Seven Reasons Some Churches Experience Revitalization (While Others Don’t)

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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?

7 Disappointing Reasons People Leave the Church

St John Church

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?

A Quick Thought on Planning Organizational Charts for Churches

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Here is a quick thought when planning your organizational charts — especially for churches

Staff for needs. Don’t staff for structure.

I’ve seen this in so many organizations, but probably especially in the church.

We naturally assume that if a position comes open we have to fill it with the same title and function of the previous position.

That may or may not be wise.

Over time, if we only do what we’ve always done, we can end up with positions that are no longer the best use of limited resources for the church. Other positions that have more immediate relevancy aren’t filled — or even created — because we don’t have the funding to fill them.

This almost always happens as a result of the organization staffing for structure rather than staffing for needs.

The structure should not control staffing positions. Organizational needs should.

Maybe you need a communications director more than you need a _______ (whatever)_____.  Or maybe you need two part-timers in different ministry areas more than you need one full time position. Ministry needs in the church change as the church changes.

Here’s something that’s proven valuable in my experience.

When you have available dollars — or when someone leaves and you have an open position, ask yourself some questions:

  • Who do we need most now?
  • What type person?
  • What role do we need filled?
  • What’s not getting done?
  • What area needs the most attention?
  • Where are the greatest opportunities?
  • What has changed since this position was created?
  • What is the best use of the these resources?
  • Is there a better position out there than our current organizational structure allows?

Staffing a church is important. Kingdom dollars are at stake. We must spend them wisely.

7 Ways to Be a Community Building Pastor

Building Blocks

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?

7 Easy Ways to Put a Not Welcome Sign on Your Church

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I was running recently on a route I’ve run many times, but I missed this sign until this particular run. It was too “good” not to stop and take a picture with my phone.

I saw the sign and the first word that popped in my head was “Closed”. As another sign I saw in a store window said recently (which I don’t completely understand) “Closed for Business”. (How can you be closed “for” business?)

None of us would intentionally place a sign like that on our church doors. “Closed for business”. I’m sure that’s not the intent this church has with this sign. Yet I’m certain that some of our practices serve the same purpose.

Over the years, Cheryl and I have visited dozens of churches. Whenever we travel we try to find a church. I’ve spoken at and consulted with a lot of churches. All types and sizes.

From personal experience — here are some ways you can place a closed sign to visitors on your church.

Only do “church” on Sunday. Don’t attempt to build community with people who attend — especially not with someone new to “the community”. Let people know by your actions — or lack of actions — that you’re comfortable with the people with you now and there is little room for new friendships. Don’t reach out to people you haven’t seen in a while. We recently visited a church, filled out a visitor card, and only placed our email and phone number on the card. Two months later we have yet to hear from anyone.

Don’t act like you’re happy to see people. Have no one greeting in the parking lots or at the doors. I once was the guest preacher at a church. Not one person greeted us in the church. I literally had to go find somebody to tell me when to preach. Not one other person besides the person I found ever spoke to us. I realize that’s the extreme but I wonder how many times visitors feel that same way in our own churches.

Confuse people. Display confusing signage or, better yet, none at all. And, don’t think about using people as guest hosts. I can’t tell you how many churches we have been to where it was very confusing which door to enter and where to go once we entered the door. At times, if I weren’t the speaker — as an introvert especially — I might have left. Just being honest. I have to be honest even more and say that was somewhat true of the church where I am pastor now. Hopefully we are making strides towards correcting that with signage and people.

Make it uncomfortable for visitors. If you really want a closed sign up, everyone should talk to the only people they know. It’s either that, or you could make visitors feel very conspicuous. Have them stand up maybe — or raise their hands — and keep them up until an usher comes by.

Have your own language. Use acronyms. Yes acronyms please. Just pretend like everyone already knows what you’re talking about. Don’t differentiate between VBS and vacation Bible school. Everyone knows that, right? And, use names during the announcements that no one knows but the regulars without any explanation of who they are.

