Would You Take Two Steps to Have a Healthy Church? – Part 4

February 12, 2018 1 comment

We’ve already seen the two steps every pastor must take toward a healthy church–grow yourself and build a team. Now let’s continue our look at the two steps only the people of the congregation can take. Last time, we saw the first of these–face reality. Today, Part 4 of our discussion calls for the people to create an embracing environment.

I’ve been in many plateaued and declining churches, usually as a guest. I pastored a couple of these, but more recently, I’ve been the guy that the fella at the door doesn’t recognize. And usually…it shows. Now, first of all, I’m glad when there’s someone at the door because that’s not always the case. But a few weeks ago, a tall man held the door for me but didn’t say a word as he pressed the bulletin in my hand. Then I walked through a foreign hallway, flowing with the traffic toward my apparent destination. No one spoke to me, welcomed me, or said a word in my direction, until the pastor instructed such a moment in the service and the old couple in front of me obeyed.

Now, I’m a church kid. I have so much experience walking into churches that I seldom feel confused or uncertain as to what to do. But I’m the exception. The extremely rare exception. In fact, I’m the dinosaur of church life. People like me just don’t exist anymore. Instead, an entire culture drifts into a worship service with absolutely no knowledge of what to do or what will happen. And if we treat them the way many churches have treated me, well…

As a guest, I can tell whether or not the people of the church want me there, have any interest in knowing me, or could ever care about my life. I can make that judgment in minutes. Now that may not seem fair, but that’s what your guests do every week. Where are the people who love people? Where are friendly folks who have a hope that their church might grow? Is the pastor the only guy hoping for that?

Each week, the people of the church create an atmosphere for the guest experience. I’m not talking about making sure the greeters all showed up or have their cues down pat. If welcoming new people is someone else’s job, then my church is failing at it. Now I’m all for trained greeters and the systems we put in place to extend a good first impression, but friendly people–genuinely friendly people–create the best environment.

Sadly, in many struggling churches, the members come in each week more concerned about themselves than their church. They wonder if they’ll see their friend or if someone will notice their new outfit, or if the pastor’s sermon will be what they need. And they wonder why the pastor isn’t growing their church. Maybe he’s just not doing a good job.

In the church I pastored, we did a little experiment. I asked 40 people to commit to a six-month challenge. Each week, when they attended the weekend service of their choice, I asked them to MEET someone they had never met, PRAY for someone or promise to pray for them when they heard or saw a need, and HELP someone in even the simplest way (carry a diaper bag, point out restrooms, etc). We called it MPH and thought such an effort would help us “pick up speed” in becoming the church we wanted to be. We even filled out cards each week, listing the names of those we met, prayed for, and helped.

The impact was unbelievable. During those six months, the church became one of the friendliest places I’ve ever been. I never saw a guest by themselves. New people were making friends faster than they could have hoped. In fact, a year later (we tracked it) our visitor retention rate more than doubled. 48% of those who visited are church in that 6-month period were actively attending and involved in the life of the church one year later.

A deacon’s wife remarked, “Pastor, I’m starting to think that seeing our church grow is more about what we’re doing than even what you’re doing.” I wanted to jump up and down in agreement. When we are intentionally friendly, good things happen. People want to be in those places where they feel cared about and see the potential for friendships.

If there was a guest at your church last week, and you didn’t meet them…you dropped the ball!

Does that seem harsh? I’m not trying to offend you, but if a family came to your house for dinner and you didn’t speak to them, you’re wife would be furious at you! Why is that someone else’s job when that same family comes to your church?

Creating an embracing environment is one step that the people of the congregation can take to demonstrate their desire to see their church grow. It’s their most powerful step. So get some people together and start figuring out how to do it.

When we face the reality of our declining church, most of us immediately want to know what to do. Well, here it is…create an embracing environment in your church. The two churches I pastored, experienced remarkable turnarounds and growth. I’m convinced this was the single most important step in both situations.

 

Would You Take Two Steps to Have a Healthy Church? – Part 3

February 5, 2018 Leave a comment

So how can there be a Part 3 if there’s only two steps to a healthy Church?

We have already seen the two steps a pastor must take to help his congregation get stronger–grow himself and build a team. But there are also two steps the people of the church must take to contribute to the same journey. Many congregants know the frustration of a revolving door of pastors with their unique visions, ideas, and strategies. Just when things seem to be coming into focus, something causes a pastoral change and we feel like we’re “back to square one” with someone new.

