I believe the words of Jesus Christ with all my heart and being: the gates of hell will not prevail against His Church (Matthew 16:18). At the same time I believe that some local churches will cease to exist, even as the Church advances the mission of Christ. The Church will be fine; some local churches will not. It’s always tragic when a church closes its doors, and sometimes it is preventable. Those are the situations that concern me most.
What will your local church look like in one more generation? The Millennial generation is composed of those born from 1982-2004.* At 74.5 million people, this generation is the largest group in US history. Millennials are notoriously hard for churches to reach and retain. Because of this generational dynamic churches located in communities where the population is flat-lined and aging will need to take extraordinary measures to continue to be vital going forward. The problem with that is many churches are only taking ordinary measures (if that). Einstein said doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different outcome is the definition of insanity. If churches want different futures, people must think deeply about the ministry decisions they are making right now.
Pastor/leader or chaplain? Today, in many situations, when a church has a leadership transition, that is a crisis for that church’s future. The kind of leader a church calls is crucial to its vitality. The process the church follows, the order and prayer and excellence that go into the work of calling a new pastor can be a make or break decision. I truly believe for some churches it is just that serious. Most churches need not only a preacher and chaplain, but a strategic leader, and also some key strategic partnerships. When I think of a chaplain in this context, I think of someone who provides comfort through the process of dying. A chaplain is helpful when the expectation is that vitality cannot be recovered. Some churches need a chaplain. That’s their diagnosis and future reality. But many others do not, but because they are not intentionally looking for a strategic leader or for ways to create strategic partnerships, they end up with a pastor/chaplain.
Do you prefer an experimental church culture, or death? Tom Feltenstein said, “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance a lot less.” If it’s possible for a declining church to turn around and regain vitality, what should the congregation be willing to do to accomplish that? Wayne Bray, pastor of Simpsonville Baptist (SC) wrote: “I have preached for 20 years that we must yield our preferences for His purpose. While this is true in one sense, John Piper just presented a challenge to my thinking. Truthfully, the issue lies not in the reality that we possess preferences, but that [God] and His glory and mission are not our greatest preference. If we prefer Him, His glory, and His mission more than anything ... we will be ready and willing to surrender secondary preferences for the attainment of the first.” The question then becomes, what is required of us to be obedient to our Master?
Is your church experiencing any of these symptoms of lost vitality?
· Very little meaningful corporate prayer.
· Little investment in cultivating leaders.
· Little interest or priority given to cultivating corporate holiness.
· Very little evangelistic behavior among members reflected in few or no baptisms and no new members being added.
· Limited financial resources. I call this a symptom because in vital churches people are being reached and discipled and they give to God’s work.
· Stifled creative atmosphere. No discussions about strategic leadership are happening.
· Focus is primarily on maintaining traditions more than reaching people.
· No process to invite guests and regular attendees into meaningful participation in ministry.
· No Vacation Bible School.
· No greeter ministry, or a poor/ineffective one.
· No new Sunday school classes. No intentional multiplying of Sunday school units.
· No discussion of ways to know, engage or serve the community.
· A bad attitude toward the community, or an expectation that “they must come to us.”
· No discussion or reflection about innovation or improvement.
· Little attention to facility maintenance. Conversely, slavish commitment to the facility to the exclusion of people.
· Little attention to the importance, accuracy and effectiveness of the church’s internet presence.
· Missions participation is limited to missions education, but there is no personal participation in missions by members and no congregational mission strategy.
· Members are insiders and the community is viewed as outsiders.
· The pastor is figuratively a chaplain (as described above).
If so, it is time to commit to full repentance about some issues and to reflect about needed change regarding some others. We at the Middle Baptist Association would be pleased to help you and serve you as your congregation considers these questions.
* Researchers Neil Howe and William Strauss, Millennials Rising.