Why Won’t They Come to Our Church?

design-38We visit lots of churches. Part of my ministry responsibility is to be on site at a different church every week, sometimes multiple churches. I have yet to visit one church that has enough people attending. In most churches, there is a desire to reach more people, invite new people to engage, and increase in the number of people being influenced and impacted.

Why won’t more people come to churches like these?

We are not in control of who attends church services. We can’t make, nor would we want to make someone come against their will. But we certainly try to make the place inviting. We prepare our buildings, we plan services and events with guests in mind. We pray and ask God to make our church compelling to others. But the truth is, it is a rare occurrence when a guest comes, stays, and engages in the life of the church.

Some will respond to this query by saying that we are not called by God to grow churches. This is absolutely true. However, God utilizes the church to help make disciples. Growing a church is a very important part of fulfilling the Great Commission to make disciples of all people (Matthew 28:19-20).

Think about this:

Many churches are simply ill equipped to handle new people. Parking is a problem. There is little room in the church for people to sit comfortably. Restroom space is inadequate. While these things may not bother regular attenders, they absolutely bother guests.

Other churches have no nursery facilities or their children’s areas are old and in poor condition. Teen rooms that share space with the furnace are, believe it or not, a bad idea. These types of building issues will repel new attenders.

Sometimes we have rituals, use language and behave in ways that make no sense to anyone but us. While there is nothing wrong with these practices, per se, an explanation to new comers may be helpful. We sometimes forget that what we have been doing our entire lives may be new to people who didn’t grow up like we did.

A little more sensitive, but just as prevalent are attitudes and mindsets that will hinder the addition of new people in our churches. Mono-cultural churches (churches made up of one people group, nationality or skin color) will have a difficult time reaching people from other cultures. Whether or not we are aware of it, we develop habits and style that are not inclusive. Music, clothing styles, even methods of worship are many times, culture specific. If we are unaware of, or unwilling to address the need for adaptation, we will reach very few people who are different from us. If we are not equipped to minister to people different from us, God probably won’t send them. But if we get ourselves ready, God will send them.

Many years ago, I had an older family member say to me, “we just don’t have many colored people attending our church.” She said this innocently. But the statement revealed the reason for their dilemma.

Some folks wonder why their church is not multicultural and/or multi-generational. If it’s: 1) “those people”, 2) “we want a few, not too many”, or, 3) “as long as we don’t have to change anything”, you can stop your wondering. God probably won’t send them. These attitudes reflect a philosophy that lets others know, they are not welcome in your church.

Why would God send people He loves to a church that doesn’t love them, or is ill prepared to minister to them, or won’t make adjustments in order to welcome them? He’ll more than likely send them to a church that will warmly and sincerely adopt them into the family.

One final consideration: getting people to attend church who do not like church is a real trick. Think about it. We are trying to talk them into doing things they have no interest in doing. We preach repentance. We teach contrition. Sacrifice, service, giving money, becoming accountable to others, being responsible for others… are not very compelling to people who are enjoying their sinful lifestyle. So let’s not beat ourselves up if “sinners” don’t line up at the door. There are lots of Christians that prefer to stay away for much the same reason – they prefer life independent from their faith family.

Let’s keep in mind that the Church belongs to Christ. He died for the church. While we love our church and are fiercely loyal to our church, we do not own the church. If we try to control who attends, whether in a positive or negative way, we will give an account to God.

While our church is not for everyone (meaning some fit in better in other atmospheres), everyone must be welcome.

If we really want new people to come, we may need to consider:

  • Adjusting methods without compromising the Message.
  • Sacrificing our preferences for something that may be more effective in reaching new people.
  • Making sure our facilities, programs, ministries and events scream, “we want you here!” to new attenders.
  • Being strategic and intentional in making our churches welcoming to people different from us.
  • Being personally engaged in inviting and accompanying new people to the church.
  • Engaging new people in helping to make your church more welcoming to more new people.
  • Celebrating big time when new people actually attend!

I hope we can be more purposeful and strategic in winning more people to our churches, but more importantly, to the Lord.

Middle-Aged, “Unsuccessful” Pastors

design-32Somewhere around the halfway point in many pastors’ careers, they come to the realization that the dreams and aspirations they envisioned for their ministry will, in all likelihood, not become a reality. Perhaps they aimed too high. Maybe they thought too highly of their gifts and talents. Ambition can be a good thing or a bad thing. But it can be painful to come to the awareness that the vision that you worked on for years won’t materialize.

It’s at this point in ministry that people must make a decision. There are a few options. One can keep dreaming, pressing and working toward the original dream. We can become discouraged and quit the ministry. We can act outwardly like the fire is still burning, but on the inside we are shriveling up and dying.

Depending upon how big the vision, sticking with it can be a good and admirable thing. We can’t be quitters if we hope to succeed. But if you thought you would pastor a megachurch, and at age 50, you pastor a church of 25, perhaps the dream is not realistic or attainable. Of course, with God, all things are possible, but I am writing in general terms.

