Some congregations enjoy successful ministries today, while many others do not. The successful ones draw people, others only repel them. These successful congregations enjoy growth. Other congregations only decline.
Why this radical contrast? The notable notable difference? Why are some churches effective and growing? Why are others congregations ineffective and non-growing? While there is no one answer to offer, there are a number of recognized symptoms that serve to block a congregations influence. Here are some of the notable symptoms that are often highlighted to portray struggling congregations.
- These fellowships form a certain club mentality. In this context, certain members become the major focus and concern. Keeping these individuals happy and satisfied becomes the ultimate and ongoing goal.
- Red tape decision making is followed. Nothing can be done unless it has passed numerous control procedures. Individuals in these congregations are afraid to do anything in lieu of the existing red tape. The leadership of the Holy Spirit is replaced by a lot of time-consuming and official decision making.
- Internal fussing and feuding is ongoing. Sometimes this becomes so severe that members choose to leave. Even those who attend a church from outside will avoid it like the plague. This practice of fussing and feuding is fueled by focusing on us in place of God and others.
- The unwillingness of a church to get out of ruts. Things are done the same way without any alterations. Any attempt at doing something different takes these congregations out of their comfort zone and they are avoided. They believe it isn’t of God if you change things. These congregations wish to grow, but are unwilling to change their ways in order to experience a turnaround and growth.
- Public worship is more dead than upbeat. The music is traditional and overly ritualistic. The spirit and attitude in the services lacks enthusiasm. Formality is their posture. Most everything follows an order and is highly predictable from week to week. Such fellowships need to cease doing things because this is the way the church has always done them.
- Members are more into sitting than they are serving. They become more of a number on the attendance board, than fulfilling a God-given ministry based on their abilities/gifts. When persons are not serving they will shrivel up and die. Congregations are often guilty of killing people spiritually by their dead and formal nature.
- Congregations need to enlarge their base. Offer more opportunities that will enhance spiritual growth and development. When you widen your base of opportunities, an enlargement of ministry takes place.
- Move beyond simply fulfilling what is normally expected. Engage in going the second mile. Disarm the critics. Mobilize your church in an accelerated fashion. Add new things to your otherwise traditional schedule.
- Create the biblical attitude of giving in place of receiving. Our consumer society has led to the thinking that the church exists to do the same cultural things. When this happens, congregations fall into the trap of entertainment in place of enlarging spiritual experiences on the Christian journey. When giving is replaced by receiving, we lose sight of kingdom actions.
Much in congregational practice today is guided more by churchianity than it is by Christianity. As a result, congregations will always seek to resemble their culture more than they do Christ. Spiritual health emerges and energizes a congregation when it moves toward freeing itself from the existing cultural forms of church practice that have been enslaving it and nullifying an effective ministry for Christ.
Frequently one hears a lot of negative comments within congregations today. Things are heard like:
- “The services at my church are boring!”
- “I never get anything our of church!”
- “Our preacher offers little or nothing worthwhile in his sermons!”
- “The music needs great improvement!”
- “The congregation I attend is simply a dead church, and ready for burial!”
Congregations do often suffer from being stagnant and dead. That is a given. Furthermore, this disease serves to increasingly place its members in passivity, as well as turn a number of its visitors away.
Yet, while the spiritual condition of congregations is often regularly lamented, and understandably so, the solution to such ills will not be effectively solved by always highlighting the problem or problems. By always moaning and groaning about what ought to be, but isn’t.
Allow me to get things focused in a reverse direction. Here’s a most important question for those to consider who are perpetually unhappy with their church: “AM I PART OF MY CHURCH’S PROBLEM, OR PART OF IT’S SOLUTION?” Remember, no chain is stronger than its weakest link. It never is. Never will be. And YOU are one of the existing vital links in the chain of your church.
Over time I have learned that the answers for unsatisfactory congregations is not to be found in giving a lot of rational considerations for why a church is not what it ought to be. In other words, by endeavoring to set forth numerous principles that will make a church either healthy or unhealthy. While such principles have some importance, and need to be highlighted, I think we often miss other underlying spiritual issues that are ever at play. And these underlying issues relate to not a few, but every member in a congregation.
