Tag Archives: church growth

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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Three Inner Keys to Growth: A New Ancient Idea

Over my next several posts I am sharing some new ideas about growth with you and I would love your feedback. Every person and every organization can grow. They can grow in their positive impact, effectiveness at what they were created to do, and wellbeing. Anyone and any group can do this. Now that might seem like a naive notion surrounded as we are by people, communities, cultures and institutions in decline. All this decline has turned us quite cynical.

I’m going to focus here on the church’s ability to grow, but if you’re not a church person or don’t even care about the church, please keep reading. With some imagination, these principles can readily apply to your own life and to the groups and communities you belong to now. So you could easily white out the word church (or congregation) and write something else in.

But it all begins with a story. It’s an ancient story and a very short one told by Jesus. Jesus loved to tell stories to teach about very consequential ideas like, say, the kingdom of God. I mean, who can readily wrap their minds around something as mysteriously ubiquitous as that? And yet Jesus could help people understand these in very earthy, rugged ways with a story.

Try this one:

“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure that somebody hid in a field, which someone else found and covered up. Full of joy, the finder sold everything and bought that field.” Matthew 13:44

three keysIf you notice, there are three parts to this story: 1) someone (most likely a tenant farmer) found a hidden treasure; 2) the finder sold everything to buy the field; 3) the finder bought the field. Within these movements are the three inner keys for your church. Let me lay them out for you.

Inner Key #1: An Imagination Captured by the Kingdom

Change begins when a person or a group of people get captivated by a compelling vision. They see something powerful, something that could elevate them from their current circumstances. This vision radically captures their imagination.

In the parable, a person, most likely a tenant farmer, discovers a hidden treasure in a field. In the ancient world, people would often bury their money and treasures when they were threatened by an invading nation. This person discovered one of these massive treasures which sets the finder off to do something about it.

Your church must allow the Holy Spirit to show you a new vision of something great and meaningful to live into. This vision will excite you. It will motivate you and give you renewed energy, passion and joy. Perhaps God is showing you a new place to do ministry or a different people to love and disciple. Whatever it is, it will take you outside of yourselves and into a ministry that expands the kingdom of God into new territory.

Inner Key #2: Letting Go of the Baggage 

Whenever God shows you something that captures you or your church’s imagination, you will come face to face with the things that have constrained you in the past. Count on that happening almost immediately. In order to get deeper into God’s kingdom work, you must name and release your baggage.

The finder of the hidden treasure realized that in order to obtain it, a great sacrifice would have to be made. The finder would have to sell everything. But by selling off everything, the finder gains the freedom and resources to buy the field that contained that wondrous treasure.

Every church who wants to positively change and grow must name and release itself from the things that have held them back in the past. Here are some of those things:

  • defeatist attitudes, cynicism, negativity, and low self-esteem
  • bad institutional memories that cause fear, mistrust, and the attitudes listed above.
  • values and priorities that compete with the new thing God has given you to do
  • the undue, heavy influence of problem people that would keep the church tied to where it is
  • expectations or priorities placed upon the pastor and key lay people that would keep them from leading into the new kingdom vision
  • traditionalism, i.e. the famous Seven Last Words of the Church- “We have always done it that way!”

When the church can honestly name these things and then exercise the courageous faith to be unshackled from them, they will have a freedom and joy to do things they never thought they could do before because… well… they couldn’t!

Inner Key #3: Take Intentional, Positive Steps Forward

It’s one thing for a church to say they want to do something. It’s quite another thing to have courageous faith enough to do get up off their comfy pews and do something about it. A lot of churches are plagued with ATNA- All Talk, No Action.

Back to the parable, once the finder let go and sold everything, the work wasn’t done yet. That person had to approach the land owner with an offer to buy the field. That certainly took a plan, a lot of guts, and sheer determination. But the finder did it! And the rest of the story is history…

When God captures your church’s imagination with a kingdom vision for new ministry, and once you’ve cleared away and sold off the baggage that would get in your way, your church will need a carefully laid out, clearly understood plan for going forward. Kingdom visions are God-sized, yes. And these visions are pursued one intentional step at a time.

Set a vision with accompanying goals. The best goals are SMART (specific, measurable, audacious, realistic, and timely). That way the goals are workable and upon completion, easily evaluated. The absence of goals or broad, vague goals will not move you forward. But good SMART goals provide direction, accountability, and motivation for your church. They’ll also keep you moving forward when you invariably run into challenges and potential pitfalls.

Your Keys to the Kingdom

As you can see, these three inner keys are essential for your church to pick up and use if you want to become more viable. All three are necessary. So with that, I leave you with some practical steps forward:

  • Gather your leaders together every week for a season of prayer and fasting, asking for God’s leading and direction. After each time of prayer, report to each other and write down what you sense God is saying.
  • Take some time to prayer walk your community, asking God to show you where God is already at work. Take notice of the things that inspire you, excite you, or break your hearts.
  • Conduct a healing service, asking for people to name and let go of past congregational wounds and painful history. Invite people to write these things down on slips of paper and then publicly burn them, followed by a celebration of Holy Communion.
  • Hold your Church Council to setting and keeping a small, poignant list of SMART goals which further your church’s mission to make disciples. Bring these goals up at every Church Council meeting and report on their progress. Celebrate every single success, no matter how small. When you see stagnation or roadblocks, don’t moan and groan or play the blame game, but work out a way to either adjust the goal or to find a creative way to fulfill it. No matter what you do, keep this positive and affirming!!

