In my last article “To Make a Church Grow” I discussed various ways to evaluate church growth and likewise recognize symptoms of disease and dissonance. I then gave some practical resources for how to manage a church in distress and how to rebuild a dying vision. You can find that article here.
Now, I would like to tell you about some very specific monsters that can destroy a church regardless of how strong it originally was.
PLEASE NOTE: Like I mentioned in my last article, SIZE is not the only issue when determining whether a church is dying or thriving. Yes, in many cases a “growing church” will be having more adherents whereas a “dying church” likely will have more people leaving than coming in. That being said, there are many, many small churches with less than 50 members but where congregants are faithful and give financially and of their time. These small churches may take care of one another in some pretty incredible ways following the Biblical injunction of “loving one another deeply.” Conversely, there are some megachurches that while boasting over 5,000 members are very weak theologically and in terms of their commitment to each other. In these churches a pastor may seldom be seen and rarely heard from. Individuals may attend for a sense of “hype” but actually receive very little spiritual nourishment. It is for this reason that I would like to define a GROWING church as one that has potential to reach out to many and is giving adequate resources and support to its congregants; whereas a DYING church is one incredibly inward focussed without making an effort to connect to its members on a personal level or to the community on a wider level.
The number one enemy to stunt church growth is pride and ego. And, when you really think about it, this is the same issue that permeates into the other 4 areas mentioned in this blog. Pride is deceptive and can take on many forms. Some potential roadblocks may include:
* A pastor who feels a need to do “everything” without handing over some of that leadership to lay people.
* A pastor who feels a deep need to be a “people-pleaser” and is not able to say no or make hard decisions for fear of how it may affect others.
* A pastor who always needs to be “in control” and is over-powering in church meetings and other forums without properly listening and trying to understand what others are saying.
And while it’s always easiest to just “blame the pastor” for a sinking ship, there are a lot of ways that we, as congregants, also contribute to this problem:
* We may be too “insular” – too focussed on what sets us apart rather than on what unifies us as whole
* We may be judgmental and quick to point out that other churches in the area “just aren’t doing it right.”
* We might be incredibly hard on our pastor(s) because we think (s)he should be “perfect” and that (s)he can never measure up to what we ideally are looking for
* We might decide that we only wish to cater to a certain group of people (ie. Those who look, think, feel, dress, smell the exact same way that we do)
When taken to the extreme, I’ve even seen whole conferences doing this. For example:
* We try to “sheep-steal” (or rely on disgruntled members of other churches) too heavily
* We decide that we are eternal “gatekeepers” (having our word be the final authority on “who’s in and who’s out” including claiming that other groups are not really “Christian”)
As long as we stay stuck in the quicksand of pride, we will never be able to move forward. In fact, depending on how long this pride goes on for, we may never be able to fully recover.
The Bible speaks repeatedly against the abuse of power and the consequences of pride. We read that “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). We also read that “Pride goes before a fall and a haughty spirit before destruction” (Proverbs 16:18) The book of Proverbs even lists PRIDE as one of the emotions that God detests the most (Proverbs 16:16-19).
At first it seems incredibly difficult to grasp. If pride is so bad, why do most churches fall prey to it? The answer is because of our ego. We wrongly assume that:
* If we don’t have a certain number of congregants every week there’s no point to keep going
* If we don’t have a certain number of programs we aren’t doing it right
* If we don’t receive praise every time we preach a sermon or put on an event, people just don’t care
* If an event didn’t go exactly as we planned (and if less people showed up) that it was a failure.
Here’s the problem with this mentality:
We are too short-sighted. We view success as competition, making the grade, and being the best. We focus on our initial feelings in the here-and-now. We don’t look for long-term consequences. We see FAILURE written in big letters, we don’t see the POTENTIAL written in the fine-print. We see people not responding to our call right now, we don’t see the seeds that are being planted and the underground work God is already doing.
And when we fail to receive instant gratification, we assume our church is DYING when in reality, this may actually be the most formative state of all.