Consider the following as major examples:
- When you are present in the services of your church, why are you there? Are you present with the end in mind to GET something? Or, are you present to GIVE something of yourself? Times of worship have come to be viewed in the present day as being much like attending a sporting event, or, attending a movie.
- Additionally, are you coming to a church gathering for the purpose of offering praise and to glorify God? Or, is your heart and mind focused much more on a multitude of other personal things? Have you even gathered in a tired and unreceptive heart and mind? The manner in which you approach worship will either make or break the worship experience.
- Is it even possible that you are putting the emphasis more on those who are leading the worship time than you are on yourself? Those leading worship cannot possibly make the worship time a spiritually rewarding experience if those who’ve gathered to worship are not in a spiritual frame of mind, and ready for what God wishes to offer them.
Acts ten records a most interesting worship time. Peter has been summoned to the home of Cornelius to preach. Note the important words of Cornelius to Peter: “Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us” (Acts 10:33 – NIV).
Every preacher I know would be thrilled to be in Peter’s shoes. Why? Because the persons are present and ready for what God has for them.
Lord, we pray for this attitude and spirit to prevail once again in our congregations today!!
The failure of congregations to progress and move forward are numerous. Manifold. It would require numerous pages to describe the various reasons for congregational decline.
One major reason why congregations often fall into decline though stems from a most subtle and overlooked factor: abnormal negativity being in operation within a church fellowship. While negativity can emerge in any size fellowship, it will often occur in smaller congregations. With congregations that are more passive in their culture than they are active in ministry.
Certain members will begin to find fault with something that’s been said or not said; that’s been done or left undone. The supposed fault will be exaggerated. Blown out of proportion. Talked about to a point of exasperation. And like cancer it will grow like a rolling snow ball among a certain group who have been apprised of the supposed fault. The fault will then eventually be raised to a most unnecessary and highly elevated status.
Congregations fail to understand that such activities are highly dismantling. It damages a church on the inside. It nonetheless damages a church and its image among those on the outside. A church with negativity comes to inherit a reputation and image of being a fighting and feuding fellowship. People soon choose to avoid any connection with a church that’s like this. If I could portray its evil in the most effective way possible, I would refer to it as one of the, “sins of highly defective congregations.”
Problems like this need to be highlighted. Brought into the daylight. Exposed. But problems need solutions. Ways, that is, to avoid such a serious pitfall in congregational life. How may the evil of negativity be overcome?
- By persons asking themselves, “am I part of the problem of negativity? In other words, have I fallen into this evil and subtle trap with others?”
- By understanding that negativity is part of the devil’s strategy for disrupting a congregation’s unity.
- By eliminating yourself from the circle of influencers who major in negativity.
- By understanding that you are hurting the health and well-being of your congregation by being a participant in negative messaging.
- By recognizing and understanding that abnormal engagement in negativity is one of the “sins of highly defective churches.”
- By acknowledging negativity as a growing problem in your life, and making a departure from it, along with asking for God’s forgiveness, as you seek a renewed pathway.
- By planting positive seeds rather than negative seeds in the life of your congregation, as you develop a positive attitude with the use of your lips and life.
Negativity, I’m discovering, can easily become a lifestyle. A response to everything experienced. An ever developing attitude. It can be initiated much easier than it can be eliminated. Only as we look to God for direction through Scripture and prayer, and come to see its evil in operation, are we able to make a departure from its evil ways.
I like the following words from an anonymous source: “A bad attitude is like a flat tire. You can’t go anywhere until you change it.”
A frequent concern I hear from church folks is that public worship experiences today are disappointing. Depressing. A drag. For much of what goes on in Sunday services, I’m told, is highly predictable, lacks interest, and offers the worshiper little satisfaction and fulfillment.
This disappointing response to public worship may indeed be due to the nature of the services. That’s always a possibility. A strong possibility. But there’s another reason, often overlooked, for the disappointment. Simply stated, the disappointment may be due to the spiritual attitude and condition of the worshiper.
I’m discovering that many who attend public worship today do so for various reasons. Here are a few of them.
- One reason is that the church goer is in the mood to attend church. I’m saying there are days when church worshipers will openly acknowledge that they should have stayed home in bed.
