I've been in a lot of churches - big and small, poor and rich, educated and illiterate - and over the years, I've found that there are factors that will tell you whether a church will thrive or die.
My question for you today is: "Will your church thrive or die?"
Where will your church be in 20 years? Will it be a vibrant and growing church packed with people of all ages and walks of life? Or will it have transitioned from an Anglo to a Hispanic church? Or a desolate gathering of a handful of old-timers on Sabbath morning who are wondering what happened?
If this scenario becomes reality (God forbid!) you won't need to wonder what happened. There are established principles that will tell you whether a church will die or thrive.
You see, if a church wants to commit suicide, it's not difficult. Here are nine easy ways for a church to commit suicide:
We will examine each of these more closely, then conclude with some things you can do if you perceive your church is suicidal.
A growing church asks, "What do we need to do to be appealing and meaningful to non-attenders?" rather than, "How can we make our church comfortable for long-time Seventh-day Adventists?" While we must never sacrifice one iota of principle or truth, we must be willing to adapt our worship style, our outreach and our way of interacting with unbelievers so as to win not merely their minds but their hearts. Unfortunately, many of our churches are hell-bent on retaining policies, worship styles, and attitudes that have no meaning or value to their non-Adventist neighbors.
It's like me using chocolate to catch fish. "But fish don't like chocolate," you protest when I complain to you about my unsuccessful fishing trip. "Oh, but I do ... and anyway, those that don't learn to love chocolate aren't worth catching anyway."
This doesn't mean bringing in a rock-and-roll praise band, but what it does mean is that we might be willing to sacrifice things like long announcements, belabored prayer requests, and tedious songs sung in a lifeless manner. Imagine coming to our church for the first time, wanting to fill an empty God-shaped void inside, and being confused about when to stand, sit or kneel. Or being surprised that the singers seem bored when singing about the God you seek. Or wondering when the announcements, prayer requests or appeals for money will be over so you can hear the message you came for.
Here's another way of looking at it. My wife is fluent in other languages besides English. Now I find myself reading my wife's Facebook page quite a bit. Yes, it's that interesting! She has friends and family members from different ethnicities, cultures, religions and political ideologies. And sometimes friends of hers will post things in Swedish. But I don't read those posts. I don't waste my time even trying to figure out what they're saying. Why? I don't understand Swedish.
This is precisely how many non-attenders feel about church. Why would they waste their time in a place where people speak a different language? And yet we Seventh-day Adventists, speaking Adventese, are baffled that people aren't flocking to our church to hear the beautiful truth we have. What is the solution? No, it's not more advertising, programs or gimmicks. It's learning to communicate in the language of the soul hunger of ordinary people.
I will never forget the havoc created when a couple of people at a nearby church decided that our message for this time was to teach people that God does not kill. That movement split that church. And I will never forget the loss of church members created by feast keepers insisting that God requires feast keeping just as He requires Sabbath keeping. What I've learned is that when these things arise they must be dealt with quickly and appropriately.
It may be easy for us to recognize the harm that distractions such as the ones mentioned above may cause. But what about our focus on appearance and behavior? What if our focus on modesty, not wearing jewelry, eating the right foods, and avoiding the wrong foods or entertainment distracts people from seeing a crucified Jesus who takes away their sins? It's like driving down the road, looking at the gas gauge while worrying about running out of gas, and ending up driving into a ditch. Is looking at the gas gauge important? You bet. But should it be your focus?