The three internal keys to growth are right in front of you. Have the faith to use them, trusting that Jesus is with you for the whole journey.

 

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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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One Painfully Tough Decision

Disclaimer: This post is almost certain to offend some folks on both sides of the LGBT issue. So, I ask for some latitude and respect on any comments you leave here or anywhere else you might interact with me. I love each of you and mean no harm or disrespect. Thank you!

As a spiritual leader, I’m asked to make tough, consequential decisions that will undoubtedly ruffle feathers while possibly send me away tar and feathered. But that’s the nature of the job. Effective leadership doesn’t allow anyone to play it safe by remaining in a cozy alcove of indecision or inaction. Inevitably, the leader must step up and show the way, regardless of the cost.

Late last week my office administrator forward me an unsolicited e-mail entitled “Church Question” that said the following:

Hi!

My name is ————- and I am working with www.gaychurch.org to find Christian churches that provide a welcoming and affirming atmosphere to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Christians.

I found your church email online posted by you and I was wondering if your church would like to be listed in our directory with over 5,000 other churches that have been a welcoming and loving Christ-like communities to GLBT Christians and their families?

Listing your church will help GLBT Christians know they are in a safe place where they can be full participants in the life of the congregation – just as persons who are heterosexual, married, divorced, single, remarried and so on.

If you are interested in being listed please reply to this email with:

(1) Church name

(2) Denomination

(3) Address including state

(4) Contact information

(5) Website address if you have one

At the top of the forward, my office administrator said, “Thought you should handle this one.”

Now for some pastors, answering this e-mail would be a cut and dry decision. Some would either click the delete button, or some would enthusiastically reply with their church’s information. But for me, it was the beginning of much thought, prayer, and conversation with the person who sent me the e-mail.

I work hard to make our congregation the kind of people who will willingly embrace, love, and disciple any person we meet, either in the neighborhood or in our house of worship. I strive to get our congregational heart beating in rhythm with Jesus’ who would go to any length to find, carry, and heal even one lost sheep, no matter who they are, how they live, or what they believe (Luke 15:1-7). Our reasons have nothing to do with growing our membership roles, impressing our denominational leaders, or proving our vitality. I lead us to fulfill Jesus’ command to “…go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).

With that kind of vision, one would assume that a church would want to get its name on every list, advertised in any possible publication, and be in as many different places and spaceschurch_gay_connector as we could, just so that we could demonstrate both by word and action our willingness to include anyone in the shared journey of becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ. So what is my hesitancy to sign up my congregation on Gay Church’s website?

To include my church’s information on Gay Church’s website, we must be a welcoming congregation with a specific understanding of the word “welcoming”. They state:

“Welcoming” means that the church does not view homosexuality in and of itself as a sin and therefore they would welcome and treat a homosexual person no differently than any other person who walked through their church doors seeking Christ.

It all boils down to the meaning of the words welcoming or inclusive. In the Church, speaking at least for my own United Methodist tribe, that is the practical side of the larger debate swirling around LGBT sexuality. There seem to be two different meanings of inclusive. For some, being inclusive of LGBT persons implies that we include both the LGBT person and their sexuality as normative and blessed by God. For others, being inclusive implies the welcome and participation of all people in church life while being clear to identify any sin, including homosexuality, as incompatible with biblical Christian teaching, requiring repentance, accountability, and loving support into a new way of life.

Personally, I feel hemmed in by the debate around inclusiveness, and I’m desperately looking for a really good set of Holy Spirit shears to cut myself free. I passionately love people, all people and want them in my life and ministry. I think my church only grows stronger with our capacity to love and disciple anyone. One of our strengths and challenges is our widening diversity.

At the same time, I love people enough to share the truth with them, sometimes with sensitive articulation, other times with a heavy hammer, all depending on the issue and the people I’m caring for. Having spent untold hours reading the Scriptures, praying, and dialoguing with a wide diversity of people, I practice the second form of inclusion mentioned above– welcoming all people into our church life while being clear to carefully, compassionately teach what is inside and outside of Christian teaching, including my firm conviction that homosexuality remains outside of biblical Christian discipleship. It’s not self-righteousness vindication. I find no particular joy in teaching this. I know it pains some people to hear it, but at the end of the day, I must remain loyal to what I know is true. Then, the next morning, I rise up determined to love my LGBT family members and friends even more than the day before, shunning any hint of judgment or condemnation of them as people made in the image of God. Jesus died for my LGBT neighbors and friends just as intentionally as he died for me. How could I love them and accept them any less as my own sisters and brothers, even in our disagreements?