- A second reason why persons say they attend church is because of habit or tradition. Sunday for these persons is church day. Other days of the week are for other activities.
- Reason number three relates to one’s spouse or family members. If a member of the family expresses a deep interest in attending church on a particular Sunday, that becomes the reason for going.
- Another reason for attending church is to be entertained. They want their attendance to be worthwhile. It’s viewed as being like going to a movie or sporting event.
- A final reason for attending Sunday worship is connected with fear. If the person fails to attend church on Sunday, he or she is afraid of being placed on God’s black list. Some congregations will even use the guilt factor to motivate individuals to attend Sunday worship.
Let me move my thinking toward what I believe is the ever growing missing ingredient in congregational worship. In other words, why there’s such a bevy of mixed and confusing reasons and motivations for attending church.
Scripture’s major theme, I’m convinced, is glorifying and praising God. This suggests worship is an act of giving, and is not to be an attempt to get something. A worshiper isn’t attending church for any other reason than for ascribing praise and glory to the One who has delivered him or her from the curse and penalty of sin.
What would happen today in congregations if worshipers were there to give to God in place of attempting to receive something from Him? If worship was an expression of giving love and praise, and not just done out of some form of religious duty? It would definitely remove the temptation to appease God through attempting to earn points of merit and popularity with Him?
Are you following the train of thought followed here? If so, are you open to being changed by the biblical understanding of worship? I’m endeavoring to point out for the reader that fulfilling worship, whether public or private, will necessitate a deep and growing daily relationship with God on the part of the believer.
Now allow me to be a bit more personal and direct. Is this ingredient missing in your own worship experience? Is it missing in the worship experience of your congregation?
Most congregations I’m aware of today put great emphasis on their attendance board. To them the attendance board reflects the impact their congregation is making on their community. If the numbers are up, the congregation is doing well. If the numbers are down, weeping and gnashing of teeth is set in motion and can be heard throughout the congregation.
Additionally, the attendance board is predictably placed in a prominent spot. Congregations want everyone to see it. To view it carefully. For the attendance board will perhaps be a cause for current boasting and pride. At other times it will set off an urgent alarm that calls for some immediate attention and remedial action. Something such as, another new church program to motivate church members and visitors to attend more regularly. Or, an effort to begin what I call the “blame game.” Penning the problem for declining attendance on someone such as the preacher or preachers.
In other words, concern with the attendance board enables congregations to incorrectly measure success or failure. Progress or retreat. Making headway or moving toward the cemetery. Knowing how many are present on any given Sunday is also joined to a concern with who’s there and who isn’t there.
It may sound like I’m making fun of the attendance board. Belittling it. Making it appear unnecessary. Making an urgent appeal to transport it to the junkyard. But that isn’t my position here at all. My concern is that we make more of the attendance board in a congregation’s success than we do anything else. It has become the reigning king. Yet, nowhere in the New Testament do I see any such over-emphasis and fanaticism.
A preacher of years past has made the following excellent statement: “Sometimes we are more concerned about the absence of the people than we are the presence of the Lord.” Was Vance Havner on target? Is what he’s saying true of your church? Does your church place the majority of its concern on the people who are there and who are not there? In the process, has your church overlooked the more most important reason for gathering: TO ENCOUNTER GOD IN THE PUBLIC WORSHIP TIME? HAS GOD BEEN INCLUDED ON YOUR ATTENDANCE BOARD?
Allow me to make a few observations at this juncture.
- Could the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of congregations today be attributed to this wrong use of the attendance board? Have congregations given more attention to the people who are there than they have God?
- Do congregations need to remove the attendance board from public view as a helpful means of getting the focus more on God than who is or who is not there?
- Is it possible that our hearts have been positioned in the wrong place when we arrive at church gatherings? If the attendance board is our main concern and focus then this has happened.
- Should we remove the attendance board, keep track of figures, but utilize the figures more in a wholistic way, as only one of many means of measuring a congregations success or failure? A congregations progress is not attached to the attendance board alone.
One church leader shared with me his concern and sense of guilt about using the attendance board as a lone measuring device. Thus, he indicated that when he counted attendance he would add the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to the number. Why? Because if God isn’t there, have we missed the major reason for why we’ve assembled and exist as a church body??
