A short time ago, I wrote a blog called "Top Ten Myths of Reviving a Church" in which I outlined some false assumptions about what it takes to revive a church. In the LinkedIn discussion page of the Society For Church Consulting, one of the responders wrote, "We've been calling these myths 'myths' longer than I've been alive; some may have been calling them 'myths' even before the myths themselves existed! We know it. But at some point when the church hits a rough time, we look back, and lo and behold, we followed what we knew to be myths anyway. What we need is an article on how to catch ourselves as we start following these myths, and then stop ourselves from following them." Not to back away from such a challenge, I have decided to take this responder up on his challenge and write about ways that we can stop these myths from happening. (Note: To get a description of these myths, check my earlier blog)
OVERCOMING MYTH #1: IF WE HAVE AN EVENT OR SPONSOR A PROGRAM OR CHANGE OUR STYLE THEY WILL COME: Events do have a role in reaching out to those who are unchurched, but they are not an end to themselves. There are a couple of things that should be done to not fall into the event dependency myth. First of all, if a church is to have an event, it is better to do a few things well rather than over-saturate the schedule and to eliminate those events that are not necessary. In my previous church, we had four outreach events each year but eliminated one when it became ineffective. It allowed for the church to focus on the events that were effective and not get bogged down in an event that no one was passionate about.
Secondly, regular evaluation of outreach events should be reviewed. One of the burning questions for evaluation should be, "Is the church going out to the community or is the expectation that they should be coming to us?" If the second question is true, the event should be eliminated. In my previous church, the events that we had were very community oriented. The church had a children's carnival loaded with games outside in public view, a trunk or treat night for Halloween, and a free Christmas photo night at a community wide Christmas party was being held at an adjacent park across the street. The expectation was to make the church's presence known in the community which gave the church an opportunity to share its faith in Christ. In evaluating the church's outreach, this question should be asked, "If our church were to close its doors today, would we be missed in our community?" This question should be a motivation as to how we should plan events and programs which should be to serve the community with the message of Christ as opposed to have them serve us. The motivation shouldn't be to get people in our doors, but to get God's people out to a hurting world.
OVERCOMING MYTH #2: WHAT WORKED YESTERDAY WILL CONTINUE TO WORK: While it may sound like a broken record (I raised the point above), the best way to overcome this myth is to evaluate! evaluate! evaluate! on a regular basis. Perhaps a good rule of thumb would be to do this after the event or at very least, once a year. As in the case of my previous church's outreach, we came to the conclusion that the fourth outreach event (which was a community outreach yard sale) had lost its luster and was no longer effective. In addition, the level of participation from church members had fallen off, so instead of trying to beat a dead horse, the event was eliminated. In addition, an evening worship service we had was eliminated because it was not reaching those on the outside of the church and had fallen into a "they will come to us" mindset. In a changing world, what worked last year may not work this year and evaluation on a regular basis is crucial.
OVERCOMING MYTH #3: ENDING A PROGRAM MEANS FAILURE: Failure gets a bad rap in today's world. But the truth is that in failure, comes true success. Baseball great Ted Williams batted over .400 and was the last to do so. But what is often not talked about is that, as great that his accomplishment was, he failed 60% of the time. In today's baseball world, a player who bats .300 get paid $25 million a year for failing 70% of the time! Some of the greatest failures in history became important people. Thomas Edison, in his many failed experiments, and Abraham Lincoln, in his early political setbacks, are examples of failure. Yet, in the church, we have a hard time admitting failure and learning from it. Failure, if it is looked at in a healthy way, can breed great success and blessing. One of the best ways for a church to overcome this myth is for the church leaders to be comfortable in admitting their own failures and giving people permission to try something and not feel ashamed if failure happens. From a preaching standpoint, pastors would do well in speaking about the failures of the Bible-Moses and his fear of speaking and hot-temperedness, Jonah, who was given a second chance after messing up royally, David, who was caught up in looking at a naked woman (married, at that!) and falling into an illicit relationship with her, and Peter, in his numerous snafus.