Evil speaking is like pouring deadly poison into a city's water supply. Once the words are spoken, there's no telling who may be hurt. Sometimes we disguise evil speaking in the form of a prayer request. "We need to pray for Joe who gets drunk every night." At other times we use criticism as a way to influence others to our way of thinking. "I need to share with you all of Sister So-and-So's mistakes as Pathfinder leader so you'll see how bad she is and stop her from creating such havoc by the nontraditional programs she champions that are so appealing to the youth. I can't believe she isn't following Brother Pathfinder's around-for-100-years programming!" These things destroy the church. One of the greatest authors of the 19th/20th centuries wrote:
This is why the church is so weak. Many indulge freely in criticism and accusing. By giving expression to suspicion, jealousy, and discontent, they yield themselves as instruments to Satan. Before they realize what they are doing, the adversary has through them accomplished his purpose. The impression of evil has been made, the shadow has been cast, the arrows of Satan have found their mark. Distrust, unbelief, and downright infidelity have fastened upon those who otherwise might have accepted Christ. Meanwhile the workers for Satan look complacently upon those whom they have driven to skepticism, and who are now hardened against reproof and entreaty. They flatter themselves that in comparison with these souls they are virtuous and righteous. They do not realize that these sad wrecks of character are the work of their own unbridled tongues and rebellious hearts. It is through their influence that these tempted ones have fallen. – COL 340.3 (Emphasis mine.)
Elsewhere, she recommends a shocking response by leadership:
When a person comes to a minister or to men in positions of trust with complaints against a brother or a sister, let the minister ask, "Have you complied with the rules our Saviour has given?" And if he has failed to carry out any particular of this instruction, do not listen to a word of his complaint. In the name and Spirit of Jesus, refuse to take up a report against your brother or your sister in the faith. If members of the church go contrary to these rules, they make themselves subjects for church discipline, and should be under the censure of the church. This matter, so plainly taught in the lessons of Christ, has been treated with strange indifference. The church has either neglected her work entirely in the matter of correcting evil, or has done it with harshness and severity, thus wounding and bruising souls. Measures should be taken to correct this cruel spirit of criticism, of judging the motives of others, as though Christ had revealed to men the hearts of their brethren. The neglect of doing aright, with wisdom and grace, the work that ought to have been done, has left churches and institutions almost inefficient and Christless." - Review and Herald, 4-16-1895, The Sinner Needs Compassion, par. 09. (Emphasis mine.)
Gossip makes a church unsafe, and as a result, causes people to cultivate a false façade, while being unwilling to face the real struggles in their life. As a result, they stop growing and producing fruit in their lives, including the fruit of soul-winning. New people, who desperately need authenticity, will encounter fake, plastic people they can’t relate to and walk right back out the door.
I will never forget talking with the pastor of a large church in my city. I wistfully mentioned how nice it would be to have a wealthy parishioner, like he did, who financed major church renovation projects. Essentially he said, "Marlan, I'd trade places with you in a heartbeat. Why? Two reasons: First, the person with money and influence will often insist on having their way - knowing that they have clout with a board or committee because of their giving, which means that the will of the congregation is supplanted by the will of one powerful individual. Second, other people in the church will come to rely on that individual's giving and will essentially say to themselves: 'I don't need to give because Brother Dollar is giving lots of money,' robbing parishioners of the blessing of sacrifice."
Notice that these things go hand-in-hand. I have observed a variety of churches and have personally watched some of them die a slow death. And in other churches, I've seen ordinary members, inspired by the Spirit, plunge themselves into a variety of ministries and soul-winning opportunities. In these cases, the churches began to be infused with new life and energy, and to grow steadily and surely.
What makes the difference? In almost every case, the dying churches emphasized policy and procedure and had boards and committees that stepped in to control, stifle and crush the vitality, initiative and creativity of their members. In contrast, the growing churches had leadership that reduced policies to a minimum and emphasized mentoring and accountability rather than policies and control. Also, having served as a pastor for nearly 30 years, I have seen personally how policy and procedures multiply. Do you know where policies comes from? In almost every case, policies are implemented by a weak leadership to keep faulty or improperly placed people from making bad decisions, rather than providing strong mentoring and accountability to them, growing their decision-making capabilities.
But shouldn't there be some control and leadership exercised? Notice how Peter puts it to his Elders:
Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock. 1 Peter 5:2-3.