In order for our church to grow, we must understand first and foremost that ministry is NOT a competition. It never was and it never should be. At least not if we are looking at the Biblical idea of what ministry is all about. Because in the Bible we have:
* Moses shushing Joshua, telling him that he wished everyone was out there preaching the Word
* We have John the Baptist saying that he never meant to be in the spotlight, he was just preparing the way for someone else
* We have the Apostle Paul stating that everyone has a different role (some plant, some water, but it’s always God who gives the growth)
* And we have Jesus who said “quit yammering about who’s the greatest – instead be like a little child who is totally unconcerned with status and only focusses on where the next cookie is coming from.”
A church that is not competing doesn’t look like what I just describe earlier. They are not clamouring for the lime-light. Not advertising in order to be the best. Not hiring a marketing consultant just to get more people into their doors, because they know that while those things might be beneficial, they are not everything. They know that we are dealing with souls – with eternity, not just with something as trivial as numbers or a budget line.
Instead a growing church looks like this:
* The pastor is receptive to feedback. (S)he wants to know what others are saying and digs deeper to understand why they are saying it.
* When a new pastor joins a church, (s)he seeks to be a historian. (S)he wants to respect traditions that are already in place, but also wants to challenge his/her congregation to grow.
* The pastor seeks out opportunities to get others involved. They don’t fall in love with their own voice or ideas – instead they wish to draw out even the most shy and vulnerable of people and offer them a special place in the service so that they can truly feel welcomed and be their most authentic selves.
And the congregants:
* Determine to laugh, dream, share, and play together – laying theological differences aside in order to embrace true Christian unity and respect
* Recognize their own unique role, voice, and contribution in the church and seek to take “ownership” of its programs and amenities. They don’t place all the blame on the pastor. They are mature and honest enough to recognize their own short-comings as well.
* They don’t compare themselves to other churches that might be bigger, stronger, or more modern than them. They stay true to who they are and the unique role and vision that God has given to THEM at this moment, at this time, and for this location.
#2: Compromised Theology
The second greatest enemy to the church is compromised theology. What do I mean by this? Well, it should go without saying, but every church has their own unique theology. Theology is just a very fancy way of saying that:
* Every church sees God and God’s role over creation in a slightly different way, and yet we all serve the same God.
* Every church sees the role of humanity in a slightly different way, and yet, all churches are made of (imperfect) humans.
* Every church sees its own role in a slightly different way, and yet recognizes that every church has something to offer.
Simply put THEOLOGY describes a specific WORLD-VIEW. A way of seeing God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and the Church in a certain way that affects our behaviours and our mindset. Our behaviours (the way we choose to respond or not respond) towards certain social issues, marginalized people groups, and even ourselves and our own families reflects this theology – this worldview.
Theology is the cornerstone of our faith, so how we work with it is a pretty big deal.
A church that has compromised on its theology may look like this:
* The pastor doesn’t preach the Gospel at all. He only says whatever he thinks people want to hear.
* The pastor doesn’t call out immoral, sinful behaviour. She is laisse-faire and believes this all falls under the category of “a person’s private business.”
* The pastor doesn’t even KNOW what the Bible is saying. He may know a bit, but his sermons are whipped together at the last minute and don’t reflect adequate scholarship and research.
* The pastor preaches a “good” sermon that theologically makes a lot of sense, but her life applications are weak. She is too focussed on what the Bible itself says that she fails to teach her congregants how to really live it out.
But, like I said, let’s not just place all the blame on the pastor. There’s also the congregants to keep in mind. These individuals may:
* Be too focussed on their own personal “feelings” that they aren’t capable of thinking logically and rationally.
* Be too caught up in conforming to the world, that they fail to be transformed in the renewing of their minds
* Be unwilling or unable to grow spiritually for whatever reason
What makes an otherwise solid church fall prey to this type of compromised theology?
There are a few reasons that come to mind:
* The pastor may not have been adequately shaped, formed, or trained. (S)he may have “fallen into” the role or else been forced into it when the church couldn’t find anyone else to take on the role.
* The pastor may be a recent convert himself and not have had proper mentors. He may be enthusiastic and eager, but like Paul, he needs someone to pull him aside and explain the way of truth more accurately to him.
* The pastor may not fully grasp the importance of their role or how wide-reaching their influence is.
