Thursday, November 17, 2011

Churches Trying to Find Their Way

I am continuing on my jaunt through Revelation and the Seven Churches and how their stories are similar to stories that we hear today.  Let's talk about the three churches that I put into "group one" from Tuesday's blog post.  These are the churches that appear to be churches but, in essence, have lost their zeal and their core.  They are the congregations without depth, a mere shell of what they once were and are on the path to dying if they do not change their ways.  These are the churches where you have members who long for the good ole days.  These are the churches where you have members who will try just about anything to try to turn the tide of decline.  They didn't plan to decline, it just happened!  Or, perhaps there was a difference of opinion which caused a rift and some of the members left.  Either way, they are not what they used to be when they started out.  Ephesus is told "you have abandoned the love you had at first." (Revelation 2:4).  Sardis is told "you have a name of being alive, but you are dead." (Revelation 3:1).  Laodicea is told "you are neither cold nor hot." (Revelation 3:15).

In modern day parlance, these are churches that our conference would identify as needing to be revitalized, particularly if they were in a "strategic area" (i.e. urban center or large community).  So the conference "lovingly" and "strongly" recommends that the church members agree to participate in a revitalization program (in our area, they call it the Healthy Church Initiative).  If the church agrees to participate, there are books to be read, consultants are sent in, secret shoppers show up at unknown times, teams are created and then a report is issued with prescriptions of what the church needs to do to turn itself around.  A mission statement and vision statement are created and the congregation has a year to implement the prescriptions.  Periodic "progress report" meetings are held during this time to make sure the church is staying on track.  My church chose to participate in the process.

Let me just say this, because I know I am about to tread in touchy territory as I voice my opinion.  Healthy Church Initiative is a good idea, as far as it goes.  My church was excited to participate and we did really well through the process.  I applaud the conference for trying to come up with a workable process.  There were changes made, and some of them worked out very well and they have had a positive influence.  But, there came a point when it seemed like the prescriptions became items to check off of a checklist rather than noble and worthy goals to accomplish.  I struggled for a long time trying to put my finger on the exact moment that the subtle change happened and I struggled with why it happened.  It wasn't until I heard Bill Hybels speak at the Leadership Institute that I made the connection and put words to the nagging feeling that lay just under the surface.  Bill gave a talk that he titled "5 Greatest Leadership Lessons" and it was a profound "ah-ha" moment for me at the time!  Here are the five lessons that he shared:

1)  Vision-paint a picture of the future that produces passion in people.  Watch out for "vision leaks".
2)  Get people in your church engaged.  There is a difference between agreeing with a vision and owning a vision.
3)  Make your gatherings memorable.  People are yearning for experience-to feel the touch of God, somehow, in some way.
4)  Pace yourself for the long haul.  "Hitting the wall" or "burn out" brings about anger-no depth.
5)  Pay attention to whispers from God.  Big things start with a whisper.  Discern-make sure they are from God then obey them.

Point number 2 was the "ah-ha" moment for me.  This also, in a round about way, gets back to the comment that John Meunier posted on my blog post from yesterday.  As a leader, as a church, you need to discern God's vision for you and your congregation, but at some point each individual has to take ownership of that vision.  Or, as Bill Hybels says, "you have skin in the game!"

Ron Crandall, in his book "Turn Around Strategies for the Small Church" says this on page 69:
"...pastors who lead congregations to find a corporate vision, have a personal vision already at work in their own lives.  They believe in a personal God who intervenes in history and changes people.  Their own experiences of conversion or their call to ministry are vivid, and they are thus convinced that God is ready and able to touch the lives of others."
The realization that I came to was that many agreed with the vision that came out of our Healthy Church Initiative.  Not everyone chose to "own" the vision. It was not a conscious choice or an intentional choice or even an outright rejection of the vision.  The effort was sincere, people were honestly looking for a way to improve!  But at some point along the way, the prescriptions became a checklist, rather than goals to help reach the vision.  The vision statement was warm and fuzzy enough to make you feel like it meant something but vague enough to leave room for interpretation.

Our members worked hard to try to fulfill the prescriptions.  Some burned out, and some ended up feeling hurt and angry because change didn't happen even though we as a congregation followed the prescriptions.  There are many good things going on at our church, but I sense that some long for more!

I often wonder what difference it would have made if we had written our own prescriptions?  Or, if instead of just having the prescriptions, if the consultants had led the congregation of literally writing goals and action items for each prescription listed?  If we had tied certain "action items" from the prescription, specifically to the vision would it have made a difference?    I can't say for sure that it would have made a difference but knowing the heart of the folks at my church I think it might very well have been the tipping point because the members would have had a say as to what was being done, how it was being done, but even more importantly why it was being done!

For me personally, I am a casualty of point number 4 on Bill's list.  I'm not angry, I'm just burned out.  Being at church is painful for me right now.  I love my church and I love my friends, my church family!  I see the hope that lives in them.  I also see the frustration and hurt and exhaustion.  I pray that the sparks of renewal become a flame.

Going back to Ron Crandall's book, on page 43, he talks about Howard Snyder's book "Signs of the Spirit". Howard discusses the 5 different but interrelated principles that historically have led to church renewal and revitalization through the ages.  They are:

1)  Personal Renewal-a dramatic, decisive experience or simply a deepening that gives greater peace and joy.
2)  Corporate Renewal-a dramatic spirit of revival sweeping the church, or simply by a gentle quickening of the church's life.
3)  Conceptual Renewal-God gives a new vision of what the church can and should be.
4)  Structural Renewal-simply finding the best forms, in our day and age, for living out the new life in Christ.
5)  Missiological Renewal-A church needing renewal is focused inward.  A renewed church focuses outward to mission and service in the world.

Maybe we, like the churches in Revelation, need a little more prayer.  And perhaps the conference can best help a church in these circumstances by bringing in the consultants and have them do the study, exactly as they have been doing.  But instead of the consultants writing the prescriptions, perhaps it would be best to lead the congregation to prayerfully consider  the information gathered, and write their own prescriptions.  It would help members connect to the vision and have "skin in the game".  They are not hopeless or dead, they are just trying to find their way.

No comments:

Post a Comment