There it is: Oversight! The very word emphasizes watchful responsibility for - not control of. And if you have any tendency left towards control, Peter specifically rejects the idea that church leaders should ever control or dominate others. Rather he instructs church leaders to lead by example, not force!
And how does Jesus lead? Does he dominate the disciples? Demand that they obey a multitude of petty policies? Control their actions? No. He demonstrates ministry - and then gives them far more free reign than church boards give their leaders! In fact if I were Jesus, I might have refused to let Judas out to betray me; I may have kept Mary from making an awkward (and inappropriate?) display of affection at Simon's feast, and stipulated who was authorized to baptize! But Jesus avoids any hint of control. In fact, the evidence shows that He discourages His future leaders from controlling the ministry of others. John comes to Him admitting...
...Master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name, and he followeth not us: and we forbad him, because he followeth not us. But Jesus said, Forbid him not: for there is no man which shall do a miracle in my name, that can lightly speak evil of me. Mark 9:38-39
Here was someone without the training or oversight of Jesus - and rather than encouraging His disciples to keep control of this potentially problematic situation, He tells them to keep their hands off!
Jesus notes that sometimes the children of this world are wiser than the children of the light.
And his lord commended the unrighteous steward because he had done wisely: for the sons of this world are for their own generation wiser than the sons of the light. Luke 16:8
Jim Collins, in his classic book Good to Great, tells us why great companies succeed.
... Those who turn good into great are motivated by a deep creative urge and and an inner compulsion for sheer unadulterated excellence for its own sake. Those who build and perpetuate mediocrity, in contrast, are motivated more by the fear of being left behind. (p. 160)
Applying this business wisdom to church management, we see that a church's best people are those who get excited about soul-winning and who pour their creative efforts and initiative into projects that will grow the church. If you encourage these kinds of people to get into ministry - people who are creative, in love with Jesus, godly, conscientious, and excited about ministry, you won't need a whole lot of policy and procedure!!
Where does mediocrity come from? Collins answers that question on page 121.
As a company grows and becomes more complex, it begins to trip over its own success -
too many new people, too many new customers, too many new orders, too many new products. What was once
great fun becomes an unwieldy ball of disorganized stuff ....
In response, someone (often a board member) says, "It's time to grow up. This place needs some professional management." The company begins to hire MBAs and seasoned executives from blue-chip companies. Processes, procedures, checklists, and all the rest begin to sprout up like weeds. What was once an egalitarian environment gets replaced with a hierarchy. Chains of command appear for the first time. Reporting relationships become clear, and an executive class with special perks begins to appear ....
The professional managers finally rein in the mess. They create order out of chaos, but they also kill the entrepreneurial spirit. Members of the founding team begin to grumble, "This isn't fun anymore. I used to be able to just get things done. Now I have to fill out these stupid forms and follow these stupid rules. Worst of all, I have to spend a horrendous amount of time in useless meetings." The creative magic begins to wane as some of the most innovative people leave, disgusted by the burgeoning bureaucracy and hierarchy. The exciting start-up transforms into just another company, with nothing special to recommend it. The cancer of mediocrity begins to grow in earnest.
Why are policies and procedures created? Collins' answer may surprise you.
Most companies build their bureaucratic rules to manage the small percentage of wrong people on the bus, which in turn drives away the right people on the bus, which then increases the percentage of wrong people on the bus, which increases the need for more bureaucracy to compensate for incompetence and lack of discipline, which then further drives the right people away, and so forth.
His solution is simple:
Avoid bureaucracy and hierarchy and instead create a culture of discipline.
The same is true for religious organizations. I have seen churches and conferences multiply rules and procedures. And why? To corral and control a tiny minority of problem people!! The truth is that the vast majority of of those on fire for Jesus and ministry don't need petty policies, rigid rules and piles of paperwork!! They need to be freed up to pour out their creative energy into ministry.
