Tag Archives: church decline

Getting New Church Members Is Like Dating

DatingFor you married folks, think back to your dating years. You may have rose-colored memories of being free and unencumbered (especially some of you guys out there), but take off those chintzy pink glasses for a minute and look again. Admit it. It was a messy time filled with losers, wannabes, some good people and your share of “what in the world was I thinking” moments. You had to figure out, sometimes the hard way, who your soul mate was and what it took find him or her.

For you single and dating people, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Laugh or cry.

For you contentedly single, i.e. non-dating, folks, just laugh.

With most churches, finding and keeping new people, especially those fabled young people, is near the top of our priority list. It’s really about relevance and survival. If we’re numerically growing, we’re on to something. We’re good. We’re cool. We’re making a difference. God is blessing us. The world could be crumbling and going to hell, but all is good with us, thank you very much.

But if we’re not growing or shrinking- and both are really the same thing- then we’ve lost it. We’ve gotta get cool again. We need more bells and whistles, better advertising campaigns, MUCH better preaching and music, have more events that will get people into our doors, and then… hope beyond hope that they’ll stay. Then we need to quickly encourage any new person to join and pay up. And once that happens, finally, happy days will be once more. Hallelujah! Praise the Lord and all that jazz.

Needless to say, this kind of approach for churches in numerical decline is doomed to fail. Even if it did work once upon a time, it doesn’t have any chance of working now. The only people who this might attract are Christian church shoppers who are surveying the greatest show in town. If you’re not it, they’ll pass you up every time. Sorry.

In my years of pastoring and playing the game of attracting new people, I have finally discovered that finding and keeping new people is like dating, especially if you want to attract the right people or attract anyone at all!

How does this work? Put on your imagination cap for a minute and place yourselves in a singles party. You’re looking around the room and maybe people are looking at you. After a while, you realize that there are really five different kinds of people. I’m going to make an analogous leap and say that these also describe five types of churches. Let’s see who they are.

Specimen #1: The Midlife Crisis Dater

Midlife CrisisYou see him across the room and shudder- a pot-bellied middle age guy with combed over hair sporting a tight-fitting Aeropostale shirt. With his belly hanging over some Levis jeans he’s wearing a gold watch and matching chain necklace with an iPhone 4 in his hand. He saunters over and says, “Hey baby, what’s shaking with you? Can I get your digits because I’m a ratings machine and you’re a perfect 10. LOL, wasn’t that awesome? It’s a hashtag I’m cool!”

Most obviously, this guy is trying to be something he’s not because he’s not confident or content with who he is. He feels like he’s lost the cool factor he thinks he once had, and he needs it back. He’s seen the movies where the George Clooneys and Tom Cruises put on the charm and get any girl they want. But that’s not life and it is most definitely is not him.

Many churches attempt this only for it to be a tragicomic disaster. They think if they can put together a band, play hip music, buy and use a bunch of technology, and just try as hard as they can to be “culturally relevant” they’ll make it. More often than not it comes across as pathetically corny. But most of all, it’s not authentic or sincere. It’s more about trying to be something they’re not to get people they’re not so they can feel relevant and grow again.

I’ve seen this play out many times. Much to my chagrin I confess that I tried to get churches to do this. Never again.

Specimen #2: I’m Sexy and I Know It

Gaudy WomanYou walk over to her and get up the nerve to say something. She’s really flashy, super confident and has all the moves. Yet what you’re seeing doesn’t quite match what she thinks she is. She glances you over and with a wink and smile says, “You. Yes, you. Walk yourself over here and buy me a drink.” So you walk over and sit down next to her. She turns to you and turns it all on. She tells story after story of the high profile men she’s dated, the places she’s been, and her big-paying uptown job. An hour passes, and you haven’t spoken ten words! Then you realize that it’s all about her and hardly any about you… minus one exception: how much attention you can pay her.

A number of churches are like this, too. You go to visit and you’re immediately given a glossy folder outlining all their classes, ministry groups, mission groups, prayer groups, upcoming sermon series, and the women’s club bake sales. Their members come to you all aglow about this activity and that ministry they want you to come to. They clearly want to wow you with their stuff and their toys and their goings on. Surely, they got all the church goodies you could ever need.

There’s one problem. They have no idea who you are or what you need because in reality it’s all about them and how they can woo you into their club.

