The human capacity for self-delusion is amazing, isn’t it?
- People who “can’t carry a tune in a bucket” enter singing competitions.
- Some of us try to squeeze into shirts or pants that are several sizes too small.
- Couples without carpentry skills take on remodeling projects that would make the best You Tube DIY-ers give up in despair.
Organizationally, we are as adept at deceiving ourselves as we are in our personal lives:
- Young pastors who are not wired for church planting (I was one of them) try to start new congregations in the most unlikely places with the most unlikely methods.
- Other folks open least-likely-to-succeed restaurants or retail stores – again – in the most unlikely places. Everyone knows that they’ll fail except the owners.
And so it is with churches. Many dying congregations are oblivious to their descent towards dissolution, even though all the signs point to a bleak and brief future:
- Their overall attendance figures have been on a downward slide for a decade.
- The average age of their congregants, however, is up, way up, year after year.
- They haven’t experienced a profession of faith or a baptism since the Clinton administration.
And there’s nothing new about congregational delusion. Consider Jesus’ words to two churches which he loved:
“These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation for being alive, but you are dead. Wake up!” Revelation 3:1b
“You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.” Revelation 3:17
So what’s a pastor to do when he realizes that his dying congregation is blind to its actual condition?
My suggestion is that you turn to God, of course, and to the revitalization playbook.
If you didn’t read last week’s post about the possibility of revitalization and the value of a revitalization playbook, you might want to check it out by clicking here.
Here’s what I emphasized:
Reintroducing the Playbook
Every football team has a playbook, a listing of every offensive play which the team has practiced thoroughly. While no church revitalization expert can “script” a perfect game plan for your church, what we are gradually putting together – from Scripture and from the experience of thousands of churches – is a playbook which includes the strategies which God typically uses (powerfully!) in the rebirth of dying congregations.
While there is no perfect order for the revitalization plays that you “run” at your church, the first three plays can be quite confidently scripted: 1st – Help your congregation face the true condition of your church (today’s post), 2nd – Help your congregation to take responsibility for the condition of your church, 3rd – Lead your congregation to begin praying for revitalization. I’ll flesh out #’s two and three over the next two weeks.
Here’s what you can do to help your church face the facts.
- Share the “Biblical basics” about healthy and unhealthy congregations in Sunday sermons.
Here’s a powerful way to do this: Before assessing your congregation (below), do a strong, prayerful, passionate, careful sermon series on how the New Testament describes healthy and unhealthy churches. The time spent on this series will be time well spent. Great choices of Biblical material on this subject would include any of the Epistles of Paul as well as the letters of the glorified Christ to the seven churches of Asia, as found in Revelation two and three.
- Use an objective, assessment tool.
Many books on revitalization contain surveys which can be adapted for use in your church. Better yet, use an online church health survey with results that are scored electronically and sent to the pastor. Though some of you may already be partial to some other good tool, I’m going to mention only my favorite today: The Ministry Mapping Survey from Dr. Randy Keeley. Dr. Keeley customizes the survey to the churches which I survey with it. The results reported on are far-reaching and insightful. Contact Dr. Keeley at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Share your own congregation’s condition in behind-the-scenes meetings and congregational gatherings, including Sunday sermons.
You will need to do lots of this. Make sure that your folks are seeing the results “straight from the horses’ mouth,” and are not just getting your own summaries and highlights. Take your time in doing this. Share the results repeatedly. Be a lovingly tenacious physician who won’t let the patient forget that he has a problem. Expect to encounter resistance. Love your church enough to risk making your folks angry with you. Better yet,
- Bring in an objective, outside expert.
An expert, of course, is a “drip under pressure” who’s from more than fifty miles away from your church. Seriously, your people will give greater weight to the “brutal facts” about your church if they are presented by someone other than their pastor. Typically, comprehensive consultations include a computer-driven survey (as above) but also utilize additional, more personal methods for assessing your congregation. Your denomination may have just the person you need to do this. If not, call on an independent consultant (such as yours truly) to help you with this project. I will also gladly assist you in locating a nationally known consulting ministry if you’d like to go that route.
- Work towards helping people care about the future of their church for the right reasons: the salvation of the lost and the glory of God.
Keep pointing out the difference between wanting your church to survive for these godly reasons and wanting it to carry on indefinitely for selfish reasons, such as:
- Being able to enjoy the fellowship of my Christian friends (“us four and no more”) year after year
- Feeling like a personal failure if the church I helped to start (or sustain) is disbanded
- Having a place to go on Sunday morning which is “just my style” and makes me feel good
- Wanting to have a nice pastor and church for my funeral
- Promises made to deceased loved-ones regarding the perpetuity of the church (no kidding)
- Communicate a sense of urgency along with your stubborn, tenacious faith.
We’ll be addressing the happy subject of the pastor’s faith, optimism and joy in future posts. For now, let’s just say that along with that joy-producing, hope-producing faith, there must, especially at the beginning of the revitalization journey, be an evident and sincere sense of urgency on the part of the pastor/leader. You have to care and it has to show.
Quite frankly, I’ve met pastors of churches in need of serious revitalization who didn’t seem to care whether the congregation survived or not. I know that our temperaments differ widely. I understand the advantages of serving as a pastor with an “even-Steven,” unflappable, unemotional, personality.
But I don’t understand having a lackadaisical attitude toward the survival of a church. Any church. There’s too much at stake. What could matter more than – as already mentioned – the salvation of lost people and the glory of God?
Let’s download His power and use the playbook, with joy.
Questions For A Board or Staff Discussion:
- How would our people explain the concepts of “church health,” “church decline” and “church revitalization”?
- What would our people say that our church is for? (What is its God-given purpose?)
- Who would our people say our church is for? (Who does it exist to serve?)
- Share some metrics (objective numbers) with the group that speak to your congregation’s health or lack thereof.
- How might we effectively help our congregation to face the facts regarding its own need for revitalization?