In one church I pastored, the lighting in the social hall was medieval. It was so bad that visitors at a seminar had a hard time seeing the speaker! Today the lighting is unchanged. Why? Not because the church didn't try to address the issue. But every time the board discussed it, one member of that board attempted to micro-manage it until the rest of the board became weary and gave up. One of my favorite authors warns against this tendency towards control and micro-management:
Those who know the truth are to be worked by the Holy Spirit, and not themselves to try to work the Spirit. If the cords are drawn much tighter, if the rules are made much finer, if men continue to bind their fellow-laborers closer and closer to the commandments of men, many will be stirred by the Spirit of God to break every shackle, and assert their liberty in Christ Jesus. .... If men will not come to the terms made by the leading workers [those in control], they [same leaders - those in control] will not entertain [listen to] them, they do not care what results may follow their injustice. With them it is rule [policies] or ruin. God has not appointed any man to do such work. And no human being shall be permitted to prescribe my liberty or intrench upon the perfect freedom of my brethren, without hearing my voice lifted in protest against it. – RH July 23, 1895 Par. 2 (Emphasis and brackets mine.)
Elsewhere she adds,
For several years I have been warned that there is danger, constant danger of men looking to men for permission to do this or that, instead of looking to God for themselves. Thus they become weaklings, bound about with human ties that God has not ordained. The Lord can impress minds and consciences to do His work under bonds to him, and in a brotherly fraternity that will be in accordance with his law. – SpM 366.6 (Emphasis mine.)
Too much power is invested in humanity when matters are so arranged that one man or a small group of men have it in their power to rule or ruin the work of their fellow laborers. - SpM 368.5 (Emphasis mine.)
I will never forget the young couple who came to the church board with a written proposal complete with fabric swatches. The church sanctuary was beautiful, adorned with stained glass windows. There was only one problem. All the light streaming through those windows made it difficult for the congregation to see anything projected on a video screen during the day. And this young couple had the answer. They would build motorized screens that would deploy over each window and block incoming light. They had done the research on what mechanisms and materials were needed. They would donate their time and labor, and all the church had to do was pay for materials! Years later, I visited that church and noted that the beautiful windows were covered with black plastic! Why? It wasn't because the couple wasn't talented - they would have produced exquisite results. Rather it was because the board caviled and picked at each little detail of their proposal until almost every single board member voted against it!
Pharisaism in the Christian world today is not extinct. The Lord desires to break up the course of precision [adherence to policies and rules] which has become so firmly established, which has hindered instead of advancing his work. He desires his people to remember that there is a large space over which the light of present truth is to be shed. Divine wisdom must have abundant room in which to work. It is to advance without asking permission or support from those who have taken to themselves a kingly power. - SpM 174.3 (Emphasis mine and brackets mine.)
Set others at work that will require them to plan and to use judgment. Do not educate them to rely upon your judgment. Young men must be trained up to be thinkers. My brethren, do not for a moment think that your way is perfection, and that those who are connected with you must be your shadows, must echo your words, repeat your ideas, and execute your plans. - Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel Workers, 302, 303. (Emphasis mine.)
Then there was the time a church committee asked my wife for her help designing some promotional materials. Their words to her were, "We aren't designers - please help us with this!" She listened very carefully to their ideas and suggestions and integrated everything into a cohesive, classy design idea. Then she and another volunteer did their best to create several layout possibilities - but none of these really reached the standard of excellence that my wife was hoping for. At the last minute, we discovered that one of the best graphics design companies for churches offered all of the graphic rights plus the skills of a professional designer for only $99! (The rights to the graphics alone would have totaled at least twice that amount.) The designer came back with several quality layouts that were obviously superior to what had already been done. But when my wife and I presented these to the small committee for their approval, the same individuals who had admitted that they had no layout or design skills whatsoever endorsed the inferior work and responded with hostility to the work of the professional designer. In the end, we had to ask the professional designer, "Would you please scrap your beautiful design and rework it to please our committee, which wants it to resemble the inferior layout?" And yes, I wish I were making this up!
