Saturday, July 21, 2012

Straight talk to small churches

I am currently writing a book with the same working title as the one for this post.  In this book I will address some of the issues that plague smaller churches (and many larger ones as well) and speak to those issues.  Due to the years I have invested in smaller churches and their leadership I feel I have earned the right to speak bluntly about these issues.  No one can accuse me of not understanding the smaller church or not appreciating them, and, I believe most people who would read the book understands my love for the smaller church.

The fact is that approximately 100 churches in the US close their doors every week, and most of them are smaller churches.  Many of them used to be much larger, thriving communities of faith, but due to a variety of reasons they have seen their attendance and impact lessen over the years until they finally could no longer remain open.  Some of those factors were beyond their control while others resulted from poor decisions made by the churches over the course of many years.  What is so sad about this is that many of these troubled churchesthat remain open continue on the same path they've traveled for years unaware that there is anything wrong.

A number of these churches have told me in the past that they are stuck, but a quick glance at their records indicate they are far from being stuck.  They are moving...downhill.  Many of these churches do not appreciate a pastor telling them they have become dysfunctional and unhealthy due to poor habits they have acquired over the years.  There is a term for pastors who insist on telling these churches what they do not want to hear: unemployed.  That's why I decided to write this book.  Someone has to sound the alarm.  I can't make anyone respond to the alarm, but at least I can provide it for those willing to hear.

Max DePree says the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality, and the reality is that we are going to see a growing number of smaller churches close their doors in the near future unless they take specific steps to become healthier and more missional in their approach to ministry.  Even worse than these churches closing their doors is the fact that in the years leading up to that they will add little to the Kingdom of God.  While these churches gather in their holy huddles trying to survive, the world around them will be ignored.  Men and women will die eternally separated from God.  Families will continue to struggle without any kind of spiritual guidance.  Young people will grow up knowing nothing of the Christian faith.

What is the cause of all this?  In the book I'll address several issues and offer suggestions for how to turn them around, but at the core of the problem is that people within these dying churches believe that the church exists for them.  I don't think I've ever heard a congregation complain because the pastor led too many people to Christ last year, but I've heard many complain that the pastor didn't visit in the member's homes enough.  Seldom have I heard a congregation complain about the cost of purchasing new hymn books, but I had a group of adults complain to me one night about the amount of money their church was spending on reaching the youth in their community.  When I responded that according to their newsletter almost every week young people and/or their family members were being saved the complainers just looked at me.  I then asked what they thought the value of a soul might be.  They soon walked away.

We are not saved to be pampered like small children.  We are saved to reach others for Christ.  Our pastors are not supposed to be chaplains, but persons called to lead our churches in effective ministry to our communities.  Too many small churches want a chaplain to tend to the needs of the flock not realizing in many cases they are calling a hospice chaplain to tend to their needs while they are in the process of dying.  Our churches are not called to live in the past remembering the good old days; we are called to live in a fresh vision given to us by God for ministry today.

I am convinced that there is a great need for smaller churches in the 21st century.  These churches can reach people that larger churches cannot reach.  I am further convinced that God intends to use these churches to do that, but I also believe that He will leave those churches that choose to not be outward focused to themselves until they eventually close their doors.  I often tell church leaders who attend my workshops that I do not believe God particularly cares if your church survives or not.  He does passionately care about whether or not your church is on mission with Him to touch your community for Christ.

That's straight talk that many of our churches need to hear.  Your church is today what it decided 5 and 10 years ago it wanted to be, and it will be 5 and 10 years from now what it decides today to become.  The choice is yours.  What will it be?

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