Specimen #3: The Exclusive Chatty Groups

Group PartyYou see them gathered in a small circle laughing it up, talking non-stop, and enthralled with each other, so you walk over to see what’s up. They seem like great people. You get over to their group hoping that they’ll introduce themselves, ask for your name, ask you a little about yourself and invite you to join in.

Fifteen minutes later, no one has said boo to you. It’s like you’re a ghost. They don’t even see you. Finally, one person glances at you and waves a little, but no more. Clearly, they’re happy with each other but that’s about it.

Every church I’ve met- seriously, every single church– says they are a friendly church. They’re the nicest, sweetest people they can be. I’ve never heard a church tell me that they are a nasty hive of judgmental curmudgeons. They’re friendly, of course! Translation: we’re friendly and nice to each other.

I wish I could say this did not happen more often, but many times I would visit a church, see a group of people who are obviously quite happy in each other’s presence but don’t even pause to notice or speak to me. It’s like they don’t know what to do with me, or they simply don’t care.

There is a big difference between a “friendly church” and a truly hospitable church. Think on that one a bit.

Specimen #4: The Needy Dependent

lonely emo girlShe looks like Eeyore except her eyes never stop scanning the room. She’s kinda pretty so you walk on over. Delighted, she suddenly transforms before your eyes with a radiantly beaming smile, and she immediately engages you. It’s like you’re a cool drink in a barren desert. She wants to tell you everything, and wants to know your everything, too. She offers to buy you a drink and a snack. Flattered, you agree! “I am sooo glad we got to meet tonight. I think you’re the one person in this room I’ve been looking for, and now you’re here. I know it. I can see us together so perfectly. OMG, you are the man of my dreams. You complete me. Can I have your number?”

Suddenly you have to use the bathroom… downstairs at the end of the hall.

There are churches who are desperately lonely for new people, especially young people. They feel they need new, younger people to help them survive. So when a new person or a worse yet younger person ventures in, the church barrages them with, “It’s so wonderful to have you. Finally a new person! We really need someone like you to bring in more young people. I really do hope you come again. See you next Sunday, right?”

What do you think the chance of that person coming back is? Yup. You guessed it.

Specimen #5: The Happy and Fulfilled

After a long night of all the… interesting… people above, you finally see him. He’s sitting with a few people casually talking. He looks cheerful and content. He’s no Brad Pitt, but he seems like a decent person. So you walk over to say hello, and wow… he doesn’t ignore you. He doesn’t try to soak you up like a dry sponge. He isn’t trying hard to impress you. He just is. He’s very open to talking with you and is interested in hearing what you have to say. He isn’t trying to flirt or make moves, but he’s genuinely glad to have your company.

As you both talk, you can tell he’s very happy with his life and where he is. He’s got good friends and a supportive family. He knows who he is and spends his time with anyone who wants to come along for the ride. You can tell he likes you, but it’s free and easy. After a while, you sense that he would treat anyone who made the time and effort in the same way. He just seems whole.

Church serving a free Christmas meal

Church serving a free Christmas meal

This is an ideal church, too and one who grows. They don’t sit around worrying about their numbers, anxiously trying to “fix the problem.” They don’t try to be who they’re not. They don’t try to impress people. They don’t smother new people. They just get on with being the church God has called them to be. They worship joyfully, expecting God to show up. They are always learning and growing. They enjoy each others company and willingly involve new people into who they are. They love to get out into their neighborhoods to bless people with Jesus in real, practical ways. Are they the coolest, hippest group of people in town? Not at all. But they work hard at what they do. They believe that God is with them and that they are building Christ’s kingdom.They genuinely love God and people.

Yes, it’s that simple. Churches just need to get on with being the church, knowing who they are and what God has purposed them to be and do. Leave the dating game behind and God will grow the body of Christ in God’s way and in God’s time.

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The Cycle of Death and Resurrection in the Church

We disciples of Jesus Christ hinge the epicenter of our lives on Christ’s death and resurrection. It’s more than just a doctrine to be preached (what we call kerygma) or something for individuals to believe and trust for their salvation. The more I live as a disciple and serve as a shepherd of Christ’s Church, the more I see that the death and resurrection of Jesus is a massive force that shapes the movement of all things. In the turn of the seasons or in the life cycle of butterflies and flowers, we see universal images of Christ’s death and resurrection. Indeed, all of creation sings in celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

