A few years back, I was consulting with a district about revitalizing existing congregations and perhaps launching a new church start or two. Though it may seem obvious, my main question to the leadership of the district was, “Why?” Why do we want to revitalize struggling churches? Why start new congregations when the ones we have are struggling? Why is a United Methodist congregation needed in the area? Why now? I am always amazed at how vague the answers are to such questions, if thought has been given to them at all. I usually get some variation of “we want to be more effective fulfilling our mission,” and/or “we want to reach more people with the gospel of Jesus Christ.” When I push, the answers become more practical and worldly. “If we don’t turn this church around, we’ll have to close its doors,” or “we need to do something to stop the decline in membership,” or “there’s a new church in the area that is booming and we want to get in on it, too,” or “we voted to make revitalization and new church starts a priority at last year’s annual conference.”
Many efforts to revitalize and re-energize the church are misguided. The desire to strengthen our congregations and make them more effective in their mission and ministry is laudable, but the paths chosen to get there are often just plain wrong. Instead of finding the Promised Land, many churches and annual conferences end up wandering in the wilderness. What do some of these poor pathways look like? I’m glad you asked…
- Confusing following with leading — one of the funniest comments I ever heard a project leader make was, “Our role as leaders is to find out what others are doing effectively and imitate it.” I can guarantee you that no good definition of leadership is “copying what others are doing.” Leadership, by definition, is discovering and doing what is necessary in each unique context to be successful and effective. Good leaders don’t look for someone else to solve their problems. They don’t race from one self-help book to the next hoping to find a magic solution. Successful companies and effective congregations have discovered a simple truth: no one else has our answer. Every congregation I work with is unique. They have unique challenges and problems, but also unique sets of gifts, skills, knowledge, experience, passion, energy, and vision. The healthiest congregations are those that have “worked out their own salvation with fear and trembling.” The leaders of these congregations are not trying to make their church like some other church; they are attempting to empower their congregation to find its own identity, voice, and vision. Revitalization comes from helping congregational leaders discover both the opportunities and the resources unique to their community of faith. And new congregations that succeed don’t follow a formula, but they integrate well into their particular context. The success rate of new church starts following a formula is only about 1-in-7… not a success rate to shoot for.
- Thinking “Field of Dreams” was real — In the movie, “build it, they will come,” was a powerful, yea magical, mantra. In real life, it is just dumb. I cannot tell you the number of churches that launch new programs, build new buildings, and pave more parking with no more vision than “if we do this, more people will come.” One of the biggest lies perpetrated by the church growth movement was that “new” churches automatically attract new people. Yes, there are a dozen examples where this is true — over against hundreds of examples where it is not. Buildings, programs, technology and equipment are all tools to use to be more effective, but none of them are the key to effectiveness. Revitalized congregations do the best job of building new facilities and offering new programs because they serve very clear, very specific needs.
- Listening to the demographically impaired — most people don’t really know what they are looking at when they read demographic reports. A good demographic report provides information about general trends, shifts, and preferences. Rather than telling us what is true, demographics help us understand what we need to test and learn. A healthy church is at its core a community — a gathering of people who engage together at a deep level of shared vision and concern. Churches enjoying renewed vitality treat people as individuals, not “types,” “categories,” “targets,” or “markets.” A huge mistake I see many of our annual conferences make is to post large regional maps, mark where all existing congregations are on the map, then decide to plant new church starts wherever there is a “gap.” A gap on a map tells us absolutely nothing about people’s needs in a region. The same goes for planting churches in “high growth areas,” just because the population is increasing. Church isn’t like fishing — you can’t just cast a baited hook and see what bites. Churches should be placed strategically, to help create vital, vibrant community grounded in the faith needs of the people.
- Confusing church with Wal-Mart — you know what doesn’t tell you how healthy a church is? How many people sit in the sanctuary each week. Other things that have nothing to do with the health of the congregation’s spiritual development to become the body of Christ for the world — size of the building, size of the staff, size of the budget, quality of the praise band, cutting edge technology, size of the parking lot, the coffee shop, the bookstore, the DVD ministry, or the pastor’s popularity. It is confusing to me how often conference and denominational leaders use competitive language to talk about new church starts and congregational revitalization. At the last School of Congregational Development I attended, the language was of “market share,” and “going toe-to-toe with the independents,” and “driving out the competition,” and “playing by the ‘big boys’ rules.” Trying to be successful by trying to be something we’re not won’t make us vital and healthy. More often than not, it’s just frustrating.
- Pretending that function follows form— the only thing worse than failure in The United Methodist Church is success. If a church is successful at something, it will be stuck doing the same thing forever, even after the positive results vanish. (How many churches still hold the annual dinner because it was so popular when it started in the 60s, but now loses money and exhausts everyone?) And if a few churches have success with something, then every church has to try it. Contemporary worship comes to mind. Don’t worry about whether anyone really wants or needs it — if it is popular and trendy, then we’ll do it, too. Unhealthy congregations wrongly believe that if they offer an alternative style of worship, it may turn them around and attract a whole new congregation. It doesn’t work this way. The churches that successfuly launched alternative worship services didn’t start with the worship style. They started with a group of people desiring to worship in a more meaningful way, who designed an experience that gave them a better connection with God. Worship is an expression of a people’s heartfelt love of God. It isn’t a program designed to get new members. Form follows function, not the other way around.
- Compromising the core— congregations often make a mistake in trying to keep everyone happy and comfortable. Sin makes people squirm, so we won’t use the term, nor will we make people recite a prayer of confession. Creeds use archaic language that people don’t like, so we just won’t say them anymore. Responsive readings sound clunky, and they disrupt the flow of the service, so we’ll eliminate them. The Great Thanksgiving takes too much time, so we’ll skip it. We broadcast our service on TV or the radio and the offering is just too much dead air time, so we’ll let people drop their offering in a slot on the way out and we’ll forego the prayer of thanksgiving and doxology. The scripture isn’t nearly as compelling as the popular film clip, so forget the Bible. Etc. Etc. What do we have left? Beats me…
There is more than enough evidence that these things — and many others — do not produce the results we desire. Yet, we keep on doing them, without much critical analysis concerning their effectiveness. They are all done with the best of intentions, but they do not lead us where we need to go. In the church, the ends don’t always justify the means — especially when we’re not too clear on what the ends should be. It is so important that we be clear about the ends — the reason we are the church in the first place. Where we seek to be Christ’s body for the world, to preach and teach and heal, to offer grace and mercy and justice to all, to witness to God’s goodness and glory in all things, then these right reasons will enable us to do the right things.