This is a guest post by my friend Thom S. Rainer.
I have a great love for local congregations. To be sure, I’ve never been in a perfect church. They just don’t exist.
But I still love local churches.
One of my greatest joys in the past several years has been to see and work with churches that have experienced significant turnaround. While that turnaround is typically evident in attendance numbers, it is much more than that.
I recently categorized those reasons some churches experience revitalization. I then compared them to churches that have not been revitalized. I found seven differences between the two sets of churches.
These are the seven traits unique to the revitalized churches:
The leaders and members faced reality. One of the reasons most churches don’t experience revitalization is their unwillingness to “look in the mirror.” Denial leads to decline which leads to death.
Many in the church began explicitly praying for God to revitalize the church. I know of a leadership group in one church that prayed every week for over two years. The church is now in true revitalization.
The churches had an explicit and clear focus on the gospel. Preaching became clearly gospel-centered. Ministries became gospel-centered. And many members began intentionally sharing the gospel, which brings me to the next reason.
Members did not just talk evangelism; they did evangelism. I did not see a specific approach or methodology to share the gospel in these congregations. It was clear, however, that there was a more focused intentionality on sharing Christ than in many previous years.
Many members in these churches began focusing on serving Christ through the church rather than seeking their own preferences. Another way of stating it is that these members became other-focused rather than self-focused. This attitude seemed to be directly connected to their prayers for revitalization.
These churches raised the bar of expectations. Thus membership in these congregations became meaningful. Members moved from spectators to participants.
The churches developed a clear process of discipleship. The members became more immersed in the Word. There was a clear and cogent plan to help members grow in their walk with Christ.
Do not count me among those who have their heads in the sand about the state of congregations in North America. As many as 100,000 churches are very sick or dying. Many more also need revitalization.
I hope you can join me for a video consultation on church revitalization at RevitalizedChurches.com. It will almost be like I’m at your church offering you guidance and hope toward the future. You can CLICK HERE to sign up for the four-part overview of the series at no cost.
Yes, I remain an obnoxious optimist about local churches. I am seeing too many indicators of His work to believe otherwise. Let me hear from you. And I hope to see you in the video consultation on church revitalization.
What are your perspectives on the need for church revitalization? What do you think might be missing in many churches?
One disappointment I have had in ministry is watching people come to church, get excited for a time, then disappear. You spend energy and heart on people, grow to love them and get excited about them, and suddenly they are nowhere to be found.
The biggest disappointment is not people who transfer to another church. I’m okay with that if it helps them better grow in their relationship with Christ. I’m talking about people who quit going to church altogether. They are in one day — out the next.
What happens to them? Why do they leave?
I’ve found there are often similar reasons that are repeated continuously. Perhaps you have seen this too.
Here are 7 reasons people disappear from church:
Burn out - These people came out of the gate too strong in the church. They showed up, got excited, and signed up for everything. They got so busy doing church they failed to enjoy being the church.
Injury - People inside the church can be cruel. I hate when that happens, but it’s true. These people experienced some of those people and they couldn’t move past it.
Distractions - These people got distracted by seemingly good things. They were playing travel ball, loving the fast life, traveling every weekend. Over time, their lifestyle of attending becomes the habit of not attending.
Life change – These people had a lifestyle change, such as divorce or re-marriage — or they move to a new community — and never re-connect with a church.
Mistakes - These people messed up! They made a mistake that may be public — or at least they feel that it will be known — and the place that should dispense grace appears either refuses it or they feel that it would. Many times when a person feels that way it is more perception than reality, but the way a person feels about themselves may determine whether they remain committed to church.
Power struggle – These people had an agenda. They were pursuing an issue — or a position — and when it their demands weren’t met and they couldn’t overpower the system, they left.
Lack of connection – These people never connected with others on a deeper level. As a result, they never felt really a “part” of the church.
Pastors, have you experienced these walking with people in ministry? How do you address these issues?
Obviously, we need to do all we can to help people become disciples. Knowing why they leave may be helpful. We can’t address some of these issues — maybe most — much of this is out of our control. But, the more we understand the more we can help people as they experience these.
I think there is also a word here to the one who has disappeared or is on the verge. Beware. If you feel the need for the church in your life — or if you understand the Biblical mandate to be a part of a Body of believers — then guard your heart for these. And, help us know how to be a better church. In fact, come help us be a better church. Here’s one pastor (And, I know so many others) who is listening.
What other reasons would you add to my list?
I encounter so many struggling pastors. And unfortunately, I know so many who used to be pastors but no longer hold the position.
It may be through a blatant sin or a casual drifting from doing what they knew to be right, but it landed them in disaster. A pastor friend of mine said recently, “We need healthy churches and we need healthy pastors.”
