church issues

In your efforts to revive a struggling church, the temptation is to lock in on the latest trend or someone else’s success story.  However, each situation is unique, and times are always changing.  There is no single solution that is guaranteed to work.

This is why I was concerned by the recent decision by the United Methodists to endorse ‘blended worship’ as THE solution to end flagging attendance.

The UM Portal itself noted on June 10 that some congregations were vibrant and growing by using hymns and choirs (in robes!).

I was recently in a growing Baptist congregation in upstate New York that uses hymns (piano accompaniment) – I was there for the 30-minute Wednesday night sermon.  We sang 4 or 5 hymns and an invitational.

It’s not the style of music but that the congregation participates.  In our Massachusetts church, after a couple of whole-church learning sessions, we decided on a blended service that started with choruses but also included hymns; that church now uses an active blend, but it is the music the congregation can sing.

Consider the Taize movement.  The songs are almost chants, and there is no real leader in the service, except that there is a suggested program for what comes next.  There are times of public and private scripture reading, times of silence and times of singing – the accompanist decides when is the appropriate time to start & stop singing.  Taize works because those who come participate.

The worst choice is one that the congregation doesn’t participate in.  They probably won’t join in to Gregorian chants, but neither will they join a too-loud concert of unfamiliar Contemporary Christian music.

The term UPG – Unreached People Group – refers to any identifiable population or tribe where there is less than 2% gospel penetration and/or little or no indigenous church planting.  There might be an active missions effort or not, but so long as the congregations rely on outside support for survival, they are not considered indigenous.  In extreme cases, there is no substantive or consistent witness to the Christian gospel message.

At our church in Massachusetts in the 1990s, we had relied on outside missions teams to run our summer camps and perform repair and maintenance of our buildings for most of our history.  We were a self-run independent congregation, but a sliver denomination in an area that was overwhelmingly post-Christian, with 90% not attending any kind of Christian assembly on a consistent basis.

Even so, we started our own mission (co-funded with outside support!) to the up and outs in downtown Boston, and planted the congregation on Beacon Hill, just blocks from the statehouse.

This was similar to what Eric Metaxas refers to as the UPG of cultural elites.  His essay on Gabe Lyons’ book The Next Christians illustrates the importance of reaching those with influence and the dangers of retreating to our closeted safe congregations.

By giving in to our pride and abandoning the elite culture of places like New York City Christians have hurt the rest of the culture by allowing a secular worldview to dominate the whole culture, just as it did in England before. Surely a God who would have us humble ourselves and pray for demon-worshiping cannibals would have us humble ourselves and reach out to pro-choice television anchors, too.

It’s a question worth pondering.  How is your congregation reaching out to those not like you, those in civic and cultural leadership positions in your community?

Today is the holiday to commemorate Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.  On this day, I usually listen to some of his speeches, such as the eloquent word choices in the Dream speech given at the Lincoln Memorial on Aug 28, 1963.  I listened again today on NPR in the car, and then again when I got home. (watch it yourself)

One thing that struck me this year was the introduction.  Dr King was called ‘the spiritual leader of the nation.’  Not Billy Graham.  Not the other 4 speakers at that event (whose names are largely forgotten).  Dr King’s use of scripture to make a moral and social point in the middle of his speech, his insistence that civil rights was a spiritual problem to be addressed by spiritual means.

My home church did that earlier this month when they covered the front lawn with 2,470 crosses, to call attention to the abortion issue.  Not a political statement, but a statement of belief, calling attention to the problem in a way that would not be ignored by passers-by.  It got attention.  The sign was torn down and some of the  crosses were uprooted and thrown into the street.  The sign was replaced with a simple message: “considering abortion? there is an alternative.  call us” and gave the number.  It made the paper.

There are other examples, of course, of Christians giving the faith a bad name.  Protesting funerals.  Pastors arrested for unholy acts.  For these we cringe, and move forward in spite of them.

What are you doing to advance the Gospel in the community?   Wilberforce and his group of friends reshaped England and Western Civilization by speaking out against slavery and complacency.  How are you exercising spiritual leadership?

