Another Article

Here’s another blurb an acquaintance posted on Facebook.  He’s posted stuff from this guy before that I haven’t cared for much at all, but this one actually has some merit.  Here are my additional thoughts.

1.  Can vs. Can’t – Been there, done that.  This is one of the hardest issues to grapple with in terms of change.  I am convinced it is created by the unstated absolutes that most people assume when facing change.  In churches, these unstated absolutes are oftentimes facility-related.  Whether there is a mortgage still being paid or the property and facilities are owned free and clear, can vs. can’t is often framed within these unstated limitations – we keep what we have the way we have it.  As congregations decline, focus shifts to maintaining these absolutes, when the focus needs to broaden considerably to consider all the options available, including redefining or eliminating the unstated absolutes.

I’ll also argue with the author – we don’t grow churches, the Holy Spirit does.  Human effort can get so far, but true, lasting, meaningful growth only comes by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Ultimately, churches are not called to growth or to a particular size or budget level.  These are arbitrary and oftentimes contradictory aspects that we create for ourselves.  A church might be six people or six thousand, but it isn’t the goal of the six people to necessarily become six thousand.  Faithfulness is not evidenced by size.  It is possible to faithfully labor and share the Gospel for a very long time without seeing growth.  Ask any missionary about this.  Don’t confuse side-effects with purpose.  The purpose of the Church is to share the Gospel with those who have not heard it, and nurture and disciple those who have heard it and accepted it.

2.  Them vs. Us – This is a balance.  Churches by definition exist to address the needs of their members, but these needs must never fully eclipse or replace mission and evangelism.  Those not in your community of faith have needs as well, and the need the Church exists to fill is to share the Gospel.  It is possible to be very Them-focused, but focused on things which don’t ultimately lead to sharing the Gospel, and therefore do not fulfill the purpose of the Church.  Be careful that you’re focusing both on us and them, and that the Gospel is the focus for both groups.

3.  Principles vs. Preferences – Be careful here, because many, many, many congregations have attempted to meet the preferences of their target demographic.   This can be just as destructive as focusing on the preferences of existing or influential members.  Principles/strategies are also not to be the focus.  The transforming work of the Holy Spirit as the Gospel is proclaimed – this is to be the focus!  Again, I question the faithfulness of a group of Christians whose primary goal is not faithfulness to the Gospel, but growth.  This smacks of idolatry of the worst kind – idolatry cloaked in the Gospel.  God determines the size, not us.  This is extremely unsettling to our culture of control and the corporate climate that many churches have adopted in recent decades.  None of these things have changed the continuing trend of decreased church attendance.

4.  Proactive vs. Reactive – I agree that this is very important.  Congregations and pastors, just like people, get comfortable.  We reach a certain point and we’re content.  Change becomes very difficult here.  There’s also a stage at which it’s by and large too late for change, when a group of people have closed their minds to change and entrench themselves to wait it out for the bitter end.  Between these two points is a time when change can occur, when a need for change is sensed and the ability to change is still present.  This is the point to push for action.

I work with congregations on both ends of this spectrum.  They’re more or less comfortable and self-sufficient and don’t see a need for change – and perhaps there isn’t a need for change.  Other congregations have passed up the opportunity for change.  When they realized that things were declining, they refused to face the facts.  This is not a statement of judgment exclusively.  To be fair, we need to remember that the cultural changes of the past 50 years that have beached so many congregations are monumental.  We don’t have experience in dealing with these sorts of changes.  We’re very good and faithful at continuing what our predecessors did, but we have no practical experience or models for working in this changed cultural landscape.

Making changes because you have to is brutal and very hard to come to terms to.  Planning for changes because you realize that they are necessary, and planning for those changes on your terms rather than someone else’s terms can be the difference between failure and success, I suspect.  Making someone do something is going to make them bitter.  But showing them the need to do something different and empowering them and encouraging to seek out what they would like to do and how they would like to do it?  That’s a far less bitter pill to swallow.

5.  Now vs. Eventually – Frankly I think this is a slight variation of the last point, but specific to time.  Being willing and able to act sooner rather than later – taking into account appropriate wisdom about looking before you leap – is critical.  It’s too easy for pastors to put off dealing with hard issues, leaving them for their successors to deal with.  It’s too tempting to sit at your desk and keep busy with day to day things instead of urging your people to face reality together.  It’s too tempting to wait for retirement or another parish rather than disturb the waters here and now when they’re so peaceful and calm.  But this isn’t fair to your congregation.

Change generally doesn’t get easier the longer you wait to do it.  Figure out what you need and want to do and go ahead and get it done with.  If it’s hard and painful, it’s better to do it and begin healing than to live in dread of it indefinitely.  You’ll wear yourselves out dreading something in the indefinite future, while the change you know is often less traumatic than the change you dread and continue to put off.

That being said, the author says some truly ridiculous things here as well.  Particularly, “If you can’t remember the last time you made a major decision that changed the course of your church, your leaders are wasting their time.”  This sounds like a recipe for a church that is constantly jerking their people and mission around in one direction and then another.  Change for the sake of change is ridiculous and poor stewardship.  Only in the cult of leadership that so many people bow down to these days would this sort of mantra ever make any sense.  Do what works.  Anticipate what might work next.  Pray a lot.  But if every other church leadership meeting is to lay out a new vision and a new direction, you’re going to exhaust people and confuse them and create more problems than you solve.

God gave us a brain, we need to use it.  Many churches need to use their collective brains right now to figure out how to continue sharing the Gospel in a culture that will no longer voluntarily come to worship on Sunday mornings to hear it.  But if you’ve figured out how to do that and it’s going well, then use your brain to not make arbitrary, stupid changes!  And beware the leader – whether lay or ordained – who insists that their leadership is defined and validated by constantly introducing major changes.

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