Have closed groups. And don’t start any new ones. When any small group has been together more than a few years — with no new people entering the group — it’s a closed group. A new person coming in will not feel welcome. They won’t know the inside jokes. They don’t know the names of everyone’s children’s. They feel left out when personal conversation begins.

Beat people up without giving them hope. Be clearer about how bad they are than how great the Gospel is.

Those are a few of my suggestions. If you’re looking for a way to put up a closed sign.

The Biggest Stumbling Block in Sustaining Growth

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It’s the biggest stumbling block to sustaining growth.

In my opinion.

It often happens during times of success.

You can have all the right systems, momentum and motivation — won’t matter.

You can have the best vision — still can happen.

You can surround yourself with the greatest team — just as likely to occur.

I’ve seen it far too many times.

The biggest stumbling block in sustaining growth…

Is foolish pride.

I once had a prominent pastor tell me he had survived every power struggle in the church. He looked me in the eye and said, “I’ve faced my biggest opponents. There is not one person in this church who can oppose me now.”

A few years later he was voted out of the church.

When a leader starts to think…

I’ve got this.

Look what I’ve achieved.

I’m in control.

Look at me.

Nothing can stop me now.

Watch out!

The day of destruction is drawing near. It’s just a matter of time.

Though you soar aloft like the eagle, though your nest is set among the stars, from there I will bring you down, declares the Lord. (Obadiah 1:4 ESV)

Guard your heart leaders. Guard your heart.

Remember Where You Came From : One key to leading organizational change

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There was a saying when I was growing up an older generation used often — I don’t hear it as much anymore.

“Don’t forget where you came from.”

And, if you were one of my relatives — talking to me — you might have said it with emphasis.

“Don’t forget where you came from — boy!”

I think there’s a good leadership principle there too.

“Don’t forget where you came from.”

An organization will have different leaders. Different styles. Different approaches.

But, it should never forget where it came from.

The church where I pastor has a 105 years of history. Most of those were before me. :) (103 of those years.)

We’ve seen tremendous changes and tremendous growth in the two years I’ve been here. I’m honored. Pumped. Encouraged.

I’m convinced, however, that one of the reasons we’ve grown is that we’ve tried not to forget this principle.

We have held numerous celebrations of the past. We hung banners in our halls celebrating the decades long gone. We invited past leaders back to celebrate milestones with us. I consistently remind people this didn’t start with me.

If you are attempting to grow in an established environment and culture, you need to celebrate from where you came.

Celebrate the past.

Celebrate the past leadership.

Celebrate the triumphs.

Celebrate the pain.

Okay, maybe celebrate is a tough word for the painful times, but certainly remember what the church was able to overcome.

I watch too many leaders who think they can turn change on a dime ignoring all that happened in the past. That’s especially true if the most previous leader left in more difficult times. It’s sometimes easier to create new energy if you can ignore the past. I’m not convinced, however, that it’s the healthiest or best way.

Leadership may be able to move that quickly, but people usually can’t. They need closure. They need time. They need to remember — and for their leaders to remember — from where they came. Those times were important monuments in their life.

Not only has living this principle worked well for my leadership, I’m personally convicted it’s the right thing to do.

Remember where you came from — boy. (Or girl)

7 FAQ’s About Visiting Church Easter Sunday

Immanuel

Visiting a church for the first time, or after not having been for a while, can be intimidating at times. You often don’t know what to expect. You’d love to ask, but you’re not sure who to ask or even if your question sounds silly. It’s not. Probably others have the same question as you.

I was asked a question recently about what someone should wear Easter Sunday if they visited Immanuel. It was such a great question, because it made me think. What if someone didn’t come, because they didn’t know the answer? I get that. It would almost be easier not to visit than to wear the wrong thing. Less complicated. The safe choice.

This person asked. And, so I was able to answer.

