In this final chapter of Pastor Daniel’s story, he faces the decision that will determine how it is written. Will he continue to succumb to the temptations of a growing church or recognize the signs of a stagnating congregation and discover hope in the midst of its (spiritual) decline? Daniel’s story is not uncommon – in fact, it’s retold whenever a church plant committed to life and community transformation compromises that external focus due to mounting internal pressures once there’s much more to lose.
With Daniel’s leadership team and staff split over whether there actually is a problem, and most members content with the status quo, rocking the boat by calling for a return to the original GC3 vision (Great Commandment, Great Commission, and Great Calling) would likely stop the church’s momentum and growth in its tracks. With everyone comfortable in their existing roles, would asking all parties to confess, repent, and reverse roles amount to congregational malpractice? Was it too late to reposition pastors as servants, staff as disciple-makers, and members as “employees” to equip and deploy (not “customers” to attract and retain)? These are the questions and prayers that kept Daniel up at night, running through the possible scenarios, knowing once he started down one of the following two roads there would be no turning back…
The Sure Thing: Certain Growth
Confronting such well-entrenched resistance would be futile, so double down, attending conferences and hiring consultants to learn how Daniel’s church could improve in the each of the following areas:
- Hospitality – Appear more welcoming by upping the ante on greeters, signage, foyer décor, and follow ups with visitors
- Energy – Step up enthusiasm in message delivery, announcements, music, and staff excitement in all interactions with attendees
- Engagement – Push for more volunteers and create more leadership opportunities, committees, social events, small groups, and other church activities
- Leadership – Consume many of the countless books, articles, and presentations addressing leadership weaknesses, principles, and practices for leading better
- Generosity – Be less bashful about teaching from the pulpit about giving and launch new financial management group studies
- Loyalty – Strengthen connections between members to make church “sticky”, offer more need-based programs, and advertise frequent membership classes
- Innovation – Increase capabilities and quality of online church services and upgrade communication, giving, and church management platforms
- Facilities – Improve appearance and functionality of campus buildings and grounds to enhance curb appeal and comfort level of members and visitors
- Marketing – Mail invitations to a new message series, offer the most exciting youth ministry in town, and conduct branded “outreach” events in the community
- Serving – Organize seasonal compassion projects, like meal packing events on site at the church, and celebrate our kindness via the stage and videos
Daniel knew those strategies are guaranteed to work if the goal were membership growth, but he was equally certain they wouldn’t create member growth. Doing more of the same, just better, also made Daniel uncomfortable because each closely resembled tactics businesses leverage to drive scale and profits. However, leadership, staff, and members would applaud each of those improvements since they were widely recommended, “proven”, and non-controversial, requiring no material shifts in anyone’s roles and responsibilities.
The Gamble: Recommitment to GC3
Reclaiming Daniel’s original vision at this point would be throwing caution to the wind, an act of radical faith, trusting the Lord would somehow rescue the church from the mass exodus sure to follow:
- Confession – Admitting we’ve lost our first love, putting churchdom over Kingdom
- Repentance – Praying like never before, collectively seeking God’s wisdom and will
- Revival – The current Asbury Revival, like others throughout history, reportedly began on the heels of confession and repentance
- Purification – Before moving forward toward a new dawn, “clean house” of any proud and unrepentant members
- Reorientation – Disclosing that this may no longer be the right fit for everyone, like cultural Christians and church “consumers”
- Accountability – Expecting observable and authentic life transformations
- Restructuring – Next, curing diseases that have infected the church (e.g. by decentralizing to redistribute GC3 responsibilities and flatten hierarchies)
- Retraining – Reallocating substantial staff time from weekend service prep to full-time adult/youth prep (i.e. for discipleship and evangelism) throughout the week
- Fellowship – Whoever is left in the congregation after Daniel “preaches it down” will be sold-out Christ-followers who share all things and truly love one another
- Multiplication – Making disciples who make disciples that are worth replicating
- Planting – Planting churches may lead to more disciples, but making disciples will always lead to planting more churches
- Transformation – Spirit-led life change spills over into neighborhoods and workplaces, uniting the body of Christ in collaborative, year-round compassion
Going against the grain, contradicting conventional church and business growth wisdom, could jeopardize all that Daniel’s church had worked so hard to build. Busy, lukewarm members wouldn’t tolerate “unreasonable” demands like enduring intensive discipleship, serving the (materially) poor regularly and relationally, or risking social capital and job security by coming out publicly as ardent Christ-followers. Daniel worried he would someday be forced to shut the church’s doors if leadership divided, splits occurred, and giving could not sustain its (now substantial) financial obligations.
The Irony: Revitalization
Not all is as it seems. In Jesus’ Church, what looks safest to the world carries the most risk. In our Father’s eyes, obedience to His perfect plan is the best bet, no matter how counterintuitive it may appear. In God’s economy, His supply far outweighs our demand, even when churches pursue strategies deemed by the “experts” illogical and sure to fail. In the Lord’s math, multiplication of disciples always wins over addition of churchgoers.
For Daniel’s church, reclaiming the GC3 vision would have achieved what church growth models never could:
- Revitalization – which requires revival, which requires confession and repentance
- Health – by dropping excess weight rather than putting on a few more pounds
- Impact – such that the community would miss the church if it were no longer here
- Influence – with local church, charity, business, government, and school leaders
- Perception – a reputation that reflects Jesus’ love, humility, and servanthood
- Footprint – of disciple-makers and church plants dotting the city’s landscape
Doubling down on “Church as We Know It” eventually produced what Daniel feared most:
- Stagnation – going through the motions without miraculous moves of the Spirit
- Lethargy – on spiritual life support, dependent on pastors for prayer/care/share
- Ineffectiveness – belief without surrender and faith without transformative works
- Anonymity – numbers and activities (inputs) without noticeable fruit (outputs)
- Burnout – consumed with leading the church, not leading in the community
- Isolation – a “skyscraper” where people gather but not taking up much ground
Daniel’s story is a familiar one and concludes like those of nearly all church planters in America today. Ambitious pastors travel the well-worn path from idealistic vision, to external focus, to rapid growth, to temptations, to internal focus, to compromise, to stagnation, to decline – and from there to either revitalization or demise. Few take the road less traveled when it appears continued growth hinges on usurping GC3 responsibilities that most Christians are happy to abdicate. As a result, the Church is no longer the lifeblood and heartbeat of cities across America, the first place people turn to for help in times of need or for hope at a time in our nation’s history where it’s in short supply.
It’s Your Turn…
Does your church need revitalization or are your members unusually active in personally leading people to the Lord, making disciples, and serving the poor?