So how might it change the way we understand Church if we look at its life through the lens of Christ’s resurrection? To get to the point, might the decline of most mainline Protestant churches be a sign of death with a doorway into resurrection? Instead of consternating over the state of things, can we re-imagine the church we’ve inherited by allowing things to die in order to release new, unfettered life?jr_sunrise

To understand what I mean, let’s take a look at Jesus’ own life and ministry. Born in a manger stall, his life began in small, lowly, lonely circumstances. By the height of his public ministry, Jesus was surrounded by thousands of people. Then from there, the crowds got smaller and his miracles became fewer and fewer. On the last night of his life, Jesus went from twelve companions, to eleven, to three, and then to no one as he was arrested and taken away to be judged by the Jewish Sanhedrin. Jesus, the one who captivated throngs of people, died an embarrasingly ugly death on a cross, scorned and rejected by the whole world. The Son of God, Son of David, the one whom people called Lord and Messiah, died.

But before Jesus died, he said a few things about the nature of his death. He said, “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it does, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24).  Later in John, Jesus taught his disciples about the meaning of his imminent death. In one instance he said, “Very truly I tell you, all who have faith in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12, TNIV). How is that possible? God would send the Holy Spirit. Jesus then said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever– the Spirit of truth” (John 14:15-17a).

Right after the close of John, we read in the book of Acts that after the resurrected Jesus ascended, the disciples were filled by the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. From there, the mission and work of Jesus Christ spread like wildfire throughout the entire known world. Just as Jesus had promised, the disciples, living and working in his resurrection power of God’s Holy Spirit, accomplished far more than Jesus ever did in his earthly ministry. His death opened the way to his resurrection, which in turn infused his ever-present life into the lives of his followers. One single seed died and erupted into bountiful fruit.

Could it be that the current mainline church finds itself in the waning hours of its life, much like Jesus’ last week? If we choose to see our decline that way, it would free us to imagine what resurrection might look like. We could allow the seeds of our tradition to bloom into new, unimaginably powerful life.

But instead, the mainline church has been looking for resuscitation.  We’ve been looking to pump new life into a dying body. Or as Jesus put it, we’ve been trying to pour new wine into old wineskins. The old wineskins are bursting and the new wine gets wasted. This simply doesn’t work.

John Wesley learned this lesson. The 18th Century Anglican church was a dead, corrputed shell of an institution. Instead of trying to challenge and change the internal structures of the church– for which he often got the boot!– he preached outdoors to masses of people, created small-groups of believers which he called classes, arranged them into regionally based societies, and called and equipped preachers and leaders. By doing all of this, Wesley ushered in sweeping revival, not only to the Anglican Church, but also in England the American colonies through this movement better known as Methodism.

I’m an inheritor of Methodism. But I’m seeing that the formalized version of Methodism which began in 1784 has run its course in America and is quickly heading to its death. Other forms of mainline church could share that assessment. Does that mean Methodism has failed? Not at all, no more than we could assert that Jesus failed when he died! But we must stop our attempts at resuscitation and instead make way for resurrection.

Resurrected church in America will in many ways resemble the pre-resurrection mainline church, but much like the resurrected Jesus, it will look, feel, and act very, very differently. Let me imagine what this might look like in decades ahead. As Sophia from the Golden Girls says, “Picture this…” In the resurrected church, disciples of Jesus will gather for worship, learn and study together, and engage in the missional work of serving and sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. But long gone will be the old systems of mainline church structures and traditionalism. Congregational styles of church life may cease to exist or be radically reshaped into networks of disciples worshipping, learning, and ministering in small groups. Denominational structures will become less centralized to be simultaneously globalized and localized to support these networks of disciples. Pastors like myself may have to radically alter the way we live, work and support so that we’re acting more like apostles, building, equipping and shaping these small group networks.

Those are just a few ideas, but in each congregation, including my own, we’ve got to get on with readying our churches for a season of resurrection. We must allow failing, ineffective means, methods, and priorities to die. Then, we must allow the best remnants to grow up into a newly resurrected church.

I’d love to read your ideas and insights about resurrection, too. Let’s get the conversation going!!

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Overcoming our Churchiness

Setting out to blog today, I suppose this one could be classified as a rant. I’m not sure what will follow these openning sentences because I’m airing out some personal frustrations while earnestly attempting to keep my thoughts constructive. At the same time, I remember the words God used to commission the prophet Jeremiah: “Now, I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you… to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 1:9-10). Not that I’m Jeremiah– and Lord, I hope to never be!!— but the point is plain enough. Sometimes you’ve got to tear things down and rip them apart in order to plant new life.

