Five Desires That Will Keep Your Church From Growing

November 21, 2017 Leave a comment

In his book, How to Break the 200 Barrier, C. Peter Wagner identified five institutional factors that keep a local church attendance under 200:

1. The desire to preserve social intimacy
2. The desire to maintain control
3. The desire to conserve memories
4. The desire to protect turf
5. The desire to remain comfortable

Sadly, many of smaller churches are ruled by these small ideas. Now, not every church is designed or destined to reach a mega-capacity, but health and growth are typically inseparable. Like a stagnant pond where no water flows in or out, if a church isn’t growing, before long it won’t be healthy.

If you look closely at Wagner’s list, you’ll notice the verbs all contain the idea of remaining the same. So friendships are preserved rather than available for expansion; control is clung to rather than open to new possibilities and giftings, memories are conserved rather than built, and so forth. Each statement is an expression of selfish preservation, at the expense of kingdom possibilities.

When did the church become about us? How is it that someone’s vision for a church that reached people has now turned into a group’s intent to keep others out?

Yes, growth risks many things, including the comfort we have achieved with the way things are. A growing church presents the challenges of increasing friendships. New people will want to get involved in ways that threaten the control of the few. Yesterday will slide to the back burner anytime there is something to be excited about in tomorrow’s plans. It’s hard to protect turf when the turf is expanding.

But for every risk comes the potential of amazing reward. People who prefer stagnant churches over one that’s growing typically aren’t the most appealing date on one’s social calendar. They have decided that their church is about them. And, if one can do that to the kingdom of God, little wonder those same people ultimately decide that everything in life is about them too.

Outward focus is the only cure. Aiming the eyes of the inward toward the vast challenges outside the walls is the only way to break the stranglehold of inward focus. And if it can’t be broken, what exists within will implode.

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!


September 4, 2017 Leave a comment

Thanks to an excellent message from our pastor this Sunday, I am reminded that Sunday isn’t really “game day” for the church. Sure, we put a lot of effort into the worship event. We practice music until every bridge can be crossed smoothly and transition navigated without painful pause. We hone messages ’til they match the very best of our capacity and pray for the transformation such words are hopeful to bring. But Sunday isn’t “game day.”

Monday is.

Monday launches worshipers out of their tabernacles and into the marketplace. Monday offers thousands of opportunities to live out the truth we celebrated just a day before. Monday is where the church’s sandals hit the sidewalk and the greater things Jesus said we would do become a possibility.

Now I hope you understand that I’m not leaving Tuesday longingly peeking through the fence. Wednesday is a day of action too. In fact, each of the six days between Sundays wind the game clock and call for every Christian to strap on his helmet. This is the real world of Christianity, where love for God and one another is intended to blossom.

My pastor talked of Sunday as though it was halftime–a brief break between the week that was and the one that will be. He said it was a chance to recalibrate, band-aid up where needed, and get ready for the critical second half. For football fans like me, the metaphor melted comfortably into my psyche.

I’ve always viewed Sunday as practice for Monday–practice serving, practice worshiping, practice giving myself to values intended to shape my week. Regardless of your preferred analogy, the point is that you can’t afford to confuse practice with game day or halftime with actual moments on the field.

If you know football, you know there are some players that are heroes in the weight room. They look like great players in the locker room, but fail to translate their workout to the field. I’m sure there are more than a few such Christians too–those who are massive on Sunday, but can’t seem to run a basic play on Monday. As a pastor, I have to wonder if that’s the guy I’m creating when I treat Sunday like “game day.”

I suppose I’m writing today with more of a question than a comment. How would Sunday look if it really was halftime or practice for a week of impact? What would we do differently if the final prayer wasn’t final at all? How would we view serving in the church if it wasn’t an end, but rather a means to developing gifts and values that were focused on Monday?

Truth is…if Sunday is “game day” then we are teaching people to exercise their Christianity one day a week and in ways that never touch their real world (drop mic here).

