Archive for October, 2017

Help!…I’ve Never Done This Before!

October 30, 2017 Leave a comment

This phrase, once shouted by a guest in our church lobby, underscores the awareness that the unchurched are exactly that and may need a little help navigating the new world of a worship environment. In truth, any attempt at communicating effectively in today’s world requires some intentionality. Like many, I grew up in church, the product of a deacon’s family and the idea that if the church lights were on, we should be inside. I know church–at least the version I grew up with. I’m a native. I speak the language fluently. I know that being “covered by the blood” is a really good thing, and means something more than just the destiny of extras in the latest horror flick. I can say “propitiation” with awareness of its theological implications and without spraying my neighbor in an unfortunate manner.

There is absolutely a language barrier that confronts the unsuspecting traveler who has drifted into your worship service. But, before you decide this is just a blog about “church-ese” and a chance for me to entertain you with some of our funnier expressions, let me inform you otherwise. Sure, some churches are known for their religious language, leaving the outsider to propitiate on his own. But there’s more to consider than a list of classic churchhouse gaffes.

A real turning point for me as a pastor came when I decided to look at our worship service through the eyes of the unchurched guest. What would our 90 minutes together look like in the lenses of one who had no previous experience or expectation? Would the familiar elements of our worship be easy to grasp and pick up or more likely get us labeled for apparent idiocy?

Seeing us through unchurched eyes changed me in many ways. First, I found the need to explain a lot more. Some weeks I felt more like a color commentator on the game of the week, but taking a minute to explain why we were singing with eyes closed or hands lifted or even both brought clearer meaning to the practice. I have to admit that I might occasionally take such a posture more out of habit than meaning. So helping everyone in our worship service connect with the best intent had a real impact.

I also discovered that explaining something removed the fear many had toward those kind of moments. When I would take two minutes to help a newbie understand even something as radical as an outburst in other tongues, that knowledge replaced fear and many who might once have run from the building, stayed put and even affirmed the foreign practice.

Of course, the greatest lesson was the discovery that many of the lifers in the pew didn’t understand a lot of what we did either. More than once I had a 30-year attender tell me she always wondered why people did “that” or confessed some other understanding that only a left-fielder might catch. Listening with the ear of an outsider opened many opportunities to even get the insiders on track. Yes, such efforts occasionally slowed the service down, but seeing more people still with us at the end of the morning made the slower pace well worth it.

Ever been in a conversation where someone talks in detail about people you don’t know. You get locked in this “had to be there” reality when you-know-you-weren’t-there-so-you-don’t-know-what’s-going-on-so-you-don’t-want-to-be-here-now! That’s the way people feel about a worship service they don’t understand. Take time to see those familiar moments through their eyes and, like me, you’ll stop assuming so much.

Frankly, it did little good to translate the Bible from Hebrew and Greek if we’re going to encase it in a churched language that no one else can understand.

One vision…One voice

October 23, 2017 Leave a comment

Honestly, vision is a word that is overused. For many, the mere mention of the “v” word causes the eyes to glaze over as the reader imagines another round of motivational speeches that amount to very little for the organization. Vision books and seminars are everywhere, and many already have cool phrases on their walls or church bulletins. But does it really matter?

A vision that moves your congregation does.

You see, after awhile every organization expands to the point that its activities and departments can take on a life of their own. So in the church, the youth group has their own unique direction, while the women’s group is going another way. The children’s ministry has chosen their focus and the senior adults have established their own routine. Everybody’s going somewhere, but nobody’s really going the same direction.

The result is a “silo” mentality–everyone doing what is right in their own eyes. Like the people of Israel in the book of Judges, they really need a king. And vision is that king.

When a church identifies its true vision, the first benefit is found in bringing everyone to the same page. Imagine the synergy that could happen if the same passion drove the youth group and the women’s group. Sure, they’ll express it differently and at various volume levels, but when an entire church knows what they are reaching for, they can begin reaching for it together.

Vision statements that try to capture everything we do, actually help us very little. They reinforce the silo mentality because everything we’re currently doing seems to fit under an umbrella that’s too wide to function effectively. You see, a vision statement must do more than affirm what we do. It must also reveal what we won’t do and won’t take time to chase.

For other churches, vision statements just try to creatively restate the mission. Yes, we will “love God and love people” but something in our vision statement has to point us in a specific direction. Imagine if Moses’ vision statement had been “We want land!” Well, they were surrounded by lots of land and he could have led the people in any direction and insisted he was chasing the vision. But it was a specific land–a Promised Land–that served as the destination for Moses’ vision. They passed up a lot of land on their way to THE land. In the same way, a vision that moves us has to speak to a more specific destination.

When a church knows its true heart and its capacity for effective ministry, its ministries can begin to re-orient themselves around that vision and begin walking together, rather than pulling in different directions. How amazing would it be if we are all trying to go to the same place!