So, I would have loved to include my church on Gay Church’s website, but it appears impossible, and that greatly pains me. On the one hand, because of my church’s understanding of human sexuality, we are not invited to include our church as “gay friendly.” On the other hand, some of my conservative members and leaders would be up in arms about our church’s listing because it would appear that we would be “condoning homosexuality.” Really? That sounds like the grumbling of the Pharisees and tax collectors. Was Jesus ever condoning anything except the sacred worth of all people by simply being in ministry with them?

Given the circumstances it looks like the decision to include my church on Gay Church’s website was made for us, at least by the website itself. Again, that was a deep disappointment to me. But as a pastor, I will not stop there. I will make the hard decision to press our church towards actively pursuing, inviting, welcoming, and discipling all people, regardless their sexuality or gender identifications. Loving people isn’t easy. Living in the truth and sharing the truth can be more painful still. But if I’m going to lead an authenticly Christ-centered congregation that lives by the love and grace of God, then we must break down the barriers we’ve errected between marginalized people and the Christ who died to save them. That’s exactly what Jesus did and is doing even now.

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Beginning with New Questions for a Church in Decline, Part 1

Jabbing and slinging mud at the mainline church has become a new intellectual sport among church leaders, and at first glance, this blog may be yet another fruitless contribution to the worn out question, “Why is the mainline church dying?” It is not. I’m moving on from mudslinging to asking questions that might lead us into resurrection. How can the mainline church enter into Christ’s resurrection, and what does that resurrection look like?

What few church leaders seem to understand is how the negative bantering back and forth has contributed virtually nothing towards the church’s health. My attempts to sound more dire and apocalyptic than you don’t revive a thing. Besides, we’ve all seen the statistics: steep declines in membership and money, aging buildings and church members, ineffective programs and initiatives, an irrelevant vestige of religion from a bygone era, yada, yada, yada, etc, etc, etc… While we must confront the truth head on, break the denial, and accept that Church in the 21st Century takes on a shape markedly different than before, we’re still left asking, “Now what?”. Suddenly the room grows eerily silent. We then realize that those who complain but offer nothing substantive to mediate the problem are the problem.

So, beginning from my little island in the blogosphere, I’d like to offer a new set of questions for the mainline church which I will address over time. (I’m doing so as loudly as I can to anyone who will listen!) My bishop once wisely said that we don’t arrive at the truth by offering answers but by asking good questions. In other words, the mainline church finds itself retreading the same debates over its decline because it begins the conversation with inadequate questions. Let’s take a look at some of those questions and then reword them to be more authentic, biblical, and Christ-like.

Question #1: How can we get our churches growing again?

There are two major faults with this question. First, the question preoccupies the mainline church with institutional survival. Let’s face it, the mainline church, especially my own United Methodist tribe, loves to crunch numbers. We count numbers like worship attendance, the number of new members, numbers of people in classes and activities, how much money is brought in and spent, and on and on.We love it when the numbers project upward because that means the institution is thriving. We worry when the numbers spiral downward because that means the institution is in jeopardy.  But there’s a major problem with this kind of focus: individual souls are just another number which props up the legitimacy of the institution. At the end of the day, what the institution values most is its own viability, not the viability of each person the blood of God was spilled to save.

The second fault is in the word “again.” That presupposes that the same construction and configuration of church we’ve inherited will be an effective means for today and the future. It is not. Pioneering books like George Barna’s Revolution warn us that congregational styles of church may have a limited shelf life, and that we need to rethink what Church is, how it gathers, how it disciples people into the likeness of Jesus, and how it spreads the good news of Jesus to the world. So can we see growth, absolutely! But… not by pouring new wine into old wineskins.

Question #1 Rephrased: How can we build the kingdom of God with new disciples of Jesus?

Notice that the emphasis is no longer on us or on our survival, but on the survival of a lost world. It heals us from our addiction to numbers and moves the growth from institutional growth to kingdom growth, the latter encompassing every local church, every denomination, and indeed our whole world. It mobilizes us outward, looking towards the reign of God and the healing of our world by the blood of Jesus, one person, one family, one community at a time.

Please note that I’m not trying to dismantle or disregard the mainline church. I love my heritage as a United Methodist, and in fact, the kind of thinking that I’m suggesting is more in keeping with John Wesley’s vision than the dead form of religion he feared we would fall into and have indeed become. If there is any hope for United Methodism, we must once again rekindle our love for Jesus Christ, his gospel, and people who have yet to be born again into a new life with Christ and his Church.

Along these lines, I believe the answers to this question make themselves clearly apparent when we simply shift our focus from ourselves to Jesus and the world he died to save. When we do that, we find ourselves simplifying how we carry on as a Church– our worship, study, and engagements with the world around us. We find ourselves gathering together in the outside world where people normally live, work, and play. We realize that we captivate people not with pizazz but with authenticity. We move from being clever, cute, and flashy to being transparent, honest and profound. We see that the world has already heard about God so many times before. They’re not standing around waiting for us to say it again, this time with PowerPoint and a band. If they gives us a chance at all, it will happen when they see us doing what we say we believe and then speaking a message that points straight to Jesus.

To be continued…


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