A frequent change in pastors can lead the congregation to forget that they have some responsibility for what their church is becoming. Frankly, it’s easier to sit back and wait for the new pastor to prove himself or to come up with the right plan that can lead us forward. But churches that move toward health have discovered that the people must get involved and contribute to the new day, often just as much as the pastor.

There are two things that only the people can bring to this equation. The first is the readiness to face reality. Well over half of America’s churches have plateaued or are in decline and the moral drift of our culture is away from the influence of the church more and more each year. Things simply aren’t going to get better at our church unless some intentional steps are taken.

Leadership gurus call it urgency–the “what” that motivates us to see the need for change in our church if we are going to succeed in ways we aren’t succeeding now. Most have heard insanity’s definition–doing what you’ve always done and expecting different results. But, sadly, many congregations seem content to maintain failing ministries and practices that no longer connect with their community. Perhaps like nowhere else in our culture, failure is acceptable at church as long as the remaining members are happy.

I often speak of four questions a church must say “yes” to before a new day can emerge: 1) Do we know we need to change?, 2) Are we willing to change?, 3) Do we know how to change?, and 4) Are we willing to do that? I am always amazed at how unwilling a declining church can be to say “yes” to those first two. Honestly, having the right answer to #3 doesn’t matter if you can’t get a “yes” to the first two.

Yes, we like our church and we like the way things are done at our church. That’s a big part of why we find ourselves attending our church. But if the way we do things isn’t helping us fulfill our mission of reaching people for Christ, are we willing to face that reality? Many aren’t. Even the most amazing pastors can’t help a church get healthy if the people won’t look clearly at the need.

Now, facing reality doesn’t have to mean we take on a “doom and gloom” spirit. Instead, ours should be a determination to fulfill our mission, one that is willing to shift gears if necessary to get back up that hill. Jesus established His Church not to simply be about us, but to be a vehicle through which we can be about the “them” currently outside our walls.

Pastors will often try to call their people to change and new expressions of ministry that can bring a better future, but that pastor often lacks the influence he needs to lead change until he’s been around at leas five years. Since the average tenure of a pastor is typically a but less than that…well, you can see why the people must take responsibility for this attitude toward change.

At the current rate in the Assemblies of God, we will close nearly twenty percent of today’s 13,000 churches in the next ten years. That’s the future unless congregation members are willing to step up and face a reality that can lead to change.

Next week, we’ll consider the second step congregation members must make toward a healthy future for their church.

 

Would You Take Two Steps to Have a Healthy Church? – Part 2

January 29, 2018 Leave a comment

In our last blog, we took a look at the first of two things a pastor can do to begin moving his church toward health–grow yourself. In Part 2, consider step two for the pastor.

To build a healthy church, every pastor needs a strong team. And to have one, the pastor needs to start building that team now! A strong leadership team gives the church and the pastor the people resources to begin expanding healthy ministry. Also, a strong team provides the support and encouragement a pastor needs to be able to do his part effectively.

Perhaps the two most common ways pastors resist this idea are these: First, the pastor says, “I already have a good team.” First, that’s good to hear! But there’s a difference between having a good team and building a strong one. Are you growing your team? Do you have a plan for increasing their capacity through discipleship and leadership training. Are the members of your team growing because they are on your team?

Taking this step starts with planning learning time into every team meeting. If your team is a pastoral staff or group of deacons, spend the first 30 minutes of every staff or deacon meeting in learning mode. One way to do this is to read a book together. Give each team member a copy of an important book and spend those thirty minutes discussing a chapter each month. Or perhaps you can watch a video series together. Don’t preach another message at them, but be sure to engage them in learning through discussion.

As we said last time, if you’re growing, everything around you can grow too. The same is true for the members of your team. Because they are connected to you, they should be growing in ways that affect their entire lives. Invest in them and your influence as a leader in their lives will grow. And as you do, their capacity will increase.

The second point of resistance comes from the pastor who says, “I don’t have anyone to work with.” Then start small. Choose two or three individuals that support you and start growing them. Meet over a book for coffee or lunch. Start growing someone as you grow yourself. If you don’t have a team, don’t wait any longer to start building one. This effort will impact your church’s health more than any program you can establish or sermon series you’ll preach.

A few years ago, I met a pastor who is building a team of teenagers. These are the people he has to work with so he’s not letting their age keep him from growing their leadership capacity. No matter where you are, you can start somewhere. Find a few to invest in. That’s what Jesus did, and through sacrifice and much effort, He built a team that became world-changers.

The pastor has two steps only he can take in establishing a healthy church–growing himself and building a strong team. In our next blog, we’ll look at two steps that only the people of the congregation can take.