Seth Godin wrote a great post this week about the “About” tag on websites, called “Five rules  for your About page.”

It’s 5 simple rules, but they speak volumes:

1.  Don’t use marketing jargon.  Tell us who you are and what you stand for.  In plain language your grandmother could understand.

2.  Don’t use a stock photo of someone not at your church.  Use real pictures of real people (with their permission).  Not just leaders.  Ordinary people.  Helps visitors connect when they see the web face sitting next to them in the pew.

3.  Make it easy to contact you. Don’t hide the address or phone number.  Don’t use an email address that doesn’t work anymore.

4. is like 1.  He says to “Be human. Write like you talk and put your name on it. Tell a story, a true one, one that resonates.”

5.  Use true testimonials to build credibility.  Helps if it’s not someone on staff.

Good words.  Read and heed.  (excuse me while I edit mine!)

Ed Stetzer, the Chief Researcher and Missiologist at Lifeway Publishers, did a study a couple of years ago on the state of church planting.  He referenced some of the reports from that study in a recent blog post.  I’ll talk about two topics:  the cost of planting a new church and improving the health of a church plant.

The big factors tend to be monetary, volunteers, and intangibles.

The average church plant budget is $246,346 in startup funding.  They are expected to raise a third to one half of that independent of the sponsoring organization(s), which contribute an average of $172,200.  Some will start on less, and some will consume 4 times that – up to $1M.

Stetzer notes that successful church pastors raise a lot of their support from outside sources.  Struggling churches don’t.

A large part of the cost is salary.  A successful church has two full-time staffers, the pastor and one other, usually worship pastor.

In terms of volunteers, 88% of fast-growing congregations have a leadership team. (Only 12% of struggling churches are supported by a team, suggesting that 88% of struggling churches are led by a single pastor who is trying to do it alone.)  While this may not incur a direct financial cost, it does impose costs on the pastor.  The most obvious is the time it takes to wait for the volunteers to understand the vision.  You could probably do it better yourself, but letting the team do it extends the results and keeps the planter from burning out.

I hope you are also spending resources to train volunteers.  If the pastor/planter is the only one with understanding, it will cripple development.  But a well-trained team can be leveraged to do more than what the planter could ever accomplish alone.

And there are facility costs.  Rent or mortgage, lights, heating and cooling, restrooms and trash.

Know also that marketing and advertising will cost.  Best estimates suggest 10% should be spent.  Also be generous with refreshments.  If you nickel and dime the parishioners who also give a tithe, it negates the message that “God will provide.”  If God is providing, then why would you operate as if you can’t afford donuts and coffee?

In conversation this evening, I spoke with a man about being stuck in the past.  It was about a man in a small congregation who knows and uses the phrase “We’ve never done that here before.”

The incident was when the man, leader of the church council, invited a Christian magician to perform in the church’s fellowship hall.  The magician is very good, and it was great fellowship.  But when it was over, “Charlie” came up and said he didn’t like what they’d done.

Why didn’t Charlie like the show? He said “the church shouldn’t be a community center.”

Actually, the church ought to be a community center.  A good church’s facility  is the center of the community, and a place of community action for the members.  That’s who we are.  If we use the skills of other believers to draw people in for social interaction, they will get to know us and hopefully give us permission to talk about our faith.

Or we can close the doors.

“This generation wants meat. They are tired of silly events that have a little Scripture thrown in, or events where junk food is served up large and the Bible doesn’t make the menu. ”

Alvin Reid is one of my favorite thinkers, especially where it comes to young adults.  He’s been looking at the spiritual landscape and calls today’s rising young adults “A Generation of Carnivores.”  They migrate to and fill a church where the pastor will “teach the Bible verse by verse, sometimes an hour or more weekly.”  It takes some preparation and presentation, but they will respond.

Not so, he says, the older generations.  We’ve trained them to need “dumbed-down” sermons” of spiritual milk.  But if you do that, you can grow a crowd without growing a church. It will  take staff and effort but have no base, and very few committed tithers.  Those kinds of members “donate” a little time and money to the cause-of-the-month, but have no staying power.  We know that won’t work to sustain your church long-term.