Amen. Agreed. We must stand guard.
What are we guarding against?
No single post would be perfect. Obviously sin, but I can’t address everything that gets in the way of a healthy pastor. I can only list some that are more common in my experience.
Here are 10 dangerous distractions for a pastor:
Neglecting your soul. One of my mentors reminded me recently. “Ron, don’t forget to feed your own soul.” It was subtle. Almost given as a sidebar to our discussion. But it was gold. One of the biggest dangers for a pastor is when we begin to operate out of stored up knowledge of and experience with God. We need fresh encounters with truth and His glory.
Sacrificing family. Families learn to resent the ministry when it always trumps the family. Ministry families get accustomed to interruptions. They are part of the job as they are part of many vocations. But the family will hopefully be there when no one else is around. Ministry locations change but the family does not — so we must not neglect them. I’ve sat with men who lost the respect of their family. I know countless pastors who’s adult children no longer want anything to do with the church. Apparently, there’s not much that hurts anymore than that.
Playing the numbers game. Whenever we put the emphasis on numbers we are always disappointed. They will never be high enough. God is in charge of the numbers. We are in charge of what He has put us in charge of — but it’s not the numbers. We must be careful to concentrate on making disciples and the numbers will take care of themselves.
Comparing ministries. There will always be a “bigger” ministry. Someone will always write a better tweet — or a better book — or a better blog post — preach a better sermon. When we begin to compare it distracts us from the ministry we’ve been God-appointed to lead.
Finding affirmation among the rebels. This is the one that gets me in trouble among the rebels when I point it out to pastors. But we must be careful not to get distracted by people who would complain regardless of the decision we make. Yes, it stings the way some people talk to a pastor. And, it’s certainly not always godly how some people express themselves in the church. But, what if Joshua had listened to the naysayers? What if Nehemiah had? What if Moses had given up every time the complainers were louder than the people who are willing to follow? Okay, he probably was willing to give up a couple of times but he held the course. If you are leading there will always be someone that is not happy with the decisions you made. People bent on pleasing others — more even than pleasing God — have a very hard time finding peace and joy in ministry.
Sacrificing truth for popularity. It’s easy to preach the easy stuff. Grace messages are pleasant to share and popular to receive. And, we need them. Where sin increases — grace should increase all the more. But, we need truth. Even when it is unpopular. Making disciples becomes impossible when we sacrifice either one — truth or grace.
Stealing glory. My mama used to say “that boy got too big for his britches”. Sadly that can happen in ministry also. Many pastors struggle with ego problems. God is never honored in that. Pastors are in a God-glorifying position. Actually, everyone yes, but it is written into our job description.
Poor boundaries. In an effort to “minister” to people, I know too many pastors who fell into a trap because they didn’t have proper boundaries in place. The enemy enjoys a door of opportunity.
Neglecting friendships. Most pastors struggle knowing who to trust, but because of that they have few people really get to know them. Therefore they often have no one who can speak into the dark places of their life. And, pastors have them too. So, they put on a good front — but inside, they struggle alone. It’s dangerous.
Abusing power. The pastor holds a certain amount of power just because of position. It has been said, “Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it.” One of the more dangerous things I see churches doing these days is giving a pastor too much power, without enough built-in personal accountability. (That’s coming from a church planter’s heart — and one who is prone to lead strong.) BTW, I’m not for controlling the pastor or forced relational accountability — and I haven’t discovered the perfect system here — but there needs to be one that balances truth and grace equally. Again, I don’t know how to systematize that, but it is a dangerous distraction. My challenge would be to the pastor or ministry leader to build this system into his or her own life absent a system within the ministry.
Those are some that I have seen. These distractions are displayed in a number of ways — and all of them are not fatal thankfully — but all of them are real. And all of them are dangerous.
In my recent post I contend that…
To be a kingdom building pastor you MUST be a community building pastor.
I admit that “must” is a strong word — and there are few things that I’m emphatic about unless they are Biblical, but I do believe that in order for us to reach people today we have to get outside the walls of our church buildings. And, that means we MUST do something intentional to make that happen. The community has to know — and believe — that we really do care for them. For me, being a community builder makes sense — and seems most effective.
And, we do love our community already, don’t we?
I certainly hope so. We believe we have the hope for the world as our central teaching. The Gospel is not to be a hidden truth but the light in the city on the highest hill. That means we must take our light into the world.
So the fair question to follow a post like that is how do you do it? How can a pastor — or ministry leader — be a community builder?
I don’t have all the ideas, but I have some suggestions.