With few exceptions congregations enjoy informing me that they are a friendly fellowship. And I must add here that they are friendly with me about highlighting their friendliness. They even go so far as to engage in bragging about being friendly. Yet, their friendliness is really all about the crowd with whom they’ve become familiar. They enjoy their private activities, like being together often, and eventually evolve into the assumption that friendliness isn’t a quality that’s lacking among them.
What’s amazing to these inside folks, however, is when they learn the feelings of those who enter their church for the first time from the outside. These individuals see and experience a totally different picture than what the insiders experience. In place of friendliness they are aware of what I wish to designate as the operation of a “holy huddle.” This “holy huddle” group seldom ever breaks the huddle long enough to welcome newcomers who walk inside one of their congregations services. That is, those who are outside the normal crowd that the insiders are used to seeing.
Another thing that often happens in established congregations is small interest groups. They do form. And they enjoy being together. In fact, they stay together. Hang together. They enjoy doing things in which common interests pervade. They erect their own programs, establish marginal mindsets, and structure comfortable zones in which they seek to maintain and control their turf. But an outsider, even a member of the same congregation, cannot join their elitist group. They won’t let them. And anyone who endeavors to crack into their group will be ignored. They will even go so far as to try and exclude those who attempt to challenge their “holy huddle.”
Allow me to openly say here that nothing is more damaging and divisive to having a healthy congregation than that of the existence of a “holy huddle” mentality. It’s wrecking many congregations in this day. How do I know? I’ve witnessed it. Have even heard church visitors who are extremely unhappy with it.
I’ve described the problem. Tried to describe it vividly and genuinely. But it’s not good to present a problem and offer no corrective. No solution. How can congregations break the “holy huddle” practice?
- By highlighting the problem. This practice often continues to raise its ugly head today because no positive efforts are ever put forward to identify and describe its evil presence. It becomes a vicious growing snowball as it continues rushing downhill.
- By each member committing himself or herself to being a solution to this existing problem. This will happen as he or she rufuses to become a contributing member to this “holy huddle” mentality.
- By the effort to prevent any marginalized or private group or groups from forming and creating divisive cells within the larger church body.
- By a faithful teaching and preaching of the Scriptures that attempts to focus on the dangers of such groups forming and disrupting a congregations unity.
- By faithfully loving all of God’s creation, everyone He’s created, regardless of their ages, appearances or backgrounds. The human body has various members, but these members must work together rather than work against each other. This important lesson needs to be continually learned within the body of Christ.
The next step involves YOU. Will YOU be a contributor to the “holy huddle” clan? Or, will YOU choose to be the problem solver by faithfully and responsibly huddling with all God’s people in God’s great work in YOUR larger community and world??
As a result of my life I wish to eventually leave a legacy. Leave something behind me that will make a lasting difference. My intention is to not take everything with me to the grave. Bury my blessings. Silence everything on which I’ve based my life.
Allow me though to share a concern I have right now. This concern is church related. About the church and its future. The church in relationship to my children and grandchildren. The church in relationship to your children and grandchildren.
In several different instances of my church health ministry I have encountered some discouraging remarks. They go something like this: “Bill our church is dying. We no longer have young folks. They’ve left us. Moved on somewhere else. As a result, our church is one of the last of a dying breed. Once our few members die, this building will be locked up and become part of the past.”
Several times I’ve been the listener to such open acknowledgments. I wish I could tell you that I’ve received these words without them having much effect on me. But I haven’t. For tears have welled up in my eyes. I’ve become intensely heartbroken. Depressed. Overwrought. Unable to believe what I’m hearing.
These church bodies began one day long ago with the highest intentions. The highest purposes. Motives. They were focused on ministering spiritual things to their families as well as reaching their communities. But the fire is gone. The hot passion is missing. They no longer are driven outward toward those around them. Instead, they are keeping the folks among them happy and pleased. They have become dried-up spectacles of a once exciting day of ardor and zeal for the Lord.
What has happened?
- There is no longer a heart remaining for continuing what once began in great earnest. It’s now about maintaining what’s left. What’s available. What these folks have to work with.
