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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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.

 

 

 

 


Five Observations About Urban Ministry

November 8, 2013

First up, just so you know–I am no expert on this topic.

I am, however, blessed by being surrounded by folks who are on the front lines of urban outreach.

My church has a dedicated group of men and women who give so much of themselves in serving the urban neighborhoods which surround our campus. River City Ministry is not far away. They do an incredible job in the inner city of North Little Rock, Arkansas–as does the Silver City church. I praise God for them all. Their vision and passion is unstoppable.  I hang out on the edges of these ministries. Occasionally I assist them in small ways, but mostly I observe their tremendous work. And here are some of those observations:

  • The poor will always be with us. Well obviously, this is not an original observation (Matthew 26:11). The plight of poverty will never totally be solved. We can move away from it. We can pretend it does not exist. We can insulate ourselves from it, but it remains. What also remains is our divinely mandated call to respond to it. If we truly want our churches to look like Christ, then embedded in our outreach must be the preaching of the good news to the poor (Matthew 11:5) as well as the feeding of the hungry, the clothing of the naked, and the care of the needy (Matthew 25:31-46). If we are the hands and feet of Jesus this is among what those hands and feet will be doing.
  • There are no quick fixes. This is a long-haul ministry. It is hard work. It is full of disappointments. No way to sugar coat it with pithy platitudes. Helping people who struggle with not only poverty, but with its underlying causes takes lasting commitment and a huge servant’s heart.
  • It goes beyond handouts. Handouts are immediate needs-based responses that sometimes are absolutely necessary, but healthy urban ministry approaches have a larger vision. The goal is to attack poverty by helping those in it, begin moving beyond it. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways centered in relationship building. but is a crucial component of urban outreach. Two books detail a vision for this– When Helping Hurts and Toxic CharityIf you are considering become involved in urban ministry, I suggest you check those two books out.
  • Be careful of burnout. In such a ministry that demands so much, burnout can beckon. Those on the front lines of urban ministry need our prayers, support, help, and encouragement.
  • It is a transformative ministry. Earlier I mentioned disappointments, but there are also triumphs. Lives are changed–sometimes dramatically. Not just talking about finding homes or jobs, but finding Christ and being totally transformed by his grace. This is at the heart of urban ministry. Christ does change everything! This can be true of churches also. Stagnant, self-absorbed churches can be transformed into vibrant, others-minded servant churches through the difference making of urban ministry.

It is easy to become hardened and cynical toward poverty and those in it. Try seeing them as Jesus does. This is the vision that drives urban ministry.

I thank God for those with this vision.


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.

 

 

 


A Belonging Place

November 8, 2012

Imagine the tension among the collection of folks who made up the first century church.

Christians from a Jewish background had extreme difficulty accepting and trusting non-Jews (and visa-versa). Each group brought an entirely different worldview with them into the church including a long history of racial tension between them.  (Spend some time in the NT books of Romans and Galatians to get a feel for this struggle.)

Then there was the economic divide to overcome. Masters and slaves worshipped together. Rich and poor both were called to follow Jesus. Politicians and patrons were invited to come to Christ along with common laborers and prostitutes. Even though they lived in the same communities the daily life experience of these groups was incredibly inequitable.  (Revisit the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16 to catch a glimpse of this difference.)

Gender roles also added to the overall challenge. Men had the monopoly on calling the shots in first century culture. Women were a long way from anything resembling equal rights. (Check out 1 Corinthians 11 to understand a little more about this.)

Yet into this mix Paul would write:

You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus for all of you who were baptized into Christ Jesus have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  (Galatians 3:26-28)

Among their cultural realities, Paul wanted God’s people to strive for something better—a true belonging place where relationship with Christ trumped everything else and created a wonderful kingdom alternative that erased all of the political, racial, class, and gender barriers.

Notice his use of language and image to this end.

Clothes say much about our identity.  In Paul’s culture it would have been easy to spot the wealthy in their purple attire and gold jewelry. Most slaves would have been identifiable by their simple garments. Jews dressed quite differently than Greeks.  Women literally wore their social and marital status on their clothes.  The poor had to get by with whatever they could find.

Paul’s expressed desire for God’s people was to subvert these societal norms through the transforming power of Jesus Christ. His message was to “wear” Christ—to allow their identity as Christians to supersede everything else.  In so doing they would destroy the divisive social, racial, and gender barriers and become one in Christ.