* Congregants may have been brought up in a strict family that didn’t permit asking questions. They may have been told their entire lives what to think and believe and so do not know what to do with their new-found freedom to really wrestle with Biblical texts and start thinking for themselves.
* There may not be enough movement within the church. If generations of the same people are attending with no “new blood” we risk not being introduced to new concepts, experiences, theologies, and realities.
* The church may be in competition with other churches. They may assume that because places like Saddleback or Hillsong are growing exponentially that they also need to follow that same format. They haven’t yet grasped that they are not those churches and that while those churches may be doing some pretty incredible things, God is only calling their church to be faithful with what it already has and where it already is right now.
So that’s what a church with “compromised theology” looks like. But what about a church that has good theology? A church that is truly in-line with Scripture and God’s unique calling on them will:
* Seek to be welcoming and accepting to all people, without caving into purely societal pressures
* Will seek to let “God be the judge” while also practicing discernment.
* Will be gentle and peaceable while also having a firm, unshakeable foundation.
* Will not be afraid to call sin out or discuss the “difficult” questions
* Will be comfortable living into the pain and discomfort of its parishioners (especially those who have been harmed by the institutional church or organized religion)
This will be reflected in:
* The way marginalized people groups are treated
* The way children are taught
* The way sick people are prayed for (and over)
* The way outreach and evangelism is carried out
* The way sermons are preached
* The way people are included into other activities (especially people who don’t attend that church)
Theology is very important. A recent article in the Windsor Star about “What Makes Churches Grow” By: Dan Robinet states that after being welcoming and friendly and the likability of the pastor, theology is what makes or breaks the church. Robinet writes “Growing congregations are like peaches – they’re soft on the outside and very accessible and easy to get into. But at the core, there’s a rock-solid theology. Declining churches on the other hand are like a coconut. They’re difficult to penetrate and when they do get in they find nothing solid.”
A lot of churches have gotten away from the academic discipline of theology and research into the original languages which is really to our shame. I’m not saying that every pastor needs a PhD or a DMin, but I am saying that every pastor should continue in his self-study and personal research. A pastor ought never to give up proper reading in the name of spending too much time planning the next big event.
#3: Lack of Adequate Discipleship
Some of Jesus’s very last words to His disciples right before He ascended to heaven were that they should “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” And He promised that when they did this, He would be with them to the very end of the age.
This is a pretty tall order and one that even the most evangelical churches can forget. You see, Jesus did not simply call people to stand on street corners preaching “repent! Turn and burn!” type sermons. Instead He called for something that takes much longer and that requires more careful attention – discipling. Discipling is not a one-off. Anyone who has worked with kids knows that. It’s not enough just to get people into the door (although that certainly would be a start), it’s about continuing that relationship and helping people to grow and move forward in their spiritual lives.
When a church doesn’t know how to properly disciple people they may:
* Initially see a large number of people flocking to their church, but eventually many of those same people will drop off.
* They may see people making a commitment to Christ, but that commitment will be shallow at best.
* They may see kids excited about Sunday school or VBS, but when asked, those same kids will say they are only excited about the crafts, games, or snacks.
* They may see parents who bring their children but only for “babysitting services.”
* They may see congregants content to just take in theology for an hour a week without doing any of the “hardwork” themselves at home.
In short, you’ll probably see lots of lazy congregants. People who don’t know the Scriptures and really have no intention to learn. People who aren’t able to defend their faith, but simply rely on their pastor to spoon-feed them everything.
I think we all can attest to how important teaching, training, equipping, and encouraging really are, so why don’t we do more of it?
* Our leaders may not have been properly discipled themselves so they may be clueless.
* Some leaders may be stuck in “old school mentalities” that really are not culturally connected to children in this day and age. They may assume that because they learned in a certain way when they were in Sunday school, this should still be the case now. They forget that we now have cell phones, endless demands, and the attention span the size of a goldfish to contend with.
* Also, we have to remember that people are busy. That some people just don’t choose to carve this time out for themselves. It’s just not a priority. So for some people, church is the only spiritual nourishment they will receive all week.
* And if you’re teaching kids you have to remember – they have been in school for the past 5 days. The last thing they want is for Sunday school to be as boring as learning algebra or multiplication tables. We have to ENGAGE them and allow them to THINK, CREATE, AND IMAGINE!