- There is no interest in perpetuating what was once so important. With having a vibrant church body of believers. Leaving a legacy. They do not see the church as an ongoing relay race, in which they pass the faith on to those who will follow them. Instead, everything is about to be taken with them to the grave.
- There is no sensitivity about the Lord’s final commission of “making disciples.” Passing the faith on to others. They now have the only disciples the church will most likely ever have. It’s no longer about others, it’s all about us. JUST US!!
- There is no awareness of the impact and influence God meant for these congregations to continue making. They’ve pulled up the tent stakes so to speak, and are ready to close down business. Their prayers are for their own. Prayers for the salvation and transformation of persons around them is non-existent.
- There is an established attitude that the church now exists for them. Them alone. Their own little crew. Even the sermons and lessons and activities are meant to be about them. What they want. What they believe is necessary.
- There’s a great bit of lamentation being heard these days about what’s going on in our country. The loss of biblical morality and precious spiritual values. Everyone is tuned-in to the latest disheartening media news. But they’re not equally tuned-in to the current demise of the church.
Allow me to raise a question in closing for doing some further intense praying and soul-searching: IS IT POSSIBLE THE CONDITION OF OUR COUNTRY AND WORLD IS THE RESULT OF A PASSIONLESS CHURCH IN THESE DARK DAYS??
As we age we grow more to dislike change. In fact, we seek to avoid it. Work around it, over it, or through a run for your life attitude away from it.
We think doing things differently is to much of a challenge. Exacts to many demands. Makes for discomfort. Thus, don’t rock the boat. Don’t mess with my comfort zone.
With all the foregoing said, Christianity was born in the matrix of change. Of becoming different. Something unlike what we were before. Moving from one state of existence into another. For the call to the biblical teaching on repentance engaged us in serious change. Extreme change.
Yet, once we changed, this experience was not intended to be a dead-end road. We’ve changed, now we believe that the expectation to change is behind us. No longer necessary. As a result, there’s a tendency to revert back into the same old person we once were.
But get this: Change didn’t end once we were converted to Christ. Change continues. It goes on throughout our lifetime. Unless you change you become stuck. Frozen. Paralyzed. Caught in a state in which you cannot proceed. Furthermore, when you do not change, you fail to experience growth in your walk as a Christ follower.
Allow me to cross over from individual Christian experience to church life. Here’s what I’ve observed: The church often falls into the same non-changing rut as that of the Christ follower. We become caught in the confusing maze of doing things repetitively. Over and over. In the way we’ve always done them.
Through this unchanging posture, some tragic things happen to a congregation.
- We do things the same way in church week after week. Seldom is there any change from the format that has come to define us.
- We like our established style. So much so, any attempt to move things in a different direction is a “no no.” You try to touch the established pattern and you’ve moved into non-sacred territory.
- We believe to change is a compromise. Drifting from the truth. Running away from sacred territory. Choosing the world’s way over the Lord’s way.
- We fail to realize we’ve established a religious world of our own. One that’s disconnected from Christ and His original concerns. We’ve then morphed into speaking our own “Christianeze language.” The language of the tribe. The language of those on the inside. Those who are familiar with the rituals, language and practices.
- We then lose a connection with the community around us. We are doing our thing. Enjoying our tribal meetings. But those around us have no idea what we’re doing. In fact, they’ve long ago quit paying any attention to us. What’s worse, we’ve adopted the attitude: “It’s our way, friends, or the highway!!”
- We need to focus more on those outside. On those around us. More toward them and less on ourselves. If we don’t, reaching them is only a private dream, and it will never be actually experienced.
Does this sound like your church? The fellowship in which you find yourself? Are you comfortable with being a private tribal church body like I’ve described? I’m not. And I pray that you aren’t either. In fact, I’m wondering if you are willing to make the giant leap today by way of embracing change. If so, you’ll be surprised how much you and your church will become a powerful magnet in your community.
Biblical congregations are designed to grow in number and commitment. They are healthy when they do grow. They are unhealthy when they do not grow. Church leaders will generally acknowledge they want their church to grow. They want their congregation to advance. To progress. But the greater majority of traditional congregations still remain in the condition of being either plateaued or declining.