There is a younger generation of believers who are tired of “do the minimum” Christianity. They want it straight, they want it real, and they want it now. If you teach the Bible, and if young adults you teach sense you genuiely love them and love Jesus, you can get right in their grills. In fact, you must. If however they perceive you as a smart aleck, or you stereotype them to the extreme, you will lose them. And you will never have a chance with unchurched  young adults.

Do this and live.


Dr Alvin Reid is Professor of Evangelism at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, author and frequent speaker at youth events.

Can a small church be effective?  Can it transform its community?  How can a struggling church become a “transformational” small church?

Ed Stetzer, chief missiologist and researcher at Lifeway, is hosting a free webcast on the topic on Sept 7, from 10-4 Central.  If you can get to Nashville, it’s just $10.  If you can’t you can watch on free webcast.

And if you’re near Newport News, Virginia, you can watch the webcast and network with other local small churches.  It’s being hosted by Deer Park Baptist Church, 10:20am-5:15pm (eastern).  See the details at Netcasting:Ideas

Disagreements turned to fights and disarray at Macedonia Baptist Church in Suffolk, VA this year.  It started badly and went south fast.  Soon the police were called to lock the door and arrest some of the members.  Five months later, there’s still no resolution.

What went wrong?

The church is an independent Baptist church that had 75 in December.  On March 7, a Sunday morning, the trustees and a deacon met the pastor at the door and told him he had been fired and was not going to preach that morning.  When church members found out what had happened, there was so much turmoil the police had to come keep order.

Next, the pastor called a meeting for the following Sunday (Mar 20) to discuss what had happened and what to do next.  During that meeting, two members (husband and wife) assaulted another member and were sentenced April 26.

At some point after the March 14 meeting, the trustees changed the locks on the church building, posted a “no trespassing” sign in the window, and directed the pastor and his family not to enter the property.

During the March 20 meeting, the pastor got a majority to vote him back in, and then they held a second meeting on May 16 to ratify the vote, and replace the trustees (including the man arrested in March), the treasurer and some of the deacons.

Things were quiet for a few weeks, but then on July 25 (also a Sunday), the pastor and some of his supporters fired the new trustees.  Police were called on reports of “people in the church out of control” and “screaming.”

Next, there were arson threats and allegations that the pastor was changing the locks and the financial reports.  Court filings from both sides allege financial irregularities.  A community event that annually uses the property has been canceled because “the pastor didn’t have the authority to rent the space.”  The pastor has also removed several members.

When the local Judge returns from vacation, the church will ask for a trial.

What can you learn from their misfortune? Plenty.

  • If you want to remove the pastor, don’t do it on Sunday morning.  Tell the pastor mid-week, and have a replacement lined up for Sunday.  If you have cause, say so in open session.  Deeds done in secret will come to light, and the consequences will be worse.
  • Audit the books regularly.  It’s hard to accuse leadership of impropriety if a neutral third party is auditing.
  • Form associations with other congregations.  You may never need remediation, but they might.  Scripture warns us to solve our own problems, and not rely on the civil courts to solve spiritual issues.

source:  Tracy Agnew at Suffolk News Herald

I saw a church sign like none I’ve seen before.  Instead of using their curbside advertiser to spout cute sayings, Mount Zion Baptist in Hampton chose to honor someone never seen or noticed by most.

How many churches have you seen honor an usher?  Generally, it’s the pastor, or some other senior staff member.  Not an usher.  Ushers stand in the parking lot, or at the door, or in the aisle.

When the visitor overcomes intertia and comes, these special volunteers help them find a place to park, help them know where to take children, and find them a place to sit that meets their individual preferences.  A good usher makes the hesitant first-timer feel like an old friend.

So when someone passes a milestone like 25 years of faithful service, the good churches will make a big deal out of it.  It’s one of the reasons that church was in the middle of a building campaign for more education space.

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