Here are 7 ways to be a community-minded pastor:
Know key leaders – I think you should know who the leaders in the community are and know as many of them personally as possible. You may not be able to know the mayor of your city, depending on the city’s size, but could you know your local council representative? Could you know a school board member? You’ll be surprised how receptive many politicians are when constituents contact them — especially a leader who has an audience with a significant number of people. (And, anything over an average household can be considered significant.) Let me be clear that I never endorse candidates in my official capacity, but I do vote and it’s amazing when you’re active in the community how many people in your church want to know who you support.
Listen to concerns – Wherever you are, wherever you go, whatever you do in the community — whether at city hall, a school meeting or the grocery store or barbershop, listen to hear the things people are talking about around you. If you hear repeated themes you can almost guess that’s an issue on people’s minds. And, if you aren’t hearing anything — ask. Actually, ask anyway. And, don’t hear for what you want to do or where your church is already serving. Listen with an open mind to the real concerns of people. You may have different answers than they’ve thought of before. You know how to organize people. You represent people you can organize. That’s a powerful combination when addressing community needs.
Love what they love – I’ll get disagreement to this one, but I think it’s one of the more effective ways to be a community builder. I’m specifically talking about loving the culture of the city. I’ve seen pastors bash their community online. That’s foolish in my opinion. You can talk against community concerns in a way to rally support for a cause without bashing the community. People often feel about where they live — especially if they grew up there — the way they feel about their family. They can say bad things about them, but you better not. But, here’s where I’ll get the most disagreement — to me, this also includes loving the traditions they love — including their local sports teams. I was visiting a church recently and the pastor joked about the local college team. He referred to the fans as “sinners”. The crowd gave a rousing disapproval — and they laughed. It was funny. I couldn’t help but wonder, however, how much more effective he could have been endearing people to his leadership if he was “on their side” rather than always blatantly rooting for an opponent. It must be genuine of course, and I’m not suggesting you drop loyalties to other teams, but ask what cause are you more loyal to supporting and how supporting it will be most effective. I’m in the heart of the University of Kentucky Big Blue tradition. I get criticized repeatedly by my Tennessee fans as a “traitor”, but I’m telling you people like me better — and listen more — when I’m wearing Kentucky blue. God has called me to reach people in this community and I’ve discovered they love that I’m learning their unique culture and exploring and enjoying the uniqueness that is Kentucky. When I was in a military town, the more knowledge and support I could demonstrate about military service the more our soldiers and their families seemed to endear themselves to my leadership. And, don’t misunderstand, it is absolutely genuine for me. I am intentionally trying to love the people to whom God has placed me to minister — and part of that — as I would do for any family member — is learning to love the things they love.
Learn the community – One of the best things I did when I moved to Lexington two years ago is go through the Leadership Lexington program. The following year I went through Leadership Central Kentucky. I quickly learned things I might never have known about the community. It’s amazing now how I can answer questions about things we offer in the community that people can’t answer who have lived here for years. Most communities have something like this. Often they are found connected somehow to the local Chamber of Commerce or equivalent. You can also sign up for any local tours that the community offers. If the town is too small for anything like this, make appointments with people who are known in the community for their years of service to the community. Go prepared with questions and pick their brains about the community. Cheryl and I recently started volunteering at the city’s visitor center. We are doing this to give back, but also to get even more familiar with the city and what it has to offer.
Build your community network – You never know when you’re going to need it. Plus, there will always be people you may not know but people in your network will know them. I’m consistently asking people to connect me with people I should know in the community. And, that’s in all sectors of the community. Don’t limit your network to those society considers influential. I recently had one homeless person tell me of another homeless person I needed to know, because he is an influence in that segment of the community.
Serve somewhere in the community, besides your church – I think this is critical in community building, but also simply the right thing to do. As pastors, we expect people from the community to serve in the church. It’s only fair for us to give back to the community that is giving to us. Plus, we need to lead the way so that others in the church will serve in the community also. Finally, it’s the best way to meet people who need the hope that we have to share.
Lead your church to be community builders – This begins with a general desire to see the people of the church investing in the community. But it won’t happen by accident. It takes the intentionality of teaching and serving by example. And, most of all it takes consistency. This isn’t something we do in a campaign once a year. This must be a lifestyle — getting the church into the community — being community builders — so we can eventually be Kingdom builders.
What other suggestions do you have to be a community builder?
I love this picture.
I saw it on Mark Jobe’s Facebook page. Mark is a pastor of a church I greatly admire in Chicago. Actually, as a church planter and revitalizer, I’ve probably referred people to New Life (and a video of their work I keep bookmarked) as much as any other church.
