Snapshot: How God Renews Congregations through HealthierChurch.org
“Jesus looked at them and said… ‘With God all things are possible.’”[i]
“Unless current trends are reversed at once, congregations can count on no more than 2-8 years of life expectancy. And a congregation with 8 years left can turn into less overnight.”[ii] Perhaps the winds of change, as never before, have contributed to making a majority of mainline congregations at risk. The risk is nothing less than closing the church doors. Is there no chance for congregation renewal?
Jesus says about congregation renewal, “With man this is impossible but…” We cannot hide from this urgency. We cannot renew congregations and we cannot allow this gloomy forecast to come about on our watch. We simply cannot afford to sleep at the switch any longer. God’s call is reflected in a recent book, “Wake Up, Church!”[iii] On the other hand, Jesus does not say that congregation renewal is impossible. He says, “With man this is impossible.” But we cannot access the promise without first recognizing the malignancy. Humanly speaking congregation renewal is impossible.
Please do not table this discussion to a more convenient time. The winds of change are already blowing church doors closed. We have no time to spare. You know the symptoms:
- Declining worship attendance
- Financial support is coming from fewer “members”
- We have greater difficulty getting people to accept leadership roles
- Many of the faithful are nearing burnout because their plates are too full
- A majority of those listed in congregation directories are Uninvolved, Under-involved, Uninvited, or Uncomfortable[iv]
- It is publicly stated that the institutional church is viewed with suspicion, negativism, and disinterest[v]
- Youth and young adults are not participating in congregation ministries
Notice that we call these characteristics symptoms rather than causes. Whether congregations are in decline due to leader misconduct or controversy over issues, congregation survival preempts thriving. When we live in a culture “stripped of grace,”[vi] the symptoms reflect the decreasing life expectancy of congregations.
One deep threat to spiritual growth is apathy. Apathy is more difficult to resolve than open conflict. Apathy becomes terminal when leaders postpone taking action. Another deep threat to spiritual growth is institutional self-centeredness. A member says, “I just hope the doors stay open until I die.”
Some congregations need to close their doors. On the other hand, we have seen congregations that close their doors without reason. They slept through the missional opportunities that are embedded in those symptoms. They did not ask themselves, “What will I say to my grandchildren when they ask, ‘What happened to the church, Grandpa, weren’t you there?’” They didn’t give thought to the mission.
Yes, humanly speaking congregation renewal is impossible. Then Jesus adds, “BUT.” That “but” is followed by a great contrasting promise, “With God all things are possible.” If we wake up. Perhaps God will clean out the cobwebs of our minds and lead us to become spiritually proactive. Enough of complaining. We can focus on we can do instead of grumbling. What if we identified those who are willing to take the transformational path? We have built-in coalition of the willing. We who want to make a difference in helping design the future of our congregation to do God’s mission have God’s promise, “This is possible!”
We might need to remove the tumor. We might need to become unapologetically thankful in Christ. We might choose to be viral in mission interpretation and celebrate what God is doing in the world.
Below are suggestions that need to be implemented. The time has come for a full-court press to keep the church doors open. God promises that through the Holy Spirit, every congregation can bundle the energy together:
- Focusing on the Uns participating in congregation ministries
- Developing new leaders by invitation and prayer
- Managing conflict responsibly
- Claiming our existing Spirit-given unity
- Enrolling ourselves into life-long learning
- Designing inspiring worship
- Implementing a compelling vision
- Creating a culture of generosity
The compelling question we invite you to answer is, “At this time in the life of your congregation, are you hungry and thirsty enough to do whatever it takes to help your congregation grow?” HealthierChurch.org coaches consult with congregations and denominations in North America. We believe congregations, regardless of their size or context, can grow because they already have the needed spiritual gifts.
God calls us to grow. It is that simple, and that difficult. Begin by making the commitment.” It is not enough to dream of what congregation renewal might look like. “Liking” is not the same as “resolving.” What does resolve mean? The best answer I heard came from a five-year-old who said, “Promising yourself you will never give up.” Step aside, Webster. My mentor told me, “Resolve is burning desire. A burning desire says, with full conviction, ‘That is my mountain; with God’s help I will wave to you from the top, or die on the side, because I will not quit.’” When a congregation discovers that burning desire, the world has a way of stepping aside. The congregation accomplishes greater things than they ever imagined, with God’s help.
When congregations are able to name their alphas (“what we are good at doing”) and deltas (“what our best opportunities for return on investment are”) ministry priorities emerge. Then congregations grow. The question is simply, “When do you want to grow?” Some congregations never answer that question, and the longer they say “not now” the closer they get to “never.” One congregation took five years to decide to begin. Another congregation called us before 9 o’clock the morning after their council meeting and said, “We need to put together a covenant.” Which congregation are you?
If you like choices, we offer four stretch levels of participation, each determined by our spiritual maturity: A) an hourly option, B) a one-day option, C) a four-month option, and D) a one-year option. Each level of participation has different advantages and disadvantages. All the levels of participation have a common lens – they each focus on God’s mission and how you can make a difference at this point in your spiritual journey.