So why? Why are so many congregations demonstrating unhealthy traits? By going backwards? Drifting? Becoming lifeless? Is it because of the preacher or preachers they have? The area in which they’re located? The adverse times in which we live? The age of the membership, because they lack younger folks? Is it because of insufficient monetary resources? Or, is there another reason that can be offered?
The issue of non-growth, I believe, is not related to any of the foregoing areas. Rather, non-growth falls back primarily onto the lap of the congregation itself. Let me share some reasons why, I believe, congregations are personally responsible for their own reversal.
- It’s because they are unwilling to change the way they do church. Congregations get into an operational comfort zone, passively choose to remain in their past functional molds, and eventually emerge into believing this is the way church has always been done. Thus, it needs to remain the same way it was. Thus: “DON’T MESS WITH THE ESTABLISHED PATTERN!!”
- It’s because they have leaders and members who barricade attempts to move out of whatever it is they’ve become. Any attempt at changing what exists will cause a nucleus of persons to “kick up their heels!!” They will stir up church contention. Fall back on the need to follow their procedures and by-laws. Threaten to leave. Fire their preacher. Encourage the change agitators to leave the church. The big push is: “TO KEEP THINGS AS THEY ARE!! IF THINGS AREN’T BROKE, DON’T TRY AND FIX THEM!!”
- It’s because they believe the church exists first and foremost to suit their own tastes and wants. Why not? They started it. Sacrificed to pay for it. Are presently paying to keep its doors open. Thus, it’s our baby. Those outside the church have no “say so” with how this church will operate. In short, “IT BELONGS TO US!! DON’T ROCK THE BOAT!!”
- It’s because they suffer from a lack of sensitivity for the needs of a lost and hurting community and world. A congregations Divine mission and mandate is always to the world, not to itself. Its purpose was never meant to be primarily about itself. Here’s what’s happened: Selfishness has replaced service. Me and us have replaced others. Comfort has replaced change. Tradition has sidestepped transformation. Even procedure has uprooted prayer.
The church is called to a life of outreach and others. The mis-directed church needs to be restored. Will it begin with YOU??
Congregations that honor God possess both inward and outward eyes. Yet, this double vision eyesight is often absent in many traditional congregations today.
Why does this eyesight problem exist? Because congregations are frequently plagued by a serious blind spot. This blind spot emerges when any congregation is deeply familiar with their own people, but fail to have eyes for the needs of those outside their fellowship walls.
This serious eyesight problem is why many older congregations are unable to grow today. They are in a holding pattern. They are either plateaued, or, experiencing significant decline. They are able to see inwardly but cannot see with outward eyes.
Why again is this eyesight problem in evidence?
- Because the majority of established congregations are mainly focused on keeping those on the inside happy. Congregational life is about the insiders and not about the outsiders.
- Because they have fosselized into being an organized club and have closed club membership to those who are inside and with whom they already know and are officially aligned.
- Because they have dedicated their efforts to discipling their own members, and have forfeited any thought or effort with regard to discipling those on the outside.
- Because they’ve morphed into their own isolated religious form, and have lost sight of the biblical mandate to the nations, which includes their own community.
- Because there are no internal leaders in their fellowship who are postured and able to help return their misguided fellowship into being a congregation that includes mission and outreach to others.
- Because outside assistance to reverse their eyesight problem is avoided and ignored. They believe they can solve their own problems. Yet, blindness requires outside spiritual eyes to get a congregation back on target.
- Because the problem of congregational drift places a fellowship in a rut and comfort zone that is difficult, if not impossible, to break free of.
- Because comfort is more readily and easily embraced than any attempt to restore a congregation to its original intent and purpose.
- Because many congregations are wrongly directed by the ancient dictum, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
- Because no one, not even a congregation, wishes to go through a corrective procedure with something like eyesight. For it will take considerable time and effort to correct.
Preservation of the status quo has, more often than not, replaced the biblical passion to move outward and expand. Satisfaction has taken the place of improvement. Yet, the mandate of Jesus remains. It has not changed. It’s still in operation. For Jesus has instructed: “Go … and make disciples … ” (Matthew 28:19).
Does your congregation need a lens correction??
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