he is more interested in finding faith when he comes (Luke 18:8) than finding flash.

Please do not misunderstand. Because there is flash does not mean the absence of faith. I stand in awe at what is being done in big ways by big churches for Christ. I celebrate their celebrity- again because Jesus is preached and numerous lives are changed.

But the absence of flash does not also mean the absence of faith. I also celebrate all of the smaller churches and the smaller ways they are expanding God’s kingdom. They too continue to preach Christ and change lives.

They may not be all that hip, but they are all His.

That counts for all kinds of something- falling bricks and all.