Quitting altogether is not an option, unless one never belonged in the ministry in the first place. This is a possibility, but I would advise in-depth consultation and counseling before coming to such a conclusion. The more common response to this experience is, middle-aged pastors keep on going, and no one knows that they are struggling. But deep down inside, they’re miserable.

One of the saddest seasons of a minister’s life is when they have lost their ability to reach their goals but they refuse to acknowledge it. Many feel as though they must stuff their feelings and keep grinding. Some would gladly quit if they could, but they have no other viable employment options. Still others fear being perceived as a failure. There are many ministers who are caught in this painful trap. I am of the opinion that many middle age pastors are going through the motions, with no real expectation of fulfilling a God-given vision.

Enough of the problem; are there solutions?

I believe that we can survive the disappointment of unrealized goals if we will:

Adjust passions: refocus your attention on what God called you to do. He doesn’t want you to live in a constant state of frustration and discouragement. Graciously let go of the unrealistic plans you made, and pay attention to the plans that God has for you.

Emphasize quality over quantity. Too many of us still measure success by numbers: attendance and giving. We are not called to build big churches; we are called to make disciples. If you are leading unbelievers to become solid, mature Christ followers, you are succeeding!

Share your reality with your spouse, a trusted colleague or a counselor. Pent up frustration and disappointment will eat away at a leader until is destroys them.

Humble yourself before God. Don’t be humiliated; that is the result of pride and insecurity. But God knows us; He promises that He will gladly lift us up if we’re humble before Him. (James 4:10)

Know that, if you are faithful, God is pleased with you. Let’s drop the “performance = acceptance” lie. When we stand before Him, He won’t say, “well done, good and productive servant…” He measures success according to our faithfulness.

Pastor, hang in there. Even if you feel like a failure, God knows better. If you’re still in the game, you are succeeding.

And finally, let’s pray for our pastor-friends. None of them/us are perfect. We all need an extra measure of grace. And the work we do affects eternity.

What is Means to Live “On Mission”

design-6In reality, everybody lives “on mission.” Whether or not you realize it, you have a mission. It may be to retire early. Or catch a really big fish. Or run a 7-minute mile. But we’re all on one mission or another.

There are missions and there is “The Mission.” A capitalized Mission refers to the Great Commission. Jesus gives the Great Commission to His followers as a means of reaching the world with His love as well as providing meaning and purpose in our lives. It says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20 ESV)

Living the Mission means that the goal of our life is to make disciples for Jesus. The most important thing in our life is to lead others to follow Him. So, when we live “On Mission”, it may include things like:

-A second career as a volunteer. -Living on a lower standard of economy so you can donate more to others. -Sacrificing a vacation so you can go on a serving trip. -Cutting back on luxuries so you can give to the needy. -Foregoing a birthday or Christmas gift for yourself and giving to others. -Seeing every relationship as an opportunity to help someone find Christ.

Basically, living On Mission means you realize that there are more important things than your comfort or ease. It seems somewhat counter intuitive; but we derive joy from providing joy for others.

Here’s the thing about living On Mission: it is fulfilling. In fact, most people who give away as much as they earn describe their lives as extremely meaningful and rewarding, Those who serve the most are the happiest. Those who live to focus on the Lord and others find life way more rewarding than those who live to focus on themselves.

Want to live On Mission? You can start here:

  1. Say no to something that you like.
  2. Give something valuable away.
  3. See the world through the eyes of others.
  4. Serve someone, with no strings attached.
  5. Do something for someone (anonymously.)

You’ll find yourself enjoying the concept of selflessness. And you will be making a big difference in the lives of others.

Live On Mission.

2 Serious Questions for Church Leaders

IMG_4796I have 2 serious questions that I would like to pose to church leaders:

1. Is your church as successful as it possibly can be at reaching the lost and making disciples?

2. If not, what are you willing to do (short of sin) to make your church as successful as possible at reaching the lost and making disciples?

I realize that these questions are oversimplified and perhaps some will consider them unfair. There are many variations and nuances that could cause us to reject such questions as senseless. But please, indulge me for a moment.

As a church leader for over 35 years, it is my responsibility to help the church be as successful as possible. We realize that different people define success in different ways. For purposes of clarity, let’s define success for the church this way: accomplishing the job that God has assigned to us. Perhaps there will be some debate over this job description but the common benchmark for the church is usually twofold: the Great Commandment and the Great Commission.

Jesus identified the Great Commandment: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:35-40) The Great Commission is recorded in Matthew 28:19-20, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Most students of Scripture would identify these passages as the standard by which the success of a church is measured. We won’t be judged on the number of attendees or how many square feet our church occupies. There is something more important.

We can safely break it down, loving the Lord and others, and making disciples is the goal, the mission of the church. So, one more question: “how are we doing in these areas?”

Let’s take this idea a different direction. Assuming that some of us are aware that we could do better in one or both of these areas, what are we to do with that knowledge?