I’ve always lived with a tolerable level of frustration with the state of the church, such as it is. It’s like living with achy knees (which I do, by the way). You simply learn to live with it, work through it, and perhaps use the annoyance to spur on some kind of greater good. (In my case, achy knees constantly remind me to lose weight and keep my leg muscles in shape.) There are certain churchy mindsets, attitudes, values, and priorities which I live and work in everyday. Sometimes I even catch myself falling back into them. As a spiritual leader, much of my job is reforming the church away from these inhibiting qualities which have led us into serious decline, and shepherd us towards more authentic, Christ-centered, biblical mindsets, attitudes, values, and priorities. Sometimes it feels like pushing Mt. Everest. Other times, it’s rapturous to see how easily many of us “get it.”

But I recently had something happen which ratcheted up the normal tolerable level of frustration to jabbing pains. When that happens, I rant.

Two Sundays ago at our Vacation Bible School celebration, we used some technology normally not utilized in worship. Our VBS leaders used PowerPoint digital projection to display the words of the VBS songs we sang all week. I’ve been a longtime proponent of our church installing digital projection into our sanctuary, for reasons I’ll unpack a little later. So, knowing there would be digital projection during our worship services that Sunday, I asked the leadership team if I could create and include a PowerPoint presentation of my sermon. There was method to my madness; if folks could see the full potential of digital projection, they just might want more of it. And yes, people loved it!

Yesterday, I followed suit. During my sermon, I used PowerPoint again. I wanted people to be able tune in more and see what they were hearing. I projected my major points, some Scriptures, and some images of things I was describing. Despite a few minor technical glitches that need working out, it was a success. I saw people paying more attention and taking notes. Better yet, I saw younger people with their heads up and eyes facing forward.

“Why PowerPoint and digital projection?” you may ask. We’re in a postmodern world. In our postmodern world, most people are visual learners. Immersed in an image-rich world of computers, TVs, vivid advertising, smart phones, and gaming, many of us connect and learn from others through our eyes. Arguably, so much visual living has diminished our capacity to learn and connect by using our ears. Nevertheless, more of us function and absorb information in visual formats.

Most traditional churches, on the other hand, still operate in the older “modern” world of auditory learning and communicating. We come to these churches and must hear the announcements, hear the music, and exclusively listen to a 20+ minute sermon. That asks postmodern visual learners to carefully focus on the primary medium of sound in order to receive the Word of God. No wonder I see many people with blank expressions on their faces or fidgeting doing other things while trying to “listen” to a sermon. In settings like these, I could be the most charismatic and profound preacher and still see people tuning out.

So, I began some much-needed, corrective steps last week and yesterday. A lot of people saw it as a welcome change. They commented how much easier it was for them to pay attention and walk away with more from the message. As a preacher, I was able to share more detailed, substantive information knowing that people would be able to see and follow along with my points. They could visualize how all these points come together into one whole. They could see the ideas I shared. In other words, it was much harder to get lost in information overload because I gave them a multi-sensory message from God’s Word.

But here’s what got my goat: the unhelpful negative comments from some well-intentioned church people. While I keep myself open to listen and learn to anyone, here’s what some people said:

“It’s just a gimmick.”

“I feel like I’m in a classroom, not church.”

“This is a dumbing down of worship.”

“This stuff doesn’t belong in our historic, sacred sanctuary.”

“You may be trying to get younger people, but going to chase away us older people with that kind of thing.”

I even had one person tell me that as long as I use digital projection, they would not come to our worship services!

Franky, it astonishes me how easily the church’s churchiness gets in the way of making new disciples of Jesus Christ. The use of technology is no gimmick. It’s not “church-lite”. I’m trying to stay in step with people like Jesus and the Apostle Paul who knew how to communicate the good news of the gospel in a way that people can both understand and retain. My interest in using technology in worship is not an ends in itself. I want to share the Word of God and form followers of Jesus, and I’ll use whatever means necessary to do it.

lost-sheepIn this discussion or in any other concerning the church’s ministry, there are two hallmark questions we church people must ask ourselves:

1) To what lengths are we willing to go to make new disciples of Christ?

2) How willing are we to sacrifice our own sensibilities and wants in order to reach new, younger people for Jesus?