It made me think some other questions people may have about visiting a church the first time. I thought of some of the more common. This post actually originated in one of our lead staff meetings. Someone suggested, “Why don’t you compile a list of of the top questions people may be wondering, but haven’t asked, and write about it?” Okay, here you go.

Keep in mind, this is written for Immanuel, but I suspect most will be true for many churches you’d visit Easter Sunday. And, I’m nearly positive about this — most pastors would prefer you ask rather than wonder and not visit at all. So, if you don’t know, ask. Please.

Here are 7 frequently asked questions about visiting Easter Sunday:

What should I wear?

I posted this answer on my Facebook recently. At Immanuel Baptist Church, you’ll see all styles of dress. Some will wear suit and tie and dresses and hats for women. Some will wear jeans and t-shirts. We may even see shorts if the weather is warm enough. To answer your question, choose an outfit you already own, one you feel comfortable in, and join us. (No speedos please, but that’s just a personal request, otherwise, you’ll be fine. :) )

What will we do? What can I expect?

We will have a fairly typical worship schedule. We will sing some songs, have a short greeting time, I’ll share a message (my intent will be to share hope), we will sing some more. We will attempt to have a blend of songs and music all ages can enjoy. And, yes, in full transparency, and in case you’re wondering, we will receive an offering. Our offerings support the full range of ministries we offer in the church, community, and around the world. You are not required, however, to participate during this time unless you choose to do so.

Will you embarrass me?

I certainly hope not. It will be a primary goal not to do that. I don’t personally like to be embarrassed when I visit somewhere new, even in a church — and I’m a pastor — so my goal is to create an environment that is comfortable for all. You WILL NOT be singled out as a visitor. We don’t make visitors stand, raise their hand, or even fill out a card if you choose not to do so. (You certainly won’t be asked to sing a solo, unless you sing really, really loud — and then you’re on your own. :) )

How long will the service last?

Slightly more than an hour. I’d love to say an hour, but sometimes the service ends up being an hour and 5 or 10 minutes frequently. At the most, you’ll be with us for an hour and 15 minutes. (Walking to and from the car time and all.)

What time should I arrive?

That’s a great question. And, I’m really trying to help when I suggest you get here a few minutes early. Maybe even as many as 10 or 15 minutes early. It takes a little while to make your way through our building, especially if you have children to check into our children’s areas or this is your first time. We especially want you to find a seat where you are most comfortable (some want up close — some want in the middle), and you’ll feel more acclimated to the room if you have a few minutes to adjust before the service begins. We have a special Easter bulletin you can be reading while you wait for the service to start.

Do you have something for children?

Absolutely. Birth through 5th grade have their own activities designed especially for them. They will enjoy a worship experience that will engage them at their level. Of course, we don’t keep you from bringing children with you in the worship service if that is more comfortable on a first visit, but our experience is that they truly do enjoy the service designed for them. Either way, we love when entire families join us Easter Sunday.

Can I only come one time? Really, for what am I signing up when I come Easter Sunday?

There’s no obligation beyond Easter Sunday. It’s a “free look”. Promise. Being honest, we do ask you to fill out a contact card and, if you do, we will follow up with you. And I hope you do. I love seeing who God brought to us as visitors. I love meeting visitors. But, even if you fill out a card, we allow you to tell us how you want to be contacted. Phone, email, social media, or visit — or none — you tell us. We won’t put any unfair pressure on you to ever come again. We hope you will, and we’d love if Easter triggered that desire in you, but that’s your call — not ours.

I hope that answers some questions of those who think about visiting our church. I’d be honored if you are our guest.

What other questions do you have? Seriously, I’d rather you asked. 

My Top 7 Goals to Accomplish on Easter Sunday

Easter-Graphic

Easter. It’s a time of year when churches have an opportunity second only to Christmas in attracting visitors. Hopefully all of God’s churches will be packed Easter Sunday. That’s my prayer.

We’ve had months of praying, planning and preparing. We’ve done all we can do, but God is ultimately in charge of all that happens in our church — and yours.