I have recently returned to my interest in the study of organizational change. My Master’s studies focused much on this topic. Lot’s of great research has been done on the concept of change in cultures and organizations. Let’s look at just one quick aspect of church as it regards the church.

If change does not occur, we will cease to exist.

Think about it! If change does not occur, we will cease to exist.

Of course, there are exceptions. But generally speaking, a church that refuses to adjust will close it’s doors, perhaps sooner rather than later.

I shouldn’t have to state the obvious, but because someone will find it necessary to call me out, let me say this: The Gospel never changes. It must not. No watering down allowed. No mixing and matching Bible verses based upon our whims. We can never entertain the idea of straying away from what the Bible says. That is firmly established. The Message must never change!

But what about our methods?

Listen, it is not our adherence to the Bible that is creating problems for the church in the Western World; it is our adherence to our opinions about the type and style church that we prefer. While there is opposition to the Truth, I can’t think of one church in my area of responsibility that has suffered for it’s position on the Word of God. But I know many, perhaps hundreds that are suffering because they are committed to an ineffective style of ministry. I personally have had the painful responsibility of closing a few churches that ceased to exist. The buildings stood. But pastors left, people left and the buildings were left empty. It wasn’t preaching the Bible that closed the doors. It was refusal to consider another approach to ministry that closed many of the doors. Funerals for ministries are mournful occasions.

Here is some Latin for you: Ab actu ad posse valet illatio – This phrase means, “From what has happened, we may infer what will happen.” It may be understood this way: past performance is indicative of future results. When we observe a pattern, we can assume that, without adjustments, the pattern will continue. Newton’s first Law of Motion (inertia) indicates that an object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. Applied to the church, this means that a stagnant church will remain a stagnant church unless and until someone or something impacts change. Our Latin phrase tells us that we can predict what will happen in a church if we take the time to observe what is currently happening, and what has happened in the past. If a church is stuck – no new people are coming, no one is coming to Christ, the attendance is plateaued or declining, unless something very significant takes place (that is different from what has been happening), that church is doomed to fail. This may seem too negative. I’m sure some would call it a lack of faith. But if your car is broken down on the railroad track and a train is barreling down, you can pray all you want – but God is telling you to get out of the car and run!

Back to our initial questions. Are we winning people to Christ at a pace that is pleasing to God? If not, what are we willing to do in order to change that?

What is off limits if it results in people finding the Lord?

  • Would you adjust your worship schedule?
  • Would you relocate your church?
  • Would you spend church funds differently?
  • Would you change your choice of clothing, music, décor, etc.?

Of course, none of these things will automatically bring people to Christ. But my point is, if what we are doing is not working (and hasn’t been for some time), what is the harm in trying something different? One more time, we are not considering changing what the Bible says. But the Bible never specifically addresses many of the things that some churches believe are sacred.

Let’s tread lightly here. Some will respond to my query by saying, “we just need to pray more.” Or, “we just need old fashioned move of God like we used to have.” Or, “people aren’t as committed as they used to be; if they come to church more, the problem will be fixed. “ I agree with all of these points – to a point. But many among us pray continually. We enjoy powerful experiences of Pentecost. We go to church every time the doors are opened. And still, nothing changes. Let’s not quit doing these things. But perhaps there is more that God is saying to us.

I am not picking a fight with any tradition. I am not discounting the value of any particular method of ministry. I am asking us to consider what might be an incredible opportunity for the church in America. Without doubt, we are in trouble. Our numbers are reducing, younger generations are losing interest in our churches and we are closing churches. Maybe, just maybe, we should look at our methods, our approach, our mission.

Chris Hodges challenges the church by asking: “Why do we exist?” A simple answer is, we exist to glorify God and to win the lost. We don’t exist to be a comfortable place for Christians to gather – until they all die and the church closes.

Jesus gave us one job – to win the lost. If by changing, adjusting, tweaking just one of our practices, preferences or traditions, we may win one to Christ, then change we must.

If what you are doing is working – if people are regularly finding Christ, if you are making disciples, if your church is reaching the mission field around it and loves are changing – keep it up. But, if you realize the church could do more, what are you willing to change in order to see that happen?

An Artificial Mission

IMG_1633We must stay on Mission!

Dictionary.com defines Mission this way:

  • the business with which a group is charged.
  • any important task or duty that is assigned, allotted, or self-imposed:
  • an important goal or purpose that is accompanied by strong conviction; a calling or vocation:

This is the “why” of what we do. Mission is our meaning, our purpose, that which drives us, the thing that keeps us moving forward. Mission is not just a group or organization thing. Every individual should be aware of his or her God-given mission. You’ve been put on earth for a particular reason. This is your “Mission.”

But, without doubt, all of us get “off mission” from time to time. We create our own “artificial mission.”