Overcoming this myth may be one of the hardest to do in our success-oriented culture, but again, having a time of evaluation is helpful. What went well/ What did not go well? What valuable lessons were learned? These are important questions in evaluating a ministry or program that has ended. I would also suggest that a time of celebration might not be a bad idea especially if it were a program that had a long tradition but because times had changed, it had outlived its effectiveness. Recently, I watched the Major League Baseball All-Star game in which the 43 year-old Mariano Rivera pitched in his last All-Star game (he is retiring at the end of the season). While he is still quite a pitcher at his age, the reality is that 43 years of age means that his career is coming to an end. What was moving, however, was how team mates and opponents alike celebrated the many years of one who may go down as the greatest relief pitcher ever to play the game. The church would do well to do the same in its various ministries whose time has come.
OVERCOMING MYTH #4: DOCTRINE ISN'T AS IMPORTANT AS RELATIONSHIPS: It would be helpful especially in the church's preaching, teaching, and small group ministry to as what makes a relationship important? In human relationships (such as marriage), there is the initial attraction, dating, engagement, and marriage in which a couple is getting to know each other better. As the relationship grows, they are meeting their partner's friends, parents and relatives. They are discovering their partner's background, upbringing, their values and personality. In essence, there is a certain knowledge base to the relationship which defines it. One could call this knowledge base the relationship's doctrine or core beliefs that define it. Likewise, the same holds true in our relationship with Christ and His people. One of the important functions of the church is to remove the dichotomy between doctrine and relationship, that in any relationship a certain set of core beliefs are necessary. The best way for this to happen is for churches to be very proactive in its discipleship and teaching ministries by making sure everyone has had a basic Christianity 101 teaching prior to their making a profession of faith.
OVERCOMING MYTHS # 5 and #6: INCREASING NUMBERS MEANS REVIVAL HAS TAKEN PLACE and A SHRINKING OR A NUMERICAL UNCHANGING CHURCH MEANS THAT A CHURCH IS HEADING IN THE WRONG DIRECTION: I have placed the overcoming of these two myths together in that it is easy to play the numbers game when it comes to evaluating revival. It is my opinion that true church growth or revival takes place based on the Acts 2: 42-47 model in which believers were devoted to the apostles' teaching, the power of God was being manifested through supernatural change, the unity of the church was being displayed through meeting each others' needs, the meeting together and the breaking of bread was taking place in public and in their homes with sincerity, and in the praising of God as well as having the favor of all the people. The result of all of this is in Acts 2:47 was that the Lord was adding daily to those who were being saved.
It is important to notice that the reference to numbers were those of new believers who were being saved. A church may grow numerically and yet have few newly saved people. They may have come from other churches either because a church has the "happening church ministry in town" or have come from other churches because they were disgruntled with their previous church or pastor. If the numbers of a church increase because of what is called "transferred" growth, it is not true revival in the Biblical sense of the word. Likewise, a church can be in a declining or a unchanging situation numerically and can actually be experiencing revival. For example, suppose a small rural church has experienced seven new believers coming to Christ in the past year, yet five members have died and another six, upset at the influx of these new people, became disgruntled and left the church. Furthermore, the community had experienced a ten percent drop in its population due to a factory closure which meant four other people had moved away from the church. Statistically the church had a negative number of numerical growth in the past year, yet I would argue that in spite of these losses, the church was experiencing the influx of new believers in Christ. The congregation is experiencing a revival of sorts, assuming that the church is growing in the Lord in its devotion to the Word, in its love for each other, in its meeting together and the breaking of bread, and in its praise to the Lord as well as its standing in the community.
Once again, evaluation is important for any church when looking at its so-called numbers. Are they new believers? Are they merely transfers from other churches. How honestly are churches with the numbers? Numbers being added were the result of the spiritual life of the early church in Acts 2. Are those qualities of the spiritual life being lived out in the church?
OVERCOMING MYTH #7: THE CHURCH SHOULD NOT BE INVOLVED IN PLANNING BUT SHOULD LET THE HOLY SPIRIT LEAD: This is a myth that is more about the perception that the work of the Holy Spirit and planning always has to be placed in some sort of dichotomy. It really comes down to one's basic theological understanding that God is the creator and he has intricately ordered his universe to function with all of its scientific and natural aspects and that God is a God of order. It is true that God intervenes at times with the supernatural into the natural world, but this does not preclude the fact that God has ordered His creation to be functioning with certain natural laws. If one looks at the intricate function of the different parts of the human body, one can see a well planned and wonderfully made person (Psalm 139:14) created by God. If God so created the world with such a well planned intentionality, how can a church not also see that planning for revival is part of the Holy Spirit's work.