Perhaps this is where the adage comes from, "A donkey is a horse designed by a committee!"
While we may laugh at the idiocy of things that happen in boards and committees, the results of these happenings may be much more devastatingly damaging to individuals and churches than we realize. How can excessive policy and procedure be poisonous to a church?
First, bureaucracy discourages potential leaders. Recently, when I challenged a young adult to start up a young adult group in the church he was attending, he balked. When I probed as to why he didn’t want to lead, his answer was simple. “Every time we wanted to advertise an event at church, even if it was just a bunch of us getting together at somebody’s house, we were told, ‘You can’t do that! Has it been approved by the board? Did you fill out all the paperwork? Have you OK’d it by the person handling the church calendar?’”
Second, boards and committees given to bureaucracy will often unwittingly move from oversight to control. When a ministry volunteer makes a mistake or doesn’t do everything by the book or to the board's liking, they may be castigated, or leadership may override their work and make decisions over their head. Either way, the volunteers are discouraged by the lack of appreciation for their work, and may feel that their input is superfluous. At minimum, some of the wind will be taken out of the their sails, and at most, they may throw in the towel and resign. They may become pew-sitters, unwilling to expose their creativity and dreams and passion to the harsh criticism and disrespect of church leaders. Or they may leave and take their talent where it is appreciated. Satan may take advantage of their discouragement and disillusionment to the point that they give up their faith altogether. In this worst case of scenarios, the individual may lose their salvation, and the church could lose a potentially talented, passionate, visionary leader.
Winston Churchill once said, "There is no worse mistake in public leadership than to hold out false hopes soon to be swept away." And he knew what he was talking about. In the 1930s Britain was haunted by the bloodbath of World War I in which millions had died - including nearly a million Britons - fighting the Central powers, which included a heavily armed and militaristic Germany. Nobody wanted to see the horrors of war again, and when Adolph Hitler begin to rebuild Germany's military machine, in general the British were loathe to believe it. In fact, history shows that Neville Chamberlain, a wildly popular prime minister at the time, had a number of opportunities to either slow or stop the emergence of World War II. But Chamberlain, catering to the British people who did not want war, made concession after concession to the Germans, allowing Hitler to move forward unopposed in his rush toward the thousand-year Reich. Only one man stood in his way: a disgraced politician with little influence or power. His name? Winston Churchill. Considered a warmonger by some, he was treated with ridicule and contempt.
But Churchill never wavered. Instead of just capitulating, he cultivated secret sources within the British government and even created his own separate intelligence service called the Statistical Office, so that even his own charisma would not keep bad news from reaching him. This service kept a running tally of German military might versus England's military readiness. The statistics were terrifying, with England being woefully underprepared for any fight, much less with Germany's highly trained army and its cutting edge weaponry. Yet the British people continued to believe that they were still the number one superpower of the day with their mighty navy and powerful army.
Churchill's vision was highly unpopular, while Chamberlain painted a picture of the future that was bright with promise, with peace and prosperity for all of Europe. And Britons eagerly swallowed Chamberlain's pronouncements of peace until they finally couldn't ignore the truth anymore: Germany was hell-bent on swallowing up all of Europe. Finally they realized that Churchill was right. Germany must be opposed at all costs and against all odds.
Today, instead of the EU, Europe could have been the GU - the Germanic Union, but for one man who wasn't afraid to face the facts. But how much better would it have been had England been ready to face the facts earlier! She might have supported her allies and Hitler may never have gained such a stranglehold on Europe. And the world may not have lost millions cut down in the butchery of war.
Jim Collins, the author mentioned earlier, discovered that one of the critical qualities of leadership of great companies was that they were not afraid to face harsh reality. They didn't try to sugarcoat things and pretend that everything was going to be OK. They realized that the definition of insanity was continuing to do the same thing but expecting different results.