Inc. Magazine says: “As every company gets older and matures, especially around its tenth anniversary and after, it can be become difficult to remember the reasons why it was founded in the first place. When you look to those organizations that have been around 30 to 50 years and older, it can be really hard to believe you’re talking about the same place.”

This is true of companies, of churches, and of individuals.

We all experience “mission drift.” This is where we slowly and sometimes subtly veer away from our mission and lose sight of our intended goal.

So, What Happens to Mission?

For those who are called by God to do a work in the world, our Mission is sacred; it is a calling from God. Because of the nature of our Mission, it is perpetually under attack. There is an enemy of the Mission. He will do anything necessary in order to sidetrack you.

This is when what I refer to as the war of attrition can occur. After a season of resistance, pushback and opposition, the Mission can soften. We lose our edge. We can get sidetracked – defending the Mission, debating the details of the Mission or trying to validate how important the Mission really is. Rather than living on Mission, we tolerate substitutes.

Now, enter the concept of the subtle creep of the Mission. It happens one little decision at a time, where you go astray by just a bit. The drift is unintentional and difficult to discern, but it is persistent. And the results are just as devastating as an abrupt and intentional abandonment of the Mission.

“Getting eaten by a whale or nibbled to death by minnows results in the same thing, although one demise is easier to diagnose.” Steve Haas, World Vision

Peter Greer and Chris Horst wrote a great book entitled, Mission Drift: The Unspoken Crisis Facing Leaders, Charities and Churches. They say, “Without careful attention, faith-based organizations drift from their founding mission. It’s that simple. It will happen. Slowly, silently, and with little fanfare, organizations routinely drift from their purpose, and many never return to their original intent. Harvard and the YMCA are among those that no longer embrace the Christian principles on which they were founded. But they didn’t drift off course overnight. Drift often happens in small and subtle ways. Left unchecked, it eventually becomes significant.”

Here is the my main point today:

When we begin to fail in regard to fulfilling our Mission, we create an alternative mission.

Because we don’t know how to refocus on the Mission, we create a reactionary mission. We may feel guilty about our lack of progress. We may get frustrated about the lack of positive movement. We may feel pressured to produce something of substance. We need a break from the pressure. So we develop a “pseudo-mission.”

An alternative or reactionary or “pseudo” mission can look like: finances, politics, or the latest natural disaster. Granted, these things are important and should certainly be someone’s mission. But if they are not your God-given mission, don’t allow them to take over your focus.

When churches get off mission from the Great Commission (to make Disciples), they adopt another vision. This mission may be politics. It could be social justice. Perhaps homelessness or prolife issues or acceptable Bible versions can take center stage. But, even though these are important topics, they are not The Mission of the Church. Substitute or counterfeit missions succeed in one thing: to pull us off Mission.

I am learning a great deal about this topic from Todd Wilson’s book, Multipliers; Leading Beyond Addition. Todd discussed the possibility of having a substitute mission that becomes an idol. When we place a secondary issue above that which God prioritizes, we create false idols. Wilson reminds us that church historians have shown that every Christian has two callings: a primary calling and a secondary calling. All Christians share the primary calling of making disciples. The Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20 details this. Our secondary callings, (passions, drives, interests and burdens) which drive our activism, must be kept in proper check – subservient to our primary calling.

I love the way Wilson explains this. God gives us our secondary calling to help fulfill our primary calling. It must never be turned around!

What this means to me is Christians must never focus only on:

Politics

Social welfare

Race relations

Pro-life movement

Homelessness

Recovery

Parentless children

Substance abuse

Addictions

Gun control

Elder care

Bus ministry

Feeding the hungry

Church Planting

Church growth

Leadership development

Education reform

Door-to-door witnessing

Divorce recovery

Youth Ministry

You get the idea.

These issues are all necessary and important and vital to our work. But they are not The Mission; they are part of the mission – perhaps a secondary mission.

The thing about substitute mission is it leaves you feeling empty. You work diligently to accomplish it, but once it is accomplished, there is no fulfillment. Or you work hard and expect everyone else to assist. But they don’t because they have their own secondary mission (and get frustrated at you for not helping them!) This is because the substitute is… a substitute. Only The Mission and the accomplishment of it will bring us to true completion.

There is One Mission: Make Disciples. That’s it.

You have one job. You have one Mission. You also have a secondary mission. I don’t know what your secondary mission is but I’m guessing you do. Whatever it is, do that. But please focus on the primary Mission. Don’t get sidetracked. Don’t allow your Mission to get hijacked. It’s too important. If God commissioned you with that mission, the world needs it.

No more artificial mission!

If You Want It, Focus On It

designWhile the above title may appear oversimplified, in essence, it is true. If you wish to accomplish or attain something, you usually must pay close attention to that thing and determine ways to acquire it. This is a point worthy of consideration but it is not my main point today.

Assuming the title is true, and using deductive reasoning, you get what you focus on.

If I focus on a friend’s flaws, the way my neighbor offended me, or reasons why I can’t be successful – well – that is what I am going to get.

