Part 4 of 5
So far in this series on decentralizing church, we’ve discussed the power of infiltrating communities by planting house churches and neighborhood groups in every street, apartment complex and condo building in America. Institutional church is not going away – nor should it. However, bringing church closer to the doorsteps of non-believers is biblical and more effective than hoping those who don’t worship the Lord will show up at a worship service. Reverting to the scriptural definition of “church” where members ARE its embodiment would put the body of Christ in direct contact with more non-believers. Knocking down the proverbial “4 walls” would also overcome the rampant skepticism, past disappointments and poor perception of institutional church. Finally, more house churches, neighborhood groups and disciples would help alleviate another critical impediment to effective ministry – understanding local needs.
Somewhere along the line, the challenges of running brick-and-mortar churches and understandable inclination to “take care of their own” distracted leaders from another imperative Jesus, the disciples and the Church modeled for 1900 years – caring for the poor. Jesus had great compassion for the poor outside His “church” family. He found it difficult to walk past the ailing and hungry without stopping to help – typically healing and feeding before telling people who He was. Jesus also gave the disciples instructions and power to follow His example. When Paul left Peter to witness to the gentiles, “All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along.” (Galations 2:10) Until the past 100 or so years, churches were the food bank and homeless shelter, and started most hospitals and schools.
Through history, churches knew the needs because they were on the front lines of compassion. That’s not the case today. Most churches only run occasional service events – which many would argue inadvertently do more harm than good by providing a temporary hand out, not a sustained hand up.
However, there is good news. In addition to launching more house churches and starting neighborhood groups, there are other ways brick-and-mortar churches can gain a better understanding of local needs and follow Jesus’ model – reclaiming a central role in serving the poor.
But it will require a significant change of heart, priorities and budgets. Does your church’s leadership need to undergo those changes? Does your church truly care about the plight of the poor in your city?
To help you answer those questions, review the following five criteria and decide for yourself…
1. Leaders “OWN” What They Care About
If consulting hundreds of companies and serving thousands of churches has taught me nothing else, it’s how to recognize what’s important to the leaders of an organization. The first sure indicator of a leader’s priorities is the responsibilities they personally choose to “own”. In looking at churches in America today, pastors have assumed a number of responsibilities that were not intended to be primarily theirs and abdicated others scripture calls them to “own”:
- Abdicated Compassion – …to the government, secular charities, ministries and even denominational associations. Jesus exemplified Prayer/Care/Share, knowing people “don’t care what you know until they know you care”. In effect, pastors unwittingly try to out-preach Jesus when their churches don’t open the door to the gospel message by leading with compassion.
- Assumed Roles of Members – …for evangelism, discipleship and caring for other members. Pastors have become more hesitant to ask churchgoers to step out of their comfort zones. For example, rather than risk losing members to the church down the road by insisting they take personal responsibility for sharing their faith, most pastors simply ask them to invite people to church to hear from the “professional”. It’s no wonder record numbers of pastors are burning out considering how many responsibilities they have usurped from the rightful “owners”.
2. Leaders SEEK HELP WITH What They Care About
Meet The Need began 15 years ago because I asked my church where I could serve in the city of Atlanta to make a difference for the Kingdom. Their response – be a greeter next Sunday. When I prodded about opportunities to help the poor in the community, they were stumped, referring me to a local ministry. History recently repeated itself. My current church hadn’t mobilized members to serve in the community in the year since I started attending. So I offered to organize three service days at a homeless mission and orphanage over the holidays to get the ball rolling. The events went well but leadership hasn’t mentioned anything about doing any local missions activities since then. However, they just asked me to serve as a greeter.
Meet The Need’s own Board of Directors has suggested on many occasions that we market Meet The Need as a system for recruiting and managing internal volunteers rather than as a local missions system, realizing “church chores” are of far more interest to pastors. Yet I have refused, insisting we continue hoping church leaders will one day assume greater responsibility for the biblical imperative to serve the poor.
3. Leaders ORGANIZE AROUND What They Care About
Pastors hire staff to lead music, finances, communications, child care and small groups – nearly all focused around managing church affairs. Key staff roles report up to the senior pastor. Few churches today shake up the contemporary organizational chart, flatten the hierarchy and empower members in ways that would exponentially increase the church’s ability to serve and pursue its intended “customer” – the hopeless and helpless in the community where it is planted:
- Forming neighborhood groups, as we discussed last week
- Planting ministries run by lay leaders to fill cause-related gaps in the city
- Restructuring into semi-autonomous, medium-sized subgroups around geographic or cause lines to generate collective impact (since entire congregations are hard to engage and smaller groups lack the scale to make a significant difference)
- Form internal teams to work with particular local ministries and/or issues
- Specifically assign staff or lay leaders to manage local missions and discipleship, and elevate those positions to a high standing within the church
These organizational structures involve entrusting, equipping and releasing members into ministry. They require pastors to relinquish some control. They mean risking the consequences of asking for more commitment from the congregation. They force leadership to rethink budgets. Yet all of those changes are necessary to fully leverage the power in the pews to maximize community impact.
4. Leaders INVEST IN What They Care About
When churches were the food bank and homeless shelter, as they were throughout church history, a substantial percentage of their budgets were poured back into supporting and serving the community. Today that number stands at under 2%.
Allocating a higher percentage to serving the poor typically makes the most sense to pastors who see a connection between local missions and growing a congregation. If the latter is the primary goal, then why plant a new ministry when you could launch a new campus? Why create mission-shaped communities when you could kick off more fellowship groups? New campuses and small groups build the brand and increase loyalty, while decentralizing threatens to distract members from the normal business of church. Planting ministries and forming mission-shaped communities do more to reach those who won’t darken the door of a church than planting another internally-focused campus or small group. If non-believers are increasingly uncomfortable coming to church, leaders should invest more in going to them.
5. Leaders MEASURE What They Care About
Organizations always measure what they see as their primary intent, purpose and strategy. As we just discussed, because church growth usually takes precedence over community impact, the predominant metrics among churches today are “nickels and noses” – giving and attendance. Someone reading the prior few sections of this blog post could even draw the conclusion that:
- Church leaders assume the biblical responsibilities of members in order to avoid overburdening congregations and keep the church growing
- Members give money to the church to compensate church leaders for assuming those responsibilities
What if a church assessed its “performance” using a set of metrics that exhibited a Prayer, Care and Share mindset? That church would measure disciples built and sent, total lives impacted for Christ in the city, and the dent it has made in local hunger, homelessness and child neglect. Adopting those metrics would bring grave challenges and raise difficult questions – like how that would alter the prospective use of the church’s funds?
It’s Your Turn
In looking at those five criteria, have you determined that your church does not truly care about the poor? If so, what could and should you do about it?