One Sunday…

Not long ago I found myself navigating yet another church visitor card as my weekend work of church consulting was fully underway. This, like so many congregations I’ve encountered, seemed like a nice gathering of nice people who wanted me to have a nice time in their house of worship. Lots of smiles, warm handshakes and even a quality cup of coffee had greeted me in the hallway. Since I was to eat this day’s lunch with the pastor, I’d already been forced to turn down one lunch invitation from a family that had no idea why I had come. As I said…nice.

As I perused the guest card that I knew I’d soon be compelled to complete, suddenly the lights flickered and then found their lowest setting while a large clock on a large screen began spinning what appeared to be a 30-second countdown toward the likely start of music played and performed by the people hurriedly assembling on the platform. In an actual half-minute, I found myself joining that small collection of smiling saints in some of the latest of the burgeoning praise music industry. Worship was underway.

I have to be honest, I was a bit shaken at how the room suddenly changed. Once warm and friendly, it now was neither. Somewhere in the darkness I imagined folks were still smiling, but I couldn’t tell for sure. Spotlights were more focused on the band of developing musicians before us, talented and trying, as they sought to reproduce songs like Michael W. and various California groups made them sound. Really good people, these worshipers, but it seemed someone had given them a less good idea.

Now, before you begin thinking that I’m a “get off my lawn guy” when it comes to modern worship, please know that I’m not. I’ve never met a worship set or song service where I wouldn’t join in. I’ve praised God in so many varied settings, I don’t know if I’d know my favorite song or style, even if we started singing it.

And I’m not anti-mood lighting either. As long as we’re engaging Jesus with sincere and hungry hearts, I’m not concerned if we invite General Electric into the moment or not. But what I realized that morning is that this wonderful congregation was trying to be some other congregation. And I knew hundreds of others were simultaneously trying and failing to be that other congregation too.

Here’s the issue: there are various church models that help shape how we “do” church each week, models with different designs and purposes to chase. I could tell the minute I walked into that little church that they were tailor-made for the relational model. You know, the church where everyone knows your name, cares about your week, serves-Jesus-side-by-side-while-growing-old-together kind of church. They’re not one of those family churches where one family dominates the rest, but they’re the church that becomes like family after only a few weeks in their house. It’s who they are and they’re really good at it.

What they’re not good at is turning off the lights where those friendly smiles and that sense of worshiping together is traded for more a bit more of a concert-like environment–where quality of presentation tends to draw folks in. That’s called the attractional model–a valid church approach in itself. the attractional model has been the wheelhouse of America’s largest churches for more than a decade. It seeks to connect people to platform in a meaningful manner, seeking to make the church’s first impression from up there. Attractional model churches draw people with their excellence, whether in worship, communication, or children’s facilities, and keep them with their well-oiled systems of effective people management.

Now my intent isn’t to paint such a model in any negative tone, it’s just that the congregation worshiping around me had little chance to succeed with that model. At this church, people genuinely filled with Jesus were the attraction. They will likely never have the level of musical talent one would find at the three mega-churches within ten miles of their building. Their sound guy did a good job managing the 24-channel board at his fingertips, but those other churches have at least twice the channels and more than twice the number of people to run them. And those spotlights, well, they were highlighting sincere but average efforts, causing their few visitors to recall the superiority of their experience across town last week.

Here’s the point: If you’re leading a relational church, align EVERYTHING your church does around those relational gifts. If you want to soften the lights a bit during times of worship, go ahead. But don’t lose the critical realization that I’m worshiping alongside some people who really look like they love Jesus. Give people time to greet and warmly welcome one another–it’s your best thing! Keep growing and encouraging your musicians in the development of their gifts, but don’t make them the only thing people can see in your sanctuary. You’ll either magnify their weaknesses or encourage pride to swell (or somehow manage to actually achieve both).

Be who you are! That’s the church Jesus has designed and gifted you to be. When you find the path you were meant to walk, that’s when your church will look most appealing to your community.