This happens with ministries, churches and Christian leaders. It is so easy to focus on things that actually distract us from what we should be concentrating upon. When a leader can’t accomplish a task because their predecessor messed up, they are focusing on failure. When a church squabbles over music style or budgets, they focus on division. Politics, pet projects, even traditions, even though good and necessary, can rob us of our focus on the most important issues of life.

What should we want badly enough to focus upon?

While you must seek for God’s direction in order to discover your specific divine purpose (and yes, I believe that every person is born with one), we must decide today what is worthy of our attention. Let me ask you: that thing you are focusing on…

Does it bring lasting fulfillment and satisfaction to you?

Does is reflect the heart of God?

Does it offer hope?

Does it impact eternity?

If the answer is no, it’s probably not worthy of your attention.

My opinion about focus-worthy issues is narrow. I believe the New Testament indicates that our priority must be the salvation of souls. If it is not directly related to winning people to Christ, I should limit my focus. The Mission of making Disciples of Jesus is our primary task.

Say no to any distraction, even if it is a good thing, if it pulls you away from your honorable and God-given goals.

Be stubborn about your purpose and life’s mission. Refuse to take your eyes off of the prize. Invest your time, energy, brainpower and money in something that matters – forever.

If you focus on it, chances are you’ll end up with it.

 

Is Your Church Successful?

Disclaimer: Please forgive the academic nature of this post. This is a paper I recently wrote for a class but I hope you can weed through it to glean some useful things.IMG_0147

How Does a Church Measure Success?

     When considering the topic of measuring church success, one must take into account a variety of issues. Each church is different and what may be considered as success is sometimes subjective. Varying opinions on the elements of ministry success prevent us from coming to consensus on the matter. Biblical standards on what constitutes success in churches are subject to interpretation. There are some standards that, in my opinion, are absolutes for success in ministry and that is the focus of this project. Powers and Roberson assert,

“A church is successful when members of the congregation are growing in faith as the body of Christ, in all ways unto him and disciples are discovering, developing, and using their gifts in Christian service within the body, in the community, and in partnership with other believers around the world.” [1]

While every church leader and member may feel qualified to define how success is measured in their particular church, it is beneficial to look to those who have exposure to the larger Body of Christ when identifying success. The use of the term success when discussing Christian ministry creates concern for some. Some may equate this nomenclature with business models of success. Klopp assists us by addressing his use of terms other than success. He states, “Recently, there has been a resurgence of interest in church health, effectiveness and revitalization. I use the term effectiveness because it doesn’t carry the theological or secular baggage as do terms such as ‘missional’ or ‘success’.” [2] Whether we address the concepts in terms of success, effectiveness or health, we should all agree that we are addressing ways in which the church may fulfill the responsibilities and expectations placed upon it by Jesus Christ. The Church is not to exist in an effort to please people; we will give an account to God and must please Him in every way.

With these considerations in mind, Powers and Roberson’s definition of a successful church may be adequate for general consideration but the Evangelical perspective of success in ministry should include additions related to winning people to Christ. While the ideas may be implied by the stated definition, evangelism is too central to the success of the church to be omitted in any serious definition. Other leaders have weighed in on attempts to define church success. Some have chosen to address the temptation to measure success using the wrong evaluative tools. In their book, Total Church, Tim Chester and Steve Timmis state,

“Too many of our notions of success owe more to the world than to the God we worship. We measure success in terms of numbers, budgets, style, staff, prestige. We are not quite as crass as to think the church leader with the biggest salary and the flashiest car is the most successful. But we are not far from thinking that the church leader with the biggest congregation and flashiest Sunday morning meetings is the most successful.”[3]

This position would seem to some as an exaggeration; my experience concurs with their assessment. Shawn Lovejoy devoted an entire book to the concept of reevaluating and reestablishing the measurements of success in the church. He provides a list of common but unhealthy measurements, including comparing ourselves to others, copying what others are doing and condemning others who have success that we envy. He provides additional unhealthy approaches to church success, with some of the elements including numbers, activity, approval rating and fame. Lovejoy pleads with pastors to recalibrate their definitions of success and work toward healthier, more productive churches. [4] Ed Stetzer and Thom S. Rainer encourage us to change the scorecard of measuring success in church. Program based, inwardly focused churches will accentuate those issues that appease consumers. Stetzer and Rainer say, “The old scorecard of the church valued the external measures of the three Bs: bodies, budget, and buildings. The North American culture likes to count and so does the church. So we count the number of people attending, the number of dollars being used, and the number of square feet being inhabited for the purpose of the church.”[5] It is tempting to utilize such instruments because they are measureable and quantitative. Counting bodies is much simpler than measuring spiritual growth. We must, however, insist on interpreting success by godly standards, not by earthly ones.