New Life is doing what I believe is some of the best, hardest and most needed work in church growth today. They come along side an older, declining, established church and breathe “new life” into them helping them reach the community again. There are many other churches doing similar work, but I have been to New Life and had the opportunity to talk with Mark a few times, so he’s one doing this type ministry I’m familiar with most. I don’t know Mark well — but we are close enough to be Facebook friends
In this picture, Pastor Mark is walking with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. According to the caption, Mark was “Discussing the challenges of providing a safer environment and better role models for Chicago school children with the Mayor”
I love it!
Yea Mark! Yea New Life! Yea God!
The thought that struck me with this picture is that it provides further proof of something I’ve believed for some time. Something I’ve been living and preaching.
It’s how I’m trying to do church growth today.
To be a kingdom building pastor you MUST be a community building pastor.
You simply have to be! I’m convinced.
Okay, maybe must is too strong a word. Sometimes I use titles to get you to read — because I am making a point I believe is important. And, let me be clear there are many other effective models of doing ministry than Mark’s and certainly mine. But, being a community builder seems to be at least one of the more effective ways I’m seeing churches grow these days.
People aren’t coming to our big buildings anymore — or our small buildings. We must go to them.
Shortly after I arrived in Lexington I ran past a historical marker for the oldest home in our city. It was built for a Presbyterian pastor. The marker explains what a difference that pastor had on the city — not just as a pastor — but as a community leader. That’s because — years ago — pastors used to be at the center of everything in a community.
Pastors were community leaders — game changers in the community. They garnered respect through visibility and activity. People listened to them and wanted their opinion — mostly because people knew them well enough to respect them. They weren’t just faces on a raised platform on Sunday — they were faces seen in the community during the week. They were friends. Town folk.
One of my mentors, a pastor now in his mid-90’s, helped start a small business almost 70 years ago that is still thriving today in the community where his first pastorate was located. How? He walked the man desiring to open a business over to the bank and told the community banker to “give this young man a chance”. He got the loan. The pastor got a generous church donor. (Funny how that works.)
He could march over to the bank with a prospective loan because he was respected by the banker.
Now, things have changed. Banks don’t operate like that anymore. I’m not saying they ever will again. Most likely not.
But, not everything has to change.
The fact is, we didn’t just stop influencing the bankers — we stopped influencing our communities. Many times we left public square to hide behind our pulpits. And, I get it. For so long they came to us. We would build it — buildings and parking lots and programs — and they would fill them. We may need to wait for some tragic or life-altering events to occur in thie life, but they’d come.
But it doesn’t always work anymore — at least not as easily.
I’m convinced, many times they don’t trust us as much because they don’t know us as much.
I haven’t been in full-time vocational ministry long. I came out of the business world where I was very involved in community functions. Frankly, in my experience, the pastors who were active in community efforts weren’t respected because of the way they went about trying to make a difference. I know because I heard my friends who weren’t Christians talk about it. (That experience has greatly shaped my approach to doing ministry. Leading in the community — hoping to be a Kingdom builder.)
You knew what they were against, but you didn’t know what they were for. You knew what they didn’t like about the community, but you didn’t know what they liked about the community. You knew they took resources from the community to operate their programs — but you didn’t know how they gave anything back. Honestly, they were seen more as antagonistic than helpful in changing the community for good.
The community won’t stand for it anymore.
And, while much of that is perception more than reality — most pastors and churches do love their community, even if it’s not always visible. If the church does it’s job of making disciples of those who attend it should be helping the community by giving back citizens who have more joy, patience, love, etc. Who doesn’t want that? (I’ll let someone else decide if a particular church is actually producing Christ-like disciples.)
But wasn’t Jesus visible, known and well-liked in the community? Sure, they eventually rejected Him, but that was part of the plan — and He knew it was coming — and that didn’t deter Him from loving the people outside the walls of the synagogue. Jesus proved you could be in the world without being shaped by the world.
And, by being in the world, we stand a far better chance of helping to shape it.
Frankly, if all the community knows is the perceptions they see — and, they are more against a community than for it — I don’t blame them for rejecting our message.
And, so, I contend again…
To be a kingdom building pastor you have to be a community building pastor.
So, we need to be involved in our schools.
We need to be involved in addressing the greatest needs of our community.
We need to know our school and city leaders and help them understand we are here to be part of the solution — not to add to the stress of their jobs.
We need to earn the respect of people in the community — some who will never enter the doors of our churches — so we can help build our communities.
Only then, in my opinion, can we most effectively build the Kingdom today. And, in my honest opinion, it’s the right thing to do even if the church never grows another member from it.
So, let me ask some sobering questions.
Pastor, how are you investing in your community?
How are you becoming a community leader/influencer?
Does the community know you — as more than just a name on a sign outside your building?
If so, do they like who they are getting to know?