Vision is critical. It’s absolutely necessary before there can be shared vision. And, shared vision is what brings momentum to the ministries of a church. It’s worth the effort every time!

Understanding Vision

What is vision? In today’s climate, the word is used in so many different ways one can find it frustrating to wade through all the definitions. So even my title might cause you to raise an eyebrow in suspicion.

For this moment, let’s define vision as the central focus of your church. What is it that we are all about? Think about the guy who sits on row five in your sanctuary each week. If someone asked him what your church is all about, what would you want him to say?

You see, many vision statements offer a generic corporate expression that sounds good, but doesn’t motivate anybody. Other statements work hard to include everything the organization does so there is really no emphasis given to any specific activity. Still others chose big ideas that underscore the mission, but the statements are so broad that they could never eliminate unproductive activity. So if you have one of these kind of statements, the guy on row five probably will shrug his shoulders when asked about your vision, ’cause whatever you might have told him didn’t stick.

The best statements of vision center on the main thing that drives the church. They shout that one priority, that one focal point, that one goal that motivates us every week. For some it’s “love people” or “changed lives” or “demonstrating grace” or “investing in the next generation” or some other Gospel idea that lets everyone know what you can expect when you walk in our doors.

Lack of vision is often the culprit in the plateaued church. Now when I say that, I can picture a pastor bristling at the implication. But, plateaus come, not because the pastor lacks vision, but because the person in the pew either doesn’t know the vision or has yet to connect with its sense of direction. If the guy on row five doesn’t know why we gather each week, its highly unlikely that he will bring his friends into the same uncertainty.

But when the vision is clear, it motivates that guy’s attendance, participation, enthusiasm, and even his giving. When we know the “why” of our efforts, passion can begin to develop, and we can even become really good at what we do.

Vision in the pew will drive a church through a plateau barrier. As people find their church’s reason-for-being, they have the opportunity to champion that cause in every area of their lives. That focus will change the environment of the local church.

Here’s a tip: State your vision in the language of the guy on row five. Better yet, make sure it would make sense to the unchurched guy when he visits. The Gospel Jesus taught us impacted people on the street and was free of the “church house language” only an insider would understand.

Find your vision. Then say it simply, say it with power…and say it a lot!

Outward Focus Will Stop Decline

Since we work with many plateaued and/or declining churches, it doesn’t take long to identify common threads. Many churches, regardless of size, struggle with these two issues for the same reasons. And the common causes? For plateaus, the issue is a lack of vision; for declines, the culprit is almost always inward focus.

Inward focus happens when “church becomes about us” or “what we like.” In our consumer-driven culture, it’s quite easy to slide unknowingly into an attitude that evaluates church life based on our personal comfort levels and preferences. We like our church because we like the worship, or we like the pastor, or we like the kids programs, or a host of other reasons that center on what we like.

Now, liking your church isn’t a sin–in fact, it’s a condition we want to develop. No one wants to attend a church they don’t like. But when our likes and dislikes take center stage in church life, we soon find ourselves approaching church services like a mall shopper–wondering what’s there for us and leaving disappointed if we didn’t find it.

Jesus’ idea for His Church was far more about mission. In fact, in His Church, He brings us together to fulfill His purposes in worship of God, loving each other, and impacting the world around us. When we like our church, Jesus’ missional focus would have us “like” it because of the shared commitment and purpose we find in being a part of something eternal.

Inward focused churches choose comfort rather than driving purpose. In such places, the pastor races from one congregant to the next, trying to keep everyone content and cared for, while the community outside is unaffected. People inside often decide that if outsiders want to come in, they’re welcome to do so, but many will resist any changes that might encourage them to do so.

For a church to break from a period of decline, new life is needed. When a church is slipping down the backside of its life cycle, only new life can provide a new future. And to find that new life, the church must get out there where the new life can be found. That requires an outward focus that says, “We exist to reach others.”

Pastors who lead declining churches can take an approach like this: Take one of the strength areas of the church and aim it at the community. For example, if your church is blessed with great musicians, plan a musical event for the community and hold the event in a park or civic center. If the church enjoys serving together, find ways to connect those serving gifts to needs in the community. Hold a Single Parent Care Day, give water bottles to joggers in a nearby park, wrap Christmas gifts at the mall, or help serve meals at a community soup kitchen.If your church is blessed with gifted teachers, offer marriage or parenting classes in the community. Hold the class meetings somewhere away from your church campus–the unchurched will feel more comfortable and your people will more easily engage the community impact if they are truly in the community.

The point is to take what you do well and do it out there! You’ll benefit the people you meet and you’ll also teach your church friends how to connect with the world around them. And, along the way, you’ll connect with new people–people who can bring new life to your declining congregation. That’s how you can rescue a declining congregation.

Fresh vision and outward focus will bring new life to any plateaued or declining congregation!