Would You Take Two Steps to Have a Healthy Church? – Part 1

January 22, 2018 Leave a comment

With thousands of churches plateaued or in decline, many of which are aging with the future growing more ominous each day, I’ve been searching for simple and powerful steps in a new direction. Many struggling churches are overwhelmed by a culture of “can’t.” They hear the ideas that turn around other congregations, but find most of these beyond their current abilities, resources, and people. There has to be a “can” out there with every church’s name on it.

There is!

Suppose there were just two things that everyone in the church could do that would make all the difference. Would that interest you? I am convinced that those two things exist. In fact, here’s how it works–there are two things the pastor must do; and two things the people of the congregation must do; and two things the pastor and people can do together that will create momentum in a new direction.

Let’s start with the pastor’s two things…

First, the pastor must commit to grow himself. One of the truths I learned as a pastor is that if you don’t have a strategy for growing yourself, no one will bring you one. Fact is, nobody will grow you but you. So every pastor must create a strategy for developing himself to be more effective and knowledgeable about the work of ministry.

Many years ago when I was settling into my first full-time ministry role, a deacon stopped by my office with a challenge. He encouraged me to commit to read one book a week. Now, I love to read so the challenge resonated with me. I said “yes” and told him I would report to him each Sunday with the title of the book I had read that week. He said, “no.” He told me that he would be able to tell if I was reading by listening to me preach and watching my ministry. I realize now how profound that was. Since that day in 1986, I have read at least 50 books each year and believe my life has been greatly enhanced by that man’s recommendation.

Now, not everyone is a reader or wants to read at that kind of pace, but each of us can take charge of our development. Video learning is available to the visual learner. Books and magazines can help the reader. Podcasts are the way the auditory person makes it work. Even enrolling in a class can help me grow and provides some good accountability. Somehow…build a strategy for learning and growing yourself.

I have scheduled three learning times in my day–morning, afternoon, and evening. Typically I have a different book waiting for me every time I can steal a few minutes during these parts of the day. Most days, I get to the office 30 minutes early for my morning growth, take an hour in the afternoon when my mind needs recharging to open my afternoon book, and keep a book handy in the evenings. I’ve found that “vegging out” with a book is far better than the TV. Of course, every day doesn’t allow me to spend time with all three such moments, but having a plan means I get there more often than not.

Here’s the bottom-line. If you’re growing, what you touch will grow too. I learned early on that the people who are following my leadership can’t grow past me. If they do, they won’t be following me anymore. I also learned that when I’m growing, the world around me looks and smells better. Fact is, a growing leader more naturally grows the people around him/her. I’ve been at this ministry leadership thing for nearly three decades now and I am fully convinced that nothing affects my ministry effort nearly as much as my own personal growth.

Build a plan and do it today! If you’re not sure where to start, contact a trusted friend or mentor and gain their help. If you don’t make time to grow, you’re church will never have time to be healthy. If you want to discuss this topic with me, I’ll be glad to share more about the steps I’ve taken toward this critical priority. (Email me at mclarensau@ag.org.)

So, for the pastor, that’s the first of two things you must do. Next week, I’ll unveil the other key ingredient a pastor must pursue in order to have a healthy church.

Little Ones are Still Coming…

Occasionally Jesus flipped typical life on its ear by demonstrating the importance of children in the kingdom of God. I would imagine that when He put His arm around a young child and mentioned that the kingdom of God belonged to these, He likely stunned and confused the adults around Him. Seeing Him welcome children to His lap makes us like Him a lot, but does it impact our ministry thoughts?

Truth is, our care for children and the priority we give to their ministry needs reveals a lot about our connection to the ministry focus of our Savior. But that priority also speaks volumes to the crowd around us.

People seek the best for their children. That’s why they often choose brutal schedules of ball games, music recitals, and a host of other activities their kids enjoy. Providing children with opportunities is what parenting seems to be all about in our culture.

Churches need to be aware of this priority and demonstrate their own love and care for children. Attractive classrooms, newer (and clean) toys, quality teachers and leaders, all say, “We were expecting your children,” to moms and dads. Creating kid-friendly environments in our churches elevate the expectation of the child and the contentment of the parents.

Additionally, providing a safe environment is essential. Making sure your classroom workers have been screened appropriately and trained for their work, and making sure safety issues in the classroom are addressed shows that the church takes the care of children seriously.

Do you realize that when we offer a nursery or children’s classroom to a guest family, we are asking them to entrust their children to total strangers? For many parents, that isn’t as easy as it might have been a few decades ago. Children cry when they experience separation anxiety. Parents sit in the auditorium distracted when they feel that same anxiety.