So we know that this is an easily neglected area, but what can we do about it?
* We can work on discipling ourselves first. This means, we keep up our own spiritual practices: we read, we study, we meditate, and we explore. It may mean that we meet with mentors or spiritual directors. It certainly means that we pray, fast, and participate in our daily devotional life.
* It means that we engage with resources and key people who actually know about this kind of stuff. If we’re in ministry it means we go out of our way to attend conferences and training events. That we put a line in our budget to buy new materials and curriculums on a regular basis.
* It means that we follow a faith formation process and learn how kids think and relate to this world. We ask them what they like and don’t like and we engage the parents. We try to instil in the parents that Sunday school is not an hour long baby-sitting service, but that it’s something more. When possible, we try to get the kids to bring home something tangible (a craft, a picture, a memory verse) to share with their families.
When a church is properly engaged in the ministry of discipleship we see:
* Kids who are passionate and excited about going to church (and even invite their friends)
* Youth who begin to “own” their own faith rather than just do what their parents tell them to
* Young adults who continue to attend services and be active participants in their local church even when they have moved away from home and no longer “have to”
* Parents who are willing to train up a child in the way he should go
* Adults who are spiritual mature and have a strong faith that is not tossed about by the winds of hardship that come tumbling through
* Single people who teach married people and married people who teach single people
* Where all are valued, treasured, and sought out regardless of age, gender, ability, or socio-economic status
Jesus’s call to go and make disciples was a pretty serious one. Yes, it can include short term service projects or long-term missionary partnerships, but it includes something far more. It includes a faith that begins at home and a home that is built on faith. More than that, it truly believes that it takes a church to raise a child.
#4: Lack of Community Presence
My aunt and uncle live across the street from a very large church, yet when my father asked them if anyone has ever invited them to this church before they responded “no.” He asked them if they would consider attending if someone invited them to a special event and they said “yes.” So why don’t they just go?
Everyone’s comfort level is slightly different. For someone who grew up in the church and feels connecting with others spiritually is a primary priority to them, they might seek out such groups. However, if someone is unfamiliar with church, they may be shy to just show up. What they are really looking for is a face-to-face connection. They are looking for an invite.
We all like to be invited to things. We like group invites on Facebook and mailed out invites on fancy paper for weddings. We like to know that people are thinking of us and that we are not being ignored. So it’s important for churches to get the word out.
When the community doesn’t even know the church exists or doesn’t know what the church is about:
* Their interest isn’t piqued. They just simply don’t care.
* They may be curious, but they don’t know when the events are on, so they don’t show up.
* They may even get the impression that the church itself could care less about whether they are there or not.
People want to know we care and as a church we need to care. So how do we communicate that caring?
* We make having an updated and easily accessible website a priority (more and more people these days are discovering churches because of an initial Google search. Just ask anyone new to your city how they found out about your church? If it wasn’t word of mouth or the random “walk by” it was probably through the Internet)
* We make our bulletins accessible – we make sure everyone who walks in gets one handed right to them, we use a readable font size and type, and we stick other invitation cards right into the bulletin when necessary. When we host events we try to give as brief yet as comprehensible of a description as possible so people know what’s really going to happen. We include the event for a few weeks so that way if someone misses one Sunday they won’t be completely out of the loop. We also post it on our website and social media.
* We welcome newcomers – we engage in small talk, direct them to their seats, and if there’s an upcoming event we invite them to it (we even offer to grab a coffee or tea for them after the service!)
* We use a variety of ways to get our message across (Powerpoint, email, Facebook groups, MeetUps)
* We ask our congregants and newcomers how they best would like to be in touch (Email, Facebook, texting – by the way, if you work with youth try using social media. Kids respond on Facebook far more often than they do with phone calls. Conversely, if you’re working with seniors a phone call or even mailing is usually the preferred method over Twitter).
* When someone has missed several weeks in a row, we ask someone to check-in with them (If you have a medium-sized or large church “Friendship Rosters” can help significantly with this one because it may be difficult to remember who all was out)
* We provide a place for prayer and the sharing of concerns one-on-one with a pastor or other ministry leader after the service and throughout the week.