Determining what defines success in a church is a significant undertaking. Since there is no comprehensive list provided in Scriptures, we must prayerfully examine the traits of Biblical ministry and assure that our churches comply. Pastors and leaders of ministries must be certain that core values are embraced and that they guide every decision and activity in the church. These values are based upon the truths of God’s Word as it applies to the lives of the people being reached by the church. Adherence to these values influences the direction of the church. We cannot know our mission if we do not embrace values. Gene Appel, former Pastor of Willow Creek Church in Illinois states, “The values church members and leadership embrace form their church mission.”[6] It is necessary to articulate what drives us as a church, why we are in existence and what we are striving to achieve. We will never know if we have achieved our mission if our values are unclear or ambiguous. It is my opinion that this is the cause behind much frustration among pastors and local church leaders. Clear and concise values have not been adopted and mission is elusive. Without these elements in place, we find it impossible to measure the effectiveness of a ministry. This frustration leads to a focus on what we can measure: crowds, resources and bottom lines on the financial reports. Lyle Schaller reminds us that core values and mission statements can, if not properly utilized, give us a false sense of security. He says, “Too often core values, like mission statements, are superficial expressions of pious rhetoric that have not been internalized by either the pastor or the leaders of the congregation.” [7]

If we are to measure what constitutes a successful church, we must begin with some basics as described by Scripture. Jesus provided the power of the Holy Spirit to the church so that we may be “witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8 NIV). Paul explains the purpose of church leaders as “to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.” (Ephesians 4:11). Jesus assigned the Great Commission as the clarion call for the church: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20a). For a church to be considered successful according to Biblical standards, emphasis must be placed on reaching those who are separated from God, releasing God’s people for ministry and making disciples everywhere. This seems to be a missional focus rather than an inwardly focused approach. It is a common assertion that this type of outwardly focused ministry will produce measureable, quantitative results such as increased attendance and giving. There is no biblical guarantee of this result and caution should be exercised when making such assumptions. A successful church will minister out of pure motivation to see lives changed. If God allows us to reach an increasing number of people, we are blessed. This should assist us as we attempt to keep our definition of ministry success pure.

Leith Anderson addresses the idea of successful churches in two books he authored in the early 1990s. Along with a plethora of negative examples of success, he identifies the following: “Success is reaching the right goal, using our resources according to a specified standard.”[8] I find that, without reading the book, this definition of success is vague and obscure. However, as Anderson develops his thoughts more fully, we find a solid didactic on church health. He focuses on the process of fulfilling mission, the utilization of gifts, and the necessity of adhering to Biblical standards while being flexible on non-essential issues. In his earlier work, Dying for Change, he eloquently argues for the church to stay focused on eternal issues refusing to compromise on Biblical truth while embracing the need to adjust methods as society shifts. “We cannot view the church as an island isolated from the rest of society. It cannot be isolated. As the culture changes, the church changes.”[9] At least one aspect of the successful church must be considered as the ability to reach the world around it with the message of Jesus Christ. Given our primary goal is to lead others to Christ and to make disciples, if we fail at these two tasks, we are unsuccessful. If the church fails to make disciples, she will eventually become extinct. Anderson and other writers help us to see the balance of commitment to living a godly life while connecting with the culture we are trying to reach. Both are necessary in order for a church (or Christian) to be considered successful. Minatrea laments the dying church that refuses to adjust its methods to reach their community.

“They found themselves increasingly out of touch with the rapids of cultural change and the real world in which their neighbors lived. They no longer anticipated having a major impact upon society and hoped only to reach enough people to help the church survive. I call this prevalent consumer orientation, isolation from society, and associated lack of belief in capacity to have a significant influence a maintenance mentality.”[10]

It is my opinion that it is impossible to have a successful church that is irrelevant to its culture. The Bible is always relevant, regardless of the society. Churches can be guilty of making the Bible irrelevant. Admittedly, we are in a major struggle with a propensity by many to reduce the Bible to a storybook. Post-modernism has impacted the church to the point that many are fearful of preaching the truth. However, watering down the Scriptures has resulted in an anemic church that is unable to deliver what our culture needs the most. The most successful churches are the ones that “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) and offer life and hope through the transformative power of Jesus Christ. With today’s post-Christian attitude, churches that speak Biblical truth may have difficulty amassing a large congregation. However, I believe that people are hungry for real solutions and eventually truth will prevail. This is another reason why success may not be measured by using standard analysis. Being culturally relevant should mean making the truth of God’s love accessible to all. Unfortunately, the idea has become convoluted and a point of contention for many Christian leaders. Robert Logan assisted me in my understanding of the topic. He instructs, “Being culturally relevant is actually another way of describing what incarnating the Gospel is all about. It means putting the Good News into forms that relate and communicate to people wherever they are.” [11] In my estimation, and utilizing this definition of culturally relevant, one may not consider their church successful unless they are culturally relevant.