In this way their Greek identity; their Jewish tradition; their expensive (and prideful perhaps) displays of wealth; their shame of poverty; and even their gender status would melt away at the foot of the cross. All that meant everything outside of Christ would mean nothing in him. (Paul personally modeled this- read Philippians 3:4-17.)

This was Paul’s vision of God’s church. It was to be a belonging place where everyone was not only welcome, but also able to freely and equally enjoy the blessings of God’s mercy and grace—a place free of the divisiveness and tension of the harsh world.

And how did this all work out?

Well, just read through his New Testament letters. God’s ideal and human reality clashed. There was a learning curve here. Folks entrenched and indoctrinated in the worldviews that created the tension had to learn a new way of doing and being in Christ—actually an entirely new way of conceptualizing the world and viewing one another.  (Which puts his statement of no longer regarding anyone “from a worldly point of view” in 2 Corinthians 5:16 into context. That entire text is very informative to this overall discussion.)

It is no different now.

In our factious culture still so defined by class, race, gender, and other layers of social and economic status and so polarized by the pandering of our political party system— God’s kingdom alternative of a welcoming place that eradicates all of those divisive labels and allegiances through the unifying force of Christ is both desperately needed and refreshing.

That place is God’s church. Here there is neither black nor white; Republican nor Democrat; rich nor poor; male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus. (If this statement increases your blood pressure then you are relating to the challenge of the NT church.)

Wearing Jesus trumps all the rest.

What an undeniable witness to heaven this truly is.

Are we up to the challenge?

Is your church a true belonging place?

To genuinely follow Christ do we really have any other option?


Changes Along the Way

November 5, 2012

As a young preacher I was preparing to preach a gospel meeting. In a conversation with the older local minister he shared his conviction that unless a sermon had at least twenty-five biblical verses in it– it really was not a true “gospel” sermon. Absorbing that bit of wisdom I revisited each planned sermon and added more verses to ensure I had my twenty-five. After all, I wanted to preach the gospel! 🙂

Well, that was then. Since, that time I have made some changes along the way in my approach to preaching and ministry:

  • I no longer have twenty-five verses in a sermon. Usually, I concentrate on trying to teach one text. Not only is this easier for the listeners to process, the value of stopping to unpack one section of Scripture is tremendous.
  • I try to go into Bible study unfiltered (I say “try” because this is never totally possible. We all bring along preconceptions to the study process.) Earlier in my ministry I quite frequently went to text to prove a point or reprove a doctrinal position. While reproving is still profitable when needed (see 2 Timothy 3:16) I no longer believe it should be primary in approaching Scripture. Now I do my best to let a text inform me (rather than me inform it) by spending time with it in context. It takes more time then the “concordance” approach I used to take, but it is so much more valuable.
  • I no longer obsess over Sunday attendance or bang the congregation up over it. Sure, I still want as many as possible every Sunday, but instead of getting upset over who isn’t here, I rejoice over those who are. Attendance remains a gauge, but not the only or even primary one. Had I understood this earlier I would have spared myself (and my church) major grief!
  • I finally figured out that what worked so well at that workshop speaker’s or famous writer’s church usually did not work so well at mine. There simply is no “one size fits all” church growth plan.
  • I learned that God is much broader, bigger, more awesome, and encompassing than the little box I kept him in for a while. Along the way I constructed bigger boxes until finally realizing I had to throw them all away. Then I begin to see how truly little I am and how incredible it is that God has been mindful of me.
  • I try to no longer take myself and what others say (positive or negative) as seriously as I once did. What I try to take more seriously is that whatever I do or say, I do it to please God and to his glory.
  • More and more I embrace Paul’s approach to teaching and preaching and that being to simply preach “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). The scandal of the cross was his solution to the Corinthian situation and it remains central to redeeming our human condition. In the end it is that empty tomb that matters most.  That is where I want to take people in my preaching. I cannot always say this has been so.
  • Finally, I have discovered that the more I learn, the less I know. Although occasionally I long for the days when I knew it all. Life was easier then!

I am reminded of this quote from Augustine: “The Bible was composed in such a way that as beginners mature, its meaning grows with them.” I do pray that my changes along the way reflect this.

Or it could be like a friend tells me, “Just because you are older does not mean you are wiser!”