Asking these questions illuminates one of the major barriers we face in making new disciples of Jesus. That barrier is none other than the churchiness of the church. What is churchiness? It’s the inflexibility of a “me first” approach to ministry. It’s the attitude that worship and ministry revolve around the wants and desires of church members rather than the vast neediness of a lost world. It’s the arrogance of assuming that the world must conform to our church culture in order to have a chance at being disciples of Jesus. To put it another way, it’s when the church thinks of itself more as a club who tends to the wants of its club members and less as a missional people of God who will stop at nothing to bring their world to salvation in Jesus Christ.

Whew… I got all of that off my chest. The rant is over.

But in all seriousness, I love the church I serve and the community I live in far, far too much to allow anything or anyone, myself included, to be a stumbling block to people coming into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. I also know I need to keep my own churchiness in check, too. I have a lot to learn in order to become a more missional and mission-leading pastor. Some of that means learning to take hits from folks who resist needed change to the church. But, I’m confident we’ll get there and that God is able to use us, even in spite of ourselves. After all, God will not rest until each lost child of God’s discovers how Jesus Christ died and was risen for them. I just pray my church and I can keep up!

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Atheism in Believers

Believers and church folk in particular are notorious for looking down their long noses in disgust at anything that falls outside their standards of acceptability. We’ve been called judgmental, bigoted, holier-than-thou, Monday morning quarterbacks, and a whole host of other things. If we’re even slightly honest, we’ve deserved much the criticism. We also fail to see that many of the same people we chastise are those who have left the Church over the same kind of nastiness that now is directed at them! As someone who did not grow up in the church, I’ve seen it and even now check my own attitudes for this arrogance and pride.

My rant on atheism might seem like much of the same. Here is the pastor, standing up high and holy on his God soapbox, condemning non-belief and even non-believers. But I want to be clear that my comments were directed at a school of thought (atheism), not atheists, themselves. Out of my concern for them, I mourn the effects of atheism within the people who prescribe to it, but it’s not for me or anyone else to castigate atheists as people.

question markBut to further distance myself from finger-pointing at atheists– to borrow an overly used cliche– I want to “look at the fingers pointing back” at us believers. From my experience as a disciple of Jesus and as a pastor, I see an alarming level of atheism at work in the church and in individual believers, myself included at times. We often talk a good game about God, God’s power, God’s faithfulness, and God’s mercy, but if you look at our actions and attitudes, you’re not apt to find a faithful reflection of our words. We sing about God’s mercy and forgiveness, but we often live a life of works righteousness, striving to prove our goodness to God while beating up ourselves and carelessly judging others. We “amen” God’s amazing and abundant gifts and blessings, but then we limit ourselves to the human constraints of budgets and circumstances, only accomplishing what we ourselves think we’re capable of doing. We revel in God’s sovereignty and mastery over all things, but choose and live as if everything is still up to us, our strength, our wisdom, our creativity. In other words, we live as if there is no God.

Someone, and I’m not sure who, once brilliantly called this kind of disbelief “functional atheism.” Simply put, it’s functioning as if there is no God, living in practice as an atheist. 2 Timothy 3:5 calls this “holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power” (NRSV). Or as the Lord laments in the book of Isaiah, “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Isaiah 29:13, NIV). Either way, our failure to live in faith and practice what we profess makes us no better than atheists. In fact, we could argue that atheists have more integrity than some believers do!

Our functional atheism, however, is far more significant than a topic of conversation (or a blog!). It has badly damaged the soul of the Church, stunting our power, effectiveness, and sincerity. Just as ancient Israel turned to idols when they lost hope in God, we turn to our own idols of rugged individualism, self-sufficiency, power over others, empiricism, hunger for wealth, and more. In none of these things will we find God, and yet we cling to them just as a non-believing world does. In an effort to be relevant, the Church embraced the principles of modernity only to find ourselves exiled into irrelevance in a post-modern world. No wonder the church in North America finds itself in steep decline. Among other root causes, our functional atheism lies within the heart of it.

We need a new generation of disciples who will live unswervingly according to the teachings of Jesus. Within him and his followers has been a life-giving, world-changing, God-glorifying powerful grace that could easily transform cynicism towards what the world calls “organized religion.” Otherwise, we will continue to see a rise of atheism and another phenomenon I call post-Christian agnosticism (a topic for another blog, I suppose.) In the mean time, I leave you with this thought as a challenge for all of us believers:

It could very well be that most of the atheism we find in our post-Christian world traces its origins back to the functional atheism of God’s own people.

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