Think of the different levels of participation as similar to caring for a car. Consider which levels are most likely to grow your congregation at this time:
1. One-hour session: One-hour mentoring can give direction to the senior pastor, executive team, board of elders, or church council to keep the congregation running smoothly. You might compare it to changing the oil in your car, washing the salt to prevent rust, or filling the gas tank. Congregations that benefit most from hourly sessions are those that have a smooth running engine and want to keep them that way. They recognize the importance of regular checkups as preventative maintenance that can prevent bigger challenges down the road. HealthierChurch.org Coaches use the God-given precious minutes to discern which areas of leadership are: 1) life-giving, 2) life-draining, 3) clarifying, and 4) hope-generating. This Spirit-led direction requires: a) an above average capacity for insight, and b) dependable discipline. The ideal way to use mentoring is in 1 to 6 sessions in three months or less, and repeat the process as often as desired.
2. One-day event: Overnight evangelism retreats or one-day transformational leader conferences can give direction for congregation leaders by providing education and reflection. You might compare it with getting driving directions from your GPS for a trip in your car. It will not help your car run better, but if you use them the way they are supposed to be used, they can help you keep from getting lost or wasting precious time. It is like keyless entry to warm your car in winter or cool it in the hot summer before you get in the car. It doesn’t fix anything, but it feels good when you appreciate it. Congregations that benefit from the one-day option are those that discern the need to explore one specific ministry area, such as outreach or transformational decision-making. The one-day option is usually inspiring through intentional focus and reflection. On the other hand, such events often lose their inspirational value, for a variety of reasons. The best way to use retreats and one-day conferences is as an annual tradition to energize peoples’ spirits.
3. Four-month covenant: A good way to grow in a specific ministry area is to begin with a plan, add skill-building, and discern measurable intended outcomes. When you begin to drive a car, it is important to get driver education, learn to get a driver’s license, how to get better mileage, and become aware of safety habits; but the car also needs new brakes, tires, and some occasional engine noise. Congregations that benefit most from a Four-month covenant are those that have newly discovered the value of doing things with excellence and want to focus on one obvious ministry area that would give the greatest return on investment, such as stewardship with an annual response or spiritual gifts with integrating it into the life of the congregation. For them, this is an appropriate level of participation. The best time to choose a Four-month covenant is when it is apparent that it would help congregation renewal to begin a staged upgrade toward full congregation renewal that will take a holistic approach to expanding God’s mission.
4. One-year covenant: Your one-year covenant is different from the three previous levels of participation, which only addressed one ministry area at a time. Your One-year covenant enables your congregation culture to grow God’s mission and ministry. Continuing the comparison with how to care for your car, this level of participation shifts your focus away from day-to-day repairs and maintenance, and focuses on the benefits you need from your car, weighed against fixing. The repaired car will still be uncomfortable and undependable, and you know there are improvements that were not formerly available. You are “just looking,” and yet replacement surfaces once in a while. An upgrade might be considered, priorities always need an annual audit, and vocabulary is worth clarifying. Congregations that benefit most from a One-year covenant are those who are “just looking” at the mature importance of such things as leadership development, decision-making, assimilating guests to participating disciples, implementing a giftedness-based ministry, and/or seriously engaging the Uninvolved, Under-involved, Uninvited, or Uncomfortable. The best time to engage in a One-year covenant is when you see the fruit of what God has done in the past and how that growth occurred, and also when this level of participation would obviously be more attractive to guests and outreach into the community for one reason: it is a snapshot of how your congregation can make a difference in expanding God’s mission; and you see it as a way to be church rather than a program.
All of the levels of participation are centered in being led by the Spirit. Of course, the option that focuses on developing an overall culture of renewal in the congregation is the One-year covenant. It is also most beneficial when a congregation enters into this covenant as a multi-year initiative that includes the development of future leaders for the congregation. It is my greatest personal joy to work with congregations that are truly ready to grow.
What does it look like when a congregation engages HealthierChurch.org in a One-year covenant? The rest of this narrative pictures that snapshot.
The Year of Renewal begins with a Congregation Health Survey that provides a current picture, or snapshot, of how the congregation perceives its effectiveness of some 20 non-programmatic ministry areas currently. The most significant results of this survey are presented to congregation leaders and staff, and they immediately discover somewhat surprising areas for celebration, called alphas. They also discover the overall importance of the congregation’s perceived current growth opportunities, called deltas. The message clearly communicates what the congregation most supports in growth, often with enthusiasm. The decision-making process is enjoyable. The Year of Renewal is ready to begin establishing momentum.
The first three months. The covenant year might be described as a clock with every five minutes representing a month in the One-year covenant year. Picture both hands on 12. The first part, from 12 till 3, lays the solid foundation. The HealthierChurch.org Coach reviews the trends of the congregation, becomes acquainted with its history, analyzes the census data, previews the congregation renewal process, facilitates the identification and enlistment of people resources, and leads a streamlined vision planning process (that literally takes a 1-2 year process and accomplishes it within 10 days), and the all-important timetable when everything is detailed, yet with flexibility. The staff and the leaders are most appreciative of this information, especially because this process does not add a burden to their present full plate. In addition, the emphasis is not on getting the faithful to do more, but on engaging the Uns.
