Is your church decentralized, empowering disciples? Or is it depersonalized, entrusting responsibility for being “church” to the few rather than to many? A third way to know if your church is healthy or coming down with a cold is the degree to which it has internalized. In other words, has it become an entity unto itself, operating independently, or is it still engaged with other organizations?
Like children, church plants grow up. They may have been launched and supported by another church, but at some point they feel they’ve reached a level of “maturity” where they no longer need someone to nurture them. They’ve become larger and more self-sufficient. However, when it comes to churches, size and independence are not indicators of health. Churches can be big, but need to drop a few pounds – e.g. long-time members unwilling to commit to genuine life change. Small churches can be just as unhealthy – e.g. possibly operating in a bubble, deviating from sound theology.
No organization is meant to subsist on its own. Nearly all businesses and charities have partners, but few churches do. Why?
Companies ink memorandums of understanding and form joint ventures with affiliate partners, distributors and value-added resellers. Corporations never become independent, no matter how profitable or “mature” they become.
Charities welcome opportunities to work collaboratively to deliver services and share referrals, knowing funding is inadequate to do everything for everyone. Few charities would survive in a vacuum without cooperation and support from for-profit and non-profit partners.
However, churches generally resist partnerships. I’ve heard countless ministries bemoan their inability to establish relationships with churches. I doubt the future viability of the many start-up charities that begin their elevator pitch with “our mission is to work with churches to…” I caution many aspiring, naïve executive directors who expect churches to be their primary source of financial support.
There are many reasons why churches are reluctant to partner. Some pastors fear theological intrusion – imposition of ideas conflicting with their teachings. For example, a church may be willing to promote giving to a child sponsorship organization but won’t permit a foster care organization to conduct classes there. Others worry partners will distract members from church priorities. That’s why perhaps the most common partner churches will allow inside the “4 walls” are financial education programs that encourage saving and paying off debt, freeing up more funds to give to the church.
Once churches reach break-even or some other measure of self-sufficiency, they face the temptation to assert their independence from one or more of the following…
Independence from…the Body of Christ
The words “Kingdom-minded” and “body of Christ” are used today to describe anything involving multiple churches. Churches are labeled as “not Kingdom-minded” if they don’t work with other churches and ministries. Why did it become necessary to invent the term “Kingdom-minded”? The word “Church” (capital C) is supposed to be our natural state – united and collaborative. “Church” and “Kingdom-minded” should be synonymous, but they’re not. The phrase “Kingdom-minded church” should be redundant, but it’s not.
When young churches are dependent on the goodwill of other organizations to get off the ground, they operate as a united member of the body of Christ. Those partnerships are vital – staying Kingdom-minded is not an option. Once church plants break even, they often break ties – and both the plant and planter celebrate that independence day. Collaboration is no longer necessary because it no longer appears to serve a material purpose. Likewise, an increasing number of churches in America are leaving denominations, or maintaining looser affiliations, as denominational labels have come to be viewed by many as a liability rather than an asset.
Independence from…Community Engagement
Most pastors or upstart churches had to interact and get involved in the local community – otherwise, the church would never get off the ground. Many churches even launch through a series of compassion projects or events to bless the local area, meet new people, and build some name recognition. They correctly defined the lost in the community as the “customer” and focused their energies on building a small base of disciples and deploying them to maximize Kingdom impact. It was easy to stay externally focused when there was so little to lose.
However, as that powerful, biblical approach to church growth proved effective, attention got diverted to managing and maintaining a budding organization. The church began to assert some measure of independence from its initial focus on “loving neighbors” and “making disciples” – early signs of an impending cold. On top of that, frustration may have crept in, wondering whether all those compassion efforts really made a dent. Gradually, the definition of “customer” shifted from the “lost” to the “saved” as the emphasis on member engagement transitioned from needs outside the church to those inside the church. The meaning of the word “outreach” may have become redefined as well – more about arms-length marketing to bring people in than being the hands and feet of Jesus living out the Great Commission.
Independence from…Jesus’ Model for Evangelism
Jesus, the Lord incarnate, spoke the perfect words. Yet He knew the words were not enough. So Jesus almost always served, healed and fed, demonstrating His compassion and love, before telling people who He is. He spent time in the temple, but the bulk of his preaching was done out in the community. He engaged those in need – not just with words, but with deeds – where they were. He didn’t wait for them to darken the doors of a church building. He went to them. He didn’t just preach. He served. Likewise, Jesus sent the disciples out into the world around them, giving them the power to perform miracles and instructing them to follow His lead, preceding words with action. When Paul was called to go to the gentiles, the one thing Peter told him not to forget was to serve the poor. Paul said it was the one thing he was most eager to do (Galatians 2:8-10).
However, few churches today follow Jesus’ model. No pastor can “outpreach” Jesus, yet most churches have separated words from action. They’ve replaced care then share with attraction then retention. The Church in America has lost its voice because it is so often heard yet rarely seen. Society doesn’t care what we know any longer because it doesn’t think we care.
Restoring Healthy Dependence
For a church to regain its health, it must humbly confess and accept its need to partner with other churches, ministries, marketplace leaders and Jesus to accomplish His mission in that community. A church that asserts its independence as soon as it feels capable of standing on its own two feet may feel vibrant and alive, but instead is exhibiting the first symptoms of an illness that will eventually suck the life out of it. Reversing the decline of a church in growth, impact, influence and perception requires reestablishing a connection to the power cords of…
- Conducting intensive, 1-on-1 or triad discipleship – no longer centralizing, depersonalizing or internalizing but equipping church members to BE “church” between Sundays
- Deploying those disciples to reach non-believers where they are – not simply inviting them to a worship service (that shouldn’t be designed for non-believers anyway) to hear from the “professionals”
- Forming relational year-round ministries that transform lives and genuinely show they care – stop doing transactional compassion events, which do more harm than good
- Bridging the divide that centralizing, depersonalizing or internalizing has created – decreasing the distance between “us” and “them” through preceding life-giving words with loving acts of service
- Partnering with churches and ministries around critical local and international “causes” – there may be no greater example of disunity among the body of Christ than the lack of support churches in America provide for persecuted Christians overseas
- Placing Kingdom priorities above institutional goals – not worrying whether partnerships will divert attention and funds from church needs
It’s Your Turn
Does your church have enough formal, ongoing partnerships – working collaboratively with other local churches, ministries and community organizations to reach more people who don’t know Jesus as their Lord and Savior? If not, why do you think it is acting too independently?