Many years ago, I attended a seminar sponsored by a well-known church growth expert He was impressive; filled with facts and ideas about how, in our current culture, to help a church grow; skillful at communicating them. Over the last fifty years the church has experienced tons of the latest church growth ideas; everything from seeker-sensitive services, to purpose-driven churches to missional churches etc. And most of these programs made sense in various ways and seemed promising.
The problem, however, is that for most Amerian churches, the programs haven’t struck gold. Our churches in America, with some exceptions, are declining and many are dying. Thank God, the universal church will live forever, but local churches are hurting; mine included. Why? Let me begin on a positive note.
What is beneficial about church programs?
1. We all have a church program whether we know it or not
Programs may sometimes be unstated or invisible, but they are always present. Whenever a group of believers get together to form a church, they make certain decisions about how that is going to be done. This is unavoidable.
2. It’s better to have a cohesive, well-thought-out program than to just wing it
Just doing it because “we’ve always done it this way” or “that’s what so and so likes” is not a good way to lead a church. A well-considered and well-executed program allows us to work together in the same direction. It also makes it possible us to choose the best options available; ones that better match our particular people and our local culture
3. It’s better to have a cohesive, well-thought-out program because it allows people who join to know what they’re getting into
Everyone isn’t looking for the same church experience. If our goals and procedures are clearly laid out, then they’re easier for people seeking a new church to evaluate it before they decide to join or to move on. There will always be unexpected surprises, of course, but this minimizes them.
4. It’s better to have a cohesive, well-thought out program because it allows us to focus more on ministry and less on decisions
We don’t have to re-invent the wheel at every congregational or board meeting. The leaders and participants basically know their roles, can focus on them and be evaluated in light of them. This isn’t to say that decisions still don’t have to be made, or that programs can’t be tweaked as needed, it just limits unnecessary decision-making in these areas and allows us to focus more on actual ministry.
5. It’s better to have a cohesive, well-thought out program because it allows us to adapt to our changing culture
The church has always had to change and adapt some degree because the culture evolves. Churches who ignore this eventually become irrelevant and die. Paul himself varied his approaches according to his audience.
I say all this to help you understand that I am not against programs or the latest strategy. These can be helpful and may bring about a positive difference in the effectiveness of the church. They allow us to evaluate our effectiveness and make needed adjustments. By all means, let’s use our church resources thoughtfully and strategically. So why is the American church declining despite the plethora of church growth strategies?
Why do church programs often fall short?
1. Church programs often fall short because of resistance to change
Many, if not most churches, regardless of what they say, contain a number of people who really don’t want to change. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is the attitude or “We’ve always done it this way” (which isn’t true, by the way. The church has constantly evolved throughout history, however reluctantly it’s done so). Some are much more open to new ideas, but others follow much more slowly and must be worked with patiently. They’re not necessarily stubborn – that’s just their personality – both their strength and weakness. It’s easy to go to the latest seminar, get excited, and try to rush things too fast.
2. Church programs often fall short because they’re poorly chosen
Just because Rick Warren can pull it off doesn’t mean that you can, either because your situation is different than his or because he’s just a gifted leader in that area. We need to know ourselves, our gifts, our church people, and our local culture before we choose our approach to ministry. Whatever we implement should be a reasonably good match. We’ll also do best if we possess complementary gifts in the church; your strength making up for my weakness and vice versa.
3. Church programs often fall short because they’re not well-implemented
I have to plead guilty on this one. I’m more of an “ideas” guy, who has trouble following through with the nuts and bolts part. It’s easy to come up with a “mission statement” and “objectives”, but it takes planning, determination, actual effort to make them come to life. Which leads to the next point.
4. Church programs often fall short because we give up too soon
Someone has said, “Church cultures eat new programs for lunch”. It takes time, usually years, for a church to make a significant turn in a new direction and stay on course. Often, before that time is up, we’re bored of waiting for results, and already on to the next quick fix. Furthermore, it takes a while for those we want to reach to begin to respond – again, maybe years.
5. Church programs often fall short because people don’t stick around
Much, if not most church “growth” today is transfer growth. Quite a few people go from church to church. They stay till they become dissatisfied and then move on. The challenge is that a solid church requires hard work, commitment, lots of love, and the willingness to forgive while accepting a certain amount of messiness. Many folks don’t want that. They want a comfortable, uplifting experience without too much cost or hassle, especially in our privileged Western culture.
6. Church programs often fall short because of our sinful culture
It’s true that we, as churches, could do better than we have. But our whole culture is also shifting; moving away from God. Christianity has become less important and more marginalized in the U.S.. “Religion” is getting a bad reputation. Sin is rampant. Our country is harder to reach for Christ than it was a hundred years ago. Just as ancient Israel went through spiritual droughts, that seems to be what’s happening here. Much of this isn’t our fault. Remember, our planet is, and always has been a vicious spiritual battle zone. Satan plays for keeps.
7. Church programs often fall short because of a lack of dependence on God
As far as our responsibility in the church decline goes, I believe that this is the key issue. Programs, clever as they may be, don’t save people. Only the Holy Spirit can do that and He can and does do it in any of a thousand ways. He doesn’t need the latest strategy or technology. All He needs is what He already has – His convicting power. By all means, use the best strategy possible, but remember that it’s on our knees that we do the most good. Godly, loving, prayerful believers, are still God’s greatest strategy.