* We ask other people for their input. We don’t assume what the people want, we ASK them what they want.
* We are aware of various other services and resources in the area and we seek to make those resources available in multiple ways (posters, referrals, safe spaces). If you’re new to the area, this is also a perfect time for you to become acquainted with some of the services your area offers. Consider making a binder and including information and numbers for: local hospitals, mental health and addiction services, spiritual direction and counseling, foodbanks, halfway and transition houses, lawyers, banks, women’s and men’s shelters, the Children’s Aid, local schools, tutoring services, and more.
When people know we care, they:
* Come out to events and bring their friends and family
* Eventually might become curious enough to attend a service
* Speak highly of our church and feel like their needs are being met
* Feel like it’s a safe and “fun” place to bring their kids and grandkids to * Know geographically where we are and what we’re all about
Please don’t underestimate this one. You may think community engagement is not as important as theology or discipleship, but unless you first get people into your door, they’ll never hear your theology or get to the stage where they seek out discipleship. Churches that collaborate with their community and get to know their neighbours are churches which are more likely to be integrated with the city and more sought-out by newcomers.
#5: Lack of Leadership Formation in the Next Generation
Although I put this priority last, it is actually one of the most vital for ensuring the long-jevity of your church. There’s something that we all know is true, but none of us wants to admit it:
We will not live forever and when we die, we need the next generation to take our place. If we are a thriving and growing church right now but we have no children, youth, or young adults, when this generation is gone, the church will not survive. It will shut down. That’s a hard pill to swallow – but unless we look it straight in the eye, we are doing ourselves a disservice and living in denial.
Churches that do not place a high priority or emphasis on children’s and youth ministry:
* Either have no kids to begin with
* Or their Sunday school is all about crafts and games and their youth group is all about keeping kids off the street by “having fun” (which, of course, is good to a degree, but will not retain kids for the long-run)
These churches either:
* Are not concerned with their long-jevity
* Or else simply don’t know what to do to bring more kids in and may even be perpetually discouraged.
So let’s assume that the church truly does care and is worried about their future, but doesn’t know where to start.
Here’s what we need to do:
* We need to look OUTSIDE of our church walls and find ways to get other kids involved. We need to “advertise” and “get the word out.” We need special family feature events, and not just for our own families either.
* We need to balance out fun and faith and see that those two words are actually quite compatible. We need to teach kids about Christ in a way that makes them hunger and thirst for more, but also doesn’t scare them off.
* We need to encourage parents to find faith a priority rather than just another ditch-able option
* We need to help parents be the best parents they possibly can be
* We need to develop programs in our churches for children who have special needs and cater specifically to those who would not thrive in a “typical” church setting
When a church does this, here’s what we get:
* Kids eager and excited to keep returning.
* Kids who tie previous lessons in with what they are currently learning
* Youth who begin developing leadership skills and are affirmed for them
* Young adults who find they truly have a voice and are welcomed…and no longer treated just like kids
* A healthy generation of future leaders growing up learning what it means to take on the responsibility of the church so that tomorrow there will still be a church
* People who truly feel like church matters
This is all a lot of information to take in and at first glance it can be very difficult to navigate or even know where to begin. But let me break it down for you:
* To make church a priority – not just another throw-away option
* To have good theology where people are clear about what we believe and why
* To adequately train people of all ages and equip them for real life service (not just behind church walls)
* To get out there and help the community put a face to a name
* To see the value of children, youth, and young adults and ensure that they have a special place in the life of the church (that they aren’t seen just as “mini-adults” but as people in a very important life stage RIGHT NOW)
AND THE PEOPLE WHO ATTEND (OR ARE THINKING OF ATTENDING) OUR CHURCH NEED TO:
* Know where we are and what we’re all about
* Know the basics of what we believe and why
* Know when big events are happening and feel included in those events
* Know that we are a safe place where they will be loved, accepted, and cared for no matter what
* Know that if they have children or grandchildren it will be a place where young ones are treasured, taught and trained in a way that affirms who they are already (not who they might become or who their parents “think” they should become)
And when this happens we will be a healthy church that grows, thrives, and is faithful to all that God has called us to be at this time, in this place, in this location, and to this generation.