Excellence in children’s ministry is an absolute essential for the growing church. Yes, it can be a lot of work, but there may be no other effort that can most effectively strengthen your church and connect you to the heart of the One we seek to worship.

Give your children the very best…

New Friends Can Bring a New Future – Part 3

As we’ve been discussing, many churches fail to invest in the new life opportunities that come their way. They continue to pour their resources into familiar holes, often because the long-term members demand it. A church must invest in its new life, then begin to follow where that growth is leading, and finally, the third step emerges into view.

Now we must EMPOWER that new life!

If step one is investing in new life, and step two is to start allowing that new life to reshape our ministries, then step three is to begin moving that new life into the leadership structure of the church. Many years ago, I taught a Sunday school class filled with young couples. It was an amazing group of nearly fifty couples–the kind of group that any pastor would think his church could enjoy for decades. But in spite of the fun we had together each Sunday morning, I could see an emerging problem. All of the leadership roles in the church were filled by an older generation. Not one deacon slot had been opened to anyone under the age of fifty. The result? My group didn’t see the church as their church, but instead saw themselves as attending someone else’s (the older folks’) church.

Ownership is the ultimate assimilation goal. When people see the church as their church, they will fully invest their lives in its efforts. I don’t mean “theirs” in the sense of possession or control, but there is a sense of deep connection that occurs when someone speaks of the church as “us.” We had that ownership in our class, but because leadership hadn’t transferred to this younger group, the larger church wasn’t theirs–at least in their thoughts.

The result? After my wife and I moved away the class broke up and in less than three years, only a handful of those couples were still in the church. Most had moved to a congregation where the leadership was vested in others their age.

A church that reaches younger adults must find a way for those young adults to step into leadership roles. Too many church boards are dominated by the older members of the church. We may argue for their experience, and that experience must be valued, but we must begin to integrate the new life of our church into leadership roles. If that new life is a different ethnic group, steps must be taken to bring some of these new friends into leadership.

Look around the conference table at the next deacon meeting and you will see the representatives of the groups that have ownership in the church. If the new life you’ve achieved is missing, you’re only a few months or years from losing their contribution to the future of your church.

So three steps must be taken to turn new life into a new life cycle for your church–Invest, Follow, and Empower. This is the road to leading your church into a future greater than its current reality.

New Friends Can Bring a New Future – Part 2

December 18, 2017 Leave a comment

As we pointed out last time, many churches fail to invest in the new life opportunities that come their way. They continue to pour their resources into familiar holes, often because the long-term members demand it. But once a church wisens to the need for investing in new life, a second step begins to rise on the screen.

Now we must FOLLOW where that new life leads us!

If step one is investing in new life, step two is to start allowing that new life to reshape our ministries. Most pastors will tell you that the people most excited about the church are those who started attending in the past two years. There’s something about familiarity that often takes the enthusiasm out of us. That’s why most of the people bringing their friends to church just started attending our church in the past several months.

So, if we will have a new life cycle, we need to begin building outreach efforts, missions priorities, ministry programs, and every other forward movement initiative around the new life God has brought. Don’t expect your new people to simply plug into the outward priorities of the old bunch. Yesterday’s projects tend to smell like yesterday and they rarely provide the excitement your new friends can generate with projects of their own.

You must FOLLOW new life!

Listen to your new friends as they dream of ways to impact your community. Listen to their conversations about people they know who can be reached. Listen, and look for ways to follow where they might lead.

Now, realize that people who hop from church to church often come in with their ideas of what your church can do. These transferring friends like what they like, but most of their ideas are old ideas too. And, there’s probably a reason why their former church stopped doing “their thing” or why these new friends stopped doing “their thing” over there. In other words, your future isn’t to be found in their past.

But your future is to be found where new life can lead you. Let me illustrate. Suppose an older congregation welcomes two new young couples to their church. First, they begin to invest in new ministries toward young couples (maybe a small group, ministry to their children, etc.). But now, the young adults have an idea for a community outreach effort that can reach other young couples. Of course, it’ll cost some money and most of the current resources are aimed at an annual church picnic that’s been declining in attendance for the past few years. What do you do?

The church that wants a new future will FOLLOW where new life leads them. Doing new things with new priorities is what chasing new life is all about. Yes, there will be loss as the church lets go of some of yesterday’s priorities, but that’s the only way to get to a new life cycle and a new future.

Step one in a new life cycle is to INVEST in new life; step two is to FOLLOW where that new life leads. Next time, we will look at step three – EMPOWERING new life…