I’m often asked, however, what I hope to accomplish on Easter Sunday — such an important day in the life of any church. It could seem overwhelming if we try to accomplish too much in one day, so what do I, as a pastor, have at the top of my list of goals for Easter Sunday.

I shared a guest post with Lifeway’s pastor blog about 7 ways a church can prepare for Easter. In this post, I want to share what I actually hope we accomplish on Easter Sunday. Only 7 things. If we accomplish nothing else, and there are probably many other things we will accomplish Easter Sunday, I hope Immanuel Baptist does these 7 well.

Gospel is shared – Duh! But, after we’ve made all the preparations, it would be like inviting people to a turkey dinner with no turkey if we don’t share the Gospel. Once we’ve worked hard to gather people into a room, we must not neglect to share the simple truth that Jesus lived, died, and rose again and by Him and through Him alone we can be saved. We must give people an opportunity to hear the Gospel — if for the first time or one of many other times. The Gospel is Good News for all people. All times. After all, that’s what we are celebrating Easter Sunday.

People feel welcome – I hope everyone who enters the doors of our church feels welcome. Regardless of what they are wearing, what side of town they came from, what they do for a living, their education status, whichever “side of the tracks” from which they arrived — let them feel the genuine love and kindness of God’s people. There will be those who don’t feel “worthy” to be in a church Easter Sunday (because they don’t yet understand than none of us are apart from grace). What better day to “love one another” than Easter Sunday!

Next is highlighted – I want people to leave knowing where the church is going next. For example, we will be studying some of the Psalms in our next series. People need to know that — in hopes that they’ll want to return.

The church is presented well – This is the Sunday, even more than others perhaps, where I hope our people are willing to sacrifice for visitors. I told our deacons Sunday night I hope they are the ones willing to move to the center of an aisle first, to make room on the ends of a row for visitors. I hope Immanuel people help visitors in the parking lot, even if they’ve never before worked in the parking lot. I hope people who seem to be looking for the bathrooms don’t have to look long before someone helps them. I hope the building is cleaner than ever. (That’s why we have a cleanup day scheduled Saturday.) Just as when visitors come to your home for the first time, this is the time to be ready to receive guests warmly. I also want to answer as many questions as people may have about the church, so we are printing a special bulletin designed to give insight to visitors about who we are, what programs we offer, and easy places where they could quickly become a part of Immanuel.

Our people are encouraged – I hope people who call Immanuel their home church — even if they’ve been there over 70 years (and some have been) or just arrived in the last few weeks (and there are lots of those), will leave encouraged by what they experience Easter Sunday. I hope there will be a God-honoring pride that we did all God would expect us to do to present an atmosphere conducive for people to ultimately hear the Gospel. I hope they’ll be challenged for the days ahead and willing to sacrifice and serve even more, directly as a result of what God allows to happen Easter Sunday.

Children are safe and have fun – If parents entrust their children to our care they should be assured their children are safe and well-protected. In addition, I hope children leave telling their parents how much they enjoyed being at Immanuel this Sunday. Children have a raw honesty about them. They don’t always know the words to say, but parents know whether or not this is a place their kids will be welcomed. Children are often a huge door to the families eventual active involvement in a church.

People leave with hope – Second only from hearing the Gospel, I hope people leave our Easter services with a sense of hope. Actually, that’s my goal every Sunday. The world can be a scary place. There will be lots of brokenness among us Easter Sunday. As followers of Christ, we believe we hold the answer to hope for the world. It’s in the Resurrected Savior — whom we are celebrating — the King of kings and Lord of lords. I hope people don’t leave more confused or feeling guilty about their life, but rather they live knowing their is A Way, there is an answer — there is HOPE — in Jesus Christ!

Easter Sunday is coming. I’m praying for my pastor friends, for the church of Christ, and for those who will enter our gathering places this Sunday, joining the Church in Easter worship.