I read two works that seem especially congruent with this topic. Koster and Wagenfeld’s Take Your Church’s Pulse, and Stanley, Joiner and Jones’ 7 Practices of Effective Ministry are closely related to the task of determining success for the church. Both are efforts to identify key elements of a healthy and productive church. The 7 Practices text lists things that the church should do in order to become successful. A brief summary of the 7 practices is: 1. Clarify the Win (what do we want to celebrate?); 2. Think Steps, not Program (where do we want our people to be?); 3. Narrow the focus (do no more than one or two things well); 4. Teach Less for More (say only what you need to say to the people who need to hear it); 5. Listen to Outsiders (focus your efforts on those you are trying to reach rather than on those you’re trying to keep); 6. Replace Yourself (prepare now for the future); and 7. Work on It (step back and evaluate).[12] These practices are publicized to create healthy environments in the church. They are not considered as indicators of success but rather are recipes for success. Personally, I find the authors of these practices to be a bit presumptive. I originally read this book with our local church staff when it was first published. We read and discussed the book and explored ways to implement the concepts contained in it. As it developed for us, many of the ideas of the authors were very specific to their context and not as easily executed in other settings. Our particular cultural context was not conducive to some of the practices. Thus, I am of the opinion that the book has limited application when considering how to determine success in the local church.

A much more helpful resource in my quest to establish the elements of a successful church is Koster and Wagenveld’s Take Your Church’s Pulse. The book presents ten vital signs of a healthy church. The list is subdivided into five key commitments and five key functions. The five commitments are Clear and Inspiring Vision, Mobilizing Leadership, Motivated Ministering Body, Proper Stewardship of Resources, and Integration of Text and Context.[13] According to the authors, implementation of these commitments will prepare and position the church to succeed in effective ministry. The five functions are listed as: Compelling Witness, Comprehensive Discipleship, Compassionate Service, Caring and Welcoming Community, and Dynamic Worship and Prayer. While these functions are practices of the church, they also serve as descriptors of an effective church. Healthy churches will participate in each of the functions listed. While I have not attempted to put into practice the comprehensive list as published by the authors, I have implemented each of the individual elements listed in a local church context. I believe that their list is synoptic and thorough. When attempting to identify key components of a successful church, we should utilize the index provided by Koster and Wagenveld.

As we summarize our research on the fundamentals of successful church ministry, my concern for the church of the 21st century remains. In my assessment, many churches are attempting to conduct impactful ministry by performing tasks and carrying out programs in their own strengths and abilities without relying on the life-transformative power of the Holy Spirit. We sometimes operate as though we are the source of life-change. Church can become an organization rather than an organism. I am very much in favor of investigating and exploring ways that God is working in other churches. God allows us to view successes in other ministries so that we may be inspired and motivated to also enjoy progress. However, it is a mistake to attempt to duplicate in our ministry what God is doing elsewhere. Trends and methodology can become contagious and, if we are not careful, all of our churches can begin to look and act alike. Popular pastors can garner a following of younger pastors and the temptation is to try to fit into the mold of this version of success. This may explain why North American churches spend an inordinate amount of effort trying to gain members from other churches. There can be a way of leading ministry that is attractive to other Christians, but not to those who are living without Christ. We experience a significant amount of transfer growth but not enough conversion growth. Our cultures and communities are too diverse for us all to conduct ministry the same way. The unique challenges and needs of the people in our neighborhoods require that we approach church work from a distinct and personalized platform. We may learn from the failures and successes of other churches but what God desires to do in our particular situation is distinct. Every church, every pastor and every community is unique. If we view the solution as mimicking what others are doing, we stifle the creative work of the Holy Spirit. He desires us to follow His leading as we address the needs of the culture that surrounds us. While it is beneficial for us to explore the concepts that various writers espouse as indicators of healthy ministry, we must recall that the Church is the bride of Christ and will ultimately be judged only by Him. Only God truly knows what is happening in the deep recesses of the ministry. We look at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart. It is a common temptation to hold others to our standards and to determine their success or failure based upon our criteria. It seems presumptuous and arrogant to determine some churches as successes and others as failures. Obviously, we can observe when a ministry practices the Scriptures and connects with its community. But we cannot measure true spiritual success. When I am bold enough to condemn a ministry as a failure, possibly I should submit to the Biblical teaching that instructs me to remove the log from my eye prior to attempting to remove the speck from my brother’s eye (Matthew 7:5). I am not insinuating that we stop evaluating ministry for success or failure. I am purporting that we enter into this process with humility and a keen awareness that we cannot accurately perceive what is true success and failure. Regardless of the limited number of members, the small facility and the miniscule budget, some churches are fulfilling the call that God has placed on them to make disciples, to release people for ministry and produce fruit that remains. On the contrary, some churches with massive numbers of attenders, a magnificent edifice and a swelling budget may possibly be viewed as a failure in the eyes of the Lord. This reminds us that every church is unique and has a specific calling to fulfill. We must operate in the power of the Holy Spirit in order to fulfill that call.

