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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…

New Friends Can Bring a New Future – Part 1

December 11, 2017 Leave a comment

With upward of 70% of churches today either plateaued or declining, and the growing 30% wanting to grow more, every pastor looks forward to the possibility of new people attending his church. Both numbers and common sense tell us that growth can only happen with new people (or more baby dedications than funerals).

But many struggling churches see guests in their services on a regular basis. A few stay with us, if they feel they fit in, but most don’t. Some even attend for several weeks before moving on in their spiritual journey. In working with many older congregations, most will tell of occasional opportunities with younger families or a short-term burst of teenage life in their church. But before long, the new growth fades away, and we’re back to the same old bunch as before.

Sometimes these bursts of new life come when a new pastor is at the helm or a ministry campaign brought some tender new fruit to the church’s baskets. But a church on an attendance descent usually sees these new friends for a few weeks and then sees them no more. Why did they leave?

Probably the better question would be, “How can we keep this from happening again?”

Certainly a church needs to do a good job extending itself in friendship. Comments on effective greeter ministries and such belong in a different blog entry than this. Here my focus is on a bigger picture.

When a few young families wander into an older congregation, the church will likely want to celebrate this new life. But celebrating alone won’t keep these new friends around. We must INVEST in this new life. What ministries are in place for them? What steps will the church take in caring for and training their children. What ministry programs will they connect to?

When young couples started coming to the older church I pastored, we had to get busy starting new ministry efforts. And that required taking some of the resources we were using elsewhere and aiming them at this new life. Unfortunately, in many churches, there’s reluctance to shift resources toward new people. Those who’ve been paying the bills for years can get a bit resistant if the focus of the spending shifts away from them.

Such thinking dooms the opportunity. If we won’t invest in the new life, we won’t see that new life for long. Too many churches seem glad for new friends, but they respond with the expectation that those new friends just “fit in” to the old stuff. Seldom does that work out, especially if the new friends are a lot younger or a lot different from the old gang. “Be like us and you can be with us” is frequently the song sung in struggling churches. Such a song might as well be a funeral dirge for the future of those who sing it.

Remember that the first question we must face if we will see a turnaround in our church is do we know we need to change? Until we can say a strong and committed “yes” to this question, we will not find the congregational energy to be any different than we’ve been. AND, in most plateaued and declining churches, one of the first things that must change is our attitude toward new people.

You must invest in new life. It’s the critical first step when the opportunities for growth come knocking on your door.

A Real Path to Real Change…

December 5, 2017 Leave a comment

We aren’t very patient people. Life has encouraged us to insist on getting what we want somewhere close to the minute that we ask for it. We get our food fast, retrieve our mail in seconds, and have little patience for the moments those processes slow down. We want what we want…NOW!

So when we begin to pursue change in our church, we’d like to find some quick answers. Somehow another Sunday in what has always been seems unbearable. So we scour the internet shelves for someone’s key to effectiveness and hope we can quickly just add water for best results.

But change…real change…doesn’t come.

If a church has been plateaued or declining on its life cycle curve, the change needed probably goes deeper than we might expect. While a few program adjustments or maybe a creative addition or two would be helpful, the deeper issues that can truly change the feel of our church won’t be touched by these surface remedies.

Relationships must begin to change. The years together under the steepled roof have left us with certain relational realities that people can sense when they worship with us. Unresolved conflicts that may be a decade old still linger in the air like a musty smell. We may not be battling those things on the surface, but a guest can tell if the people of the church are truly connected or not.

Time also has a way of bringing several different ideas of the church’s purpose, vision, or road to effectiveness into play. People who just want to change a program or two and hopefully see sudden growth often aren’t ready to revisit deeper questions before finding the right path. But, the real road to change has to start by choosing a deeper destination and agreeing to ride in the same car to get there.

Real change starts with people loving people. Now, I’m not talking about loving the first-time guests. The first people we have to start loving is each other. Old walls need to come down. Old hurts need to mend. And as they do, we can find a road to walk that can lead to real change for our church.

Fact is…the only way for our church to change is for us to change. And as God begins to change our hearts toward one another, something else begins to change…OUR CHURCH!

 

The Most Critical Questions for Leading Change

November 27, 2017 Leave a comment

When I walked into Maranatha Worship Center in Wichita, Kansas seventeen years ago, there were many challenges, but I was fortunate to find a group of people ready to face those challenges. Soon I realized that while I was the 13th pastor in that church’s nearly nine decades of ministry life to that point, I was given a gift that perhaps none of my predecessors had received. People were ready, and even desperate, for change.

To achieve significant change in an organization, four questions must be answered the right way:

1. Do we know we need to change? John Kotter’s book Leading Change tells us that step one toward change is a sense of urgency. Frankly, if there’s not a strong reason to change, the people won’t have the stomach for the journey. But urgency comes in two sizes–survival and mission. Survival urgency is the realization that if something doesn’t change, our church won’t be around for another decade. The threat of the doors closing will make most groups at least consider change. But mission urgency is even better. Mission urgency sees someone were not reaching or some critical need in our community, and charges toward change because we have to make a difference. In Wichita, survival urgency was on the table, and it brought a clear answer to question #1–YES!

2. Are we willing to change? Unfortunately, many churches who need to change lack the willingness to do so. Sure attendance is declining and ministries are shutting down ’cause the folks who once ran them now attend the church down the street. But, as long as the decision makers remain content with what they’re “getting” at church, we don’t need to make any changes. Tragic decision-making. To know change is needed and still be unwilling usually means the church has turned so inward that they will not risk their comfort for the mission Jesus gave. Thankfully, in Wichita, the people said strongly, “Show us what to do and we’ll do it.” Question #2–YES!

3. Do we know how to change? Now this is a bigger challenge and we’ll likely need a couple of blog entries to fully unpack it, but knowing what to do is critical because you won’t get many chances to fail with change. Change that’s effective breeds more opportunity for change, but change that fails makes change the enemy. For now, let me just say that change has to fit a pastor’s passion and ability to lead and also must connect with the people’s capacity to fulfill. If you can’t lead it and the people can’t do it, you aren’t going to succeed at change. I’ll discuss this more in detail next week. In Wichita, we didn’t succeed with every change initiative, but we were fortunate with enough of them to see strong momentum begin to grow. Question #3–YES!

4. Are we willing to do that? This is the commitment question. Once we have decided how we should change, we must be willing to pull the trigger. Many opportunities for a better future have been missed because we didn’t do what we knew we needed to do. How tragic to be so close to the right step only to back away because of fear. It takes resolve to pursue change. Not everyone will like it! In fact, there will almost always be a loss when change occurs. You can’t reach for a new day without lessening your grip on the old day. In Wichita, Question #4 got a YES! too.

There’s nothing easy about a change journey and you’ll volley back and forth on your scale of hoped for success. So, how strongly you and your people can say “YES!” to these four questions will be critical to the energy and willingness with which they tackle the change journey.