Often times church leaders have a hard time facing reality. They want to believe that what they've always done and what they continue to do will be effective even though people are disappearing from the pews and money is dwindling in the bank. And why do they want to keep believing that? I believe it is because if they accepted the truth, they know deep down that they would have to make drastic changes to how their church functions.
Often, a church will elect people they are accustomed to seeing in leadership year after year, instead of looking around for new talent they can grow. Also, there is often an intolerance of imperfection and an unwillingness to use the mistakes of an inexperienced ministry leader as teaching and mentoring moments. Instead, the old guard will often swiftly move in and shut down the ministry of a relatively inexperienced leader who commits a faux pas or minor error, or does something not to the old guard’s liking. Since the church has failed to grow, train and mentor the next generation of leadership, when the seasoned ‘expert’ leaders move away, retire, or are laid to rest, there is nobody to replace them.
Unfortunately for church members, it's easy to become more and more appearance-focussed. Why? Because our teachings emphasize holiness! People hear an evangelist calling them to a higher standard of behavior and when they are baptised, they naturally expect to be holy. (And as they look around them, the rest of the church indeed appears to be holy.) When they discover how sinful they themselves are, instead of running to Jesus, they may
In one church, a strong-willed woman was in charge of distributing Sabbath School quarterlies. This woman was a good, conscientious leader. However, in a misdirected attempt to keep costs down, I'll never forget her angrily confronting one of our church's best soul-winners who had just given away a quarterly to someone not on the list! (Horrors!) I was embarrassed, not just because of the attack on our soul-winner, but for the impression it left on the non-Adventist visitor who received the quarterly. Or what about the surly leader of a church's audio/visual department who told the leader of an Easter program, "I'm not going to do it since it's not what I think is the best," when asked for a specific (and appropriate) lighting arrangement. Or the church leader who grabbed the arm of a young adult they were training and said, "NO! Only an idiot would do something like that!"
The great irony is that often those who have been the most abusive, when they realize that someone has been hurt by their words or actions, won't actually acknowledge their defect, or go to the hurting person and speak authentically with them, i.e "Have I hurt you? You seem to be avoiding me." Rather they will with obsequious pretentiousness refuse to acknowledge the elephant in the room, and will attempt to imitate high-fructose corn syrup in its sweetness and pretend that 1) nothing has happened, and 2) the wounded one is now their best friend! And I'm not making this up. My wife and I have watched abusive people with a faint awareness that something is wrong between them and their brother or sister interrupt what they are doing and rush to the wounded one's side, asking (with great apparent interest) about their job, their spouse, their hobbies and their pets! (And ignoring the possibility that it's been their own abusive behavior that has caused the tension!) It's as if they believe that if there is the appearance of friendliness between them and the wounded one, then they're not really guilty of anything, and their behavior doesn't need to change.
Around the time of our marriage, my wife accepted a job with a high-tech company in Bakersfield, California. This company was not like other companies. People loved working for it, and as a result, they poured their creative energies into making it truly one of the great technical companies in the world. Why did people so enjoy working there? Because there were not a whole lot of rules or procedures to hinder their creative initiative. There wasn't a lot of control. But over and over again leadership would say something to the effect of, "We love our culture here and we enjoy giving our team members much freedom, but the one thing we will not tolerate is someone who by their attitude, their critical words or their behavior becomes a divisive irritant in the company." And she saw this take place firsthand. People who were critical, negative or difficult were let go, even if they were talented, while those who had peaceful spirits, but lacked ability, were mentored and trained.
Some of you, reading this, are saying to yourselves, "Maybe my church is suicidal!" And before you leave your church, raise your voice in condemnation, or throw up your hands in despair, there are things you can do.
While fatalism may seem to be the "easy road" (ignoring the bad or walking away), remember the old adage, "The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing." Every church member wields significant power for change. If your church needs it, don't be afraid to use it - prayerfully, carefully, wisely!
So how do churches grow? I've saved those principles for my next blog post, No Longer in Diapers.