It behooves us to concentrate our definition of the elements of a successful church. Ingredients such as worship, service, community, prayer and evangelism are crucial. Vision, stewardship, leadership development, outreach and proper handing of the text within the context are vital. We should explore these features with a sincere desire to be the best church we can possibly be. However, we must never place these elements ahead of complete and total obedience to what God is requiring of the specific church. In our efforts to determine what makes a church successful, we must be sure to be guided by the principle of the true purpose of the church: to bring glory to God and to share Christ with the world.

I am convinced that, on Judgment Day, we will not be subjected to a checklist of modern expectations that are commonly considered to be criterion for success. I do believe that God will determine that day whether or not we have been obedient to Him and faithful to His call. Certainly, we hope and pray that we will hear these words spoken to us and to the church that we serve, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of the Lord!” (Matthew 25:23).

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Anderson, Leith. Dying for Change: The New Realities Confronting Church and Para-Church Ministries. Minneapolis, MN. Bethany House Publishers, 1990.

Anderson, Leith. A Church for the 21st Century: Bringing Change to Your Church to Meet the Challenges of a Changing Society. Minneapolis, MN. Bethany House Publishers, 1992.

Appel, Gene and Alan Nelson. How to Change Your Church (Without Killing It). Nashville, TN, Word Publishing, 2000.

Chester, Tim and Steve Timmis. Total Church: A Radical Reshaping Around Gospel and Community. Wheaton, IL, Crossway Publishing, 2008.

Klopp, Henry. The Ministry Playbook: Strategic Planning for Effective Churches. Grand Rapids, MI, Baker Books, 2002.

Koster, Tim and John Wagenveld. Take Your Church’s Pulse: Ten Vital Signs of a Healthy Church. (Sauk Village, IL, Multiplication Network Ministries, 2014.

Logan, Robert E. Beyond Church Growth: Action Plans for a Developing Dynamic Church. Grand Rapids, MI. Fleming H. Revell Publishers, 1989.

Lovejoy, Shawn. The Measure of Our Success: An Impassioned Plea to Pastors. Grand Rapids, MI, Baker Books, 2012.

Minatrea, Milfred. Shaped by God’s Heart: The Passion and Practices of Missional Churches. San Francisco, California, Jossey-Bass, 2004.

Powers, Bruce and James T. Roberson Jr. Church Administration Handbook. Nashville, TN, B&H Publishing, 2008.

Schaller, Lyle E. The Very Large Church: New Rules for Leaders. Nashville, TN, Abingdon Press, 2000.

Stanley, Andy, Reggie Joyner and Lane Jones. 7 Practices of Effective Ministry. (Sisters, OR, Multnomah Publishers, 2004.

Stetzer, Ed and Thom Rainer. Transformational Church: Creating a New Scorecard for Congregations. Nashville, Tennessee B&H Publishing Group, 2010.

[1] Powers, Bruce and James T. Roberson Jr. Church Administration Handbook. (Nashville, TN, B&H Publishing, 2008), 13.

[2] Klopp, Henry. The Ministry Playbook: Strategic Planning for Effective Churches. (Grand Rapids, MI, Baker Books, 2002), 26.

[3] Chester, Tim and Steve Timmis. Total Church: A Radical Reshaping Around Gospel and Community. (Wheaton, IL, Crossway Publishing, 2008), 191.

[4] Lovejoy, Shawn. The Measure of Our Success: An Impassioned Plea to Pastors. (Grand Rapids, MI, Baker Books, 2012), 16-26, 34-35.

[5] Stetzer, Ed and Thom S. Rainer. Transformational Church: Creating a New Scorecard for Congregations. (Nashville, TN, B&H Publishing, 2010), 26.

[6] Appel, Gene and Alan Nelson. How to Change Your Church (Without Killing It). Nashville, TN, Word Publishing, 2000), 26.

[7] Schaller, Lyle E. The Very Large Church: New Rules for Leaders. (Nashville, TN, Abingdon Press, 2000), 128.

[8] Anderson, Leith. A Church for the 21st Century: Bringing Change to Your Church to Meet the Challenges of a Changing Society. (Minneapolis, MN. Bethany House Publishers, 1992), 89.

[9] Anderson. Dying for Change: The New Realities Confronting Church and Para-Church Ministries. (Minneapolis, MN. Bethany House Publishers, 1990), 43.

[10] Minatrea, Milfred. Shaped By God’s Heart: The Passion and Practices of Missional Churches. (San Francisco, CA. Jossey-Bass, 2004), 7.

[11] Logan, Robert E. Beyond Church Growth: Action Plans for a Developing Dynamic Church. Grand Rapids, MI. Fleming H. Revell Publishers, 1989, 69.

[12] Stanley, Andy, Reggie Joyner and Lane Jones. 7 Practices of Effective Ministry. (Sisters, OR, Multnomah Publishers, 2004), 10-11.

[13] Koster, Tim and John Wagenveld. Take Your Church’s Pulse: Ten Vital Signs of a Healthy Church. (Sauk Village, IL, Multiplication Network Ministries, 2014), 13.