One practical way of overcoming this myth is to stop seeing the work of the elders (or deacons in a Baptist church) as spiritual while the trustees take care of the non spiritual matters such as the building and finances. All activity, organizationally or otherwise is God's work and programs, money, buildings etc. as well as prayer, spiritual care, discipleship and teaching are a part of the Holy Spirit's work. Perhaps churches need to stop dichotomizing these two functions and function as one entity as leaders by combining the boards for prayer and spiritual formation at least several times a year if not monthly. Even more importantly in smaller churches, the need for a single board may also be considered.
OVERCOMING MYTH #8: THE CHURCH LACK THE RESOURCES TO DO ANYTHING DIFFERENTLY: In overcoming this myth, I have no easy solution, but Biblical teaching about faith is a must not to mention that people's perception of God must be stretched. One important factor is to use the power of the testimony of changed lives and churches as a way of encouraging a congregation. For example, suppose a congregation does not feel they can afford to start up a new ministry that could have an impact on the community. It might be at this point, another congregation might be contacted who went through similar issues and come and share to the church's leadership how God led them through the process. Often churches get caught up in these myths because they fail to see how God has worked in the wider context. This does not mean that the church shouldn't be good stewards and go running off on a whim, but it does mean that God is able to use what a congregation does have to further the kingdom. By looking toward outside support, the church may come to realize that they had more resources than they realized.
OVERCOMING MYTH #9: IF WE CHANGE THE PASTOR OR IF WE ONLY HAD PASTOR JONES STILL HERE, THEN OUR CHURCH WILL GROW: The sad truth is that, by the time this myth gets entrenched, it becomes very difficult to overcome this. It is not uncommon for churches to go through several pastors in a short time or to experience substantial decline. If this myth gets established, one of two things will happen. The church will either die (even a continual slow death) or they will stop scapegoating and come to realize that the church has the problem and that blame does not work. In order for the later to happen, outside help is a must or, at very least, a well trained intentional interim pastor who can guide the church through the process of overcoming this myth before the new pastor arrives.
In order to keep this myth from developing, the earlier this is recognized as a myth, the better. Churches would be wise to have a pastoral relations committee or pastor-parish committee to openly talk about expectations. Also, pastors need to be forthright enough to talk about this myth. In my previous church (which I had served for nearly nineteen years), I spent my last months making it very clear that God raises up different leaders at different times for different eras in a church's life (I Corinthians 3:1-9, Joshua 1) and that while I still would be a friend, once I leave the church, I will not be available for pastoral duties that interfered with the new pastor or the interim pastor's work. It is my opinion that pastors need to communicate this on a regular basis even if they are not leaving soon in order to show that it is Christ's church and not the pastor's.
OVERCOMING MYTH #10: IF WE COPY SADDLEBACK'S FORMULA FOR SUCCESS THEN THE CONGREGATION WILL GROW: It is proper for churches to learn from the Saddlebacks and Willow Creeks of this world, but each church must truly be a student of its own context. In addition to this, churches in their meetings should spend at least part of the time focusing on what God is already doing in the life of the congregation. A few months ago, I read a book called, "Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change." by David Cooperrider and Diana Whitney which presents a business model that focuses on an organization's strengths instead of its problems. Far too many meetings are spent on problems to be solved rather than looking at what strengths are already there. In the church, too much time is spent on what is lacking rather than what is happening and how God wants to expand the church's vision.
As a result of such thinking, we have a number of Saddleback "wannabes" rather than congregations who have a lot more to offer than they even realize. God has a plan for every congregation to be His witnesses in the community they serve and has allowed each church to uniquely and creatively express their ministry within their own context.
Overcoming these myths provides a challenge since they are often so entrenched in the life of the church. In this post, I have tried to at least outline some ways that churches can begin the process of putting a stop to these myths before they take control in a congregation's life. Now it is your turn for feedback. I am looking forward to reading your comments.