Who are the Uns? The central thread in the Year of Renewal is “identifying and engaging the Uninvolved, Under-involved, Uninvited, or Uncomfortable in ways that help them desire to participate in the congregation ministries.” Team leaders, assistant team leaders, and team members are identified based on their gifts, and they carry out the overall mission expansion through 6-16 teams, depending on the size of the congregation. The teams function for various periods of time during the Year of Renewal. During the initial three months the congregation learns systemically, in an encouraging atmosphere, to develop vision planning in a way maximizes ownership, yet in a streamlined process. All of this occurs before Launch Sunday.
The second three months. The second part of the clock, from 3 till 6, builds on the results of vision planning. The pace quickens. Officializing the goals and intended outcomes is followed by handing off each goal to someone who emerges with a desire to champion that goal. Teams are empowered to design and produce a high quality mission expansion plan as a trifold brochure that will serve as the face of the congregation for the entire Year of Renewal. The mission expansion plan is distributed to congregation, guests, and community on Launch Sunday in worship. This begins 8 event weeks:
- Week one – Launch Sunday – announcing the mission expansion plan to the community; theme, Bible verse
- Week two – Totally Positive, with theme wristbands that introduces mutual accountability by peers
- Week three – Hospitality for guests, and beginning of Listening Visits to members with integrity of desire to listen in multiple areas of life
- Week four – Continuing Listening Visits to completion, all by teams of two, with each team visiting no more than three households
- Week five – Prayer vigil, both as an all day observance and as an expansion to year round prayer ministry
- Week six – Gala Dessert Feast, which is everyone’s favorite, and the first time the congregation grasps the Year of Renewal
- Week seven – Commitment week – developing sustainable funding in all of the desirable ways based on the maturity of the congregation
- Week eight – Celebration week, featuring the results of Commitment Sunday, and the six month point at which to have an evaluation and mid-year adjustments
Written guidelines outline the steps for each team. Again, all of this occurs without burdening the Council, pastors, and church staff. The well-defined process allowing room for unexpected occurrences, accepting and adjusting to glitches, and respecting the context and uniqueness of the congregation. The focus is on expanding God’s mission by following the clear and compelling vision with specific and inspiring congregation goals for the next year. It is interesting to observe that through the Holy Spirit, financial giving increases, as it is generated organically in excitement for mission.
The last six months. The last half of the circle, from 6 till 12 on the clock, begins with a surprise – the evaluation at mid-year. After only six months? Why would we measure results after only half the year has gone by? You guessed it. While everything is fresh in people’s minds, and many already know what’s working well and what is a good candidate for mid-course corrections, we make better use of the remaining six months to add value in real-time. That’s transformational. What happens behind the scenes of those final six months is important. We set up record-keeping, establish lines of accountability, and integrate the early momentum into the current practices of the congregation. We attend to measuring progress rather than intentions. Vital follow-up includes monitoring team participation, needs for additional training, and setting the stage for envisioning the next Year of Renewal. This six-month emphasis is the high risk point, when the process might collapse, as you may realize is the lack of implementation that often causes strategic planning to fail. The HealthierChurch.org Coach provides great value in helping congregations to grow seamlessly. There are times when difficult messages must be communicated, and they are more easily communicated than by members to each other, and that is an important expectation that can be fulfilled by the HealthierChurch.org Coach.
A major highlight that begins in the last six months is the creation of monthly mission presentations called “Mission Matters.” The Mission Matters are progress updates of what God is doing in the specific congregation goals that were adopted. The prerequisite for every Mission Matters presentation is that there must be tangible progress that has been achieved by God’s grace. These presentations improve mission interpretation and build integrity.
HealthierChurch.org forms healthy habits and responsible disciplines with respect for your congregation’s traditions. If your congregation is ready to grow, accept this window of opportunity and contact HealthierChurch.org. “With God all things are possible.” Ed Kruse, ©HealthierChurch.org, May 2014
[i] Matthew 19:26
[ii] Ed Kruse, Founder and President, HealthierChurch.org
[iii] Wake Up, Church! Opening Your Eyes to Transformational Ministry, by Ed Kruse and Bill Steadman. Published by Huff Publishing, 2014.
[iv] Ongoing experience by HeathierChurch.org indicates that 53% to 80% of those listed in congregation directories are Uninvolved, Under-involved, Uninvited, or Uncomfortable.
[v] Newsweek, April 2012, cover, article “Christianity in Crisis,” by Andrew Sullivan
[vi] Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace.
How frustrating! Uninvolved, under-involved members, lack of energy and engagement. What can you do?
For too long, leaders have been discouraged from trying to cultivate participation from the uninvolved and under-involved. Healthier Church offers both training of leaders and a plan to re-engage those members that are not active as well as new members. As this happens, there is an infusion of energy, vitality and a sense of congregational unity and focus on mission.
View what other congregations experienced after they engaged our services in a DVD (9-minutes) at http://www.vision2serve.com/video.html.
Contact us at email@example.com to begin a journey to re-engage members for mission.