[SPEW #4] Declining Health, Issue Christians, Pronouns, Change

Five Warning Signs of Declining Church Health – thomrainer.com

When I read this, it resonated with me, but the more I read, the more the 5 signs seemed superficial to me.  (OK, I know that my inner analyst says that about everything) – but Thom faithfully talks about symptoms that indicate declining health of a church.  This is what you see.  I would like to see a companion post about 5 signs that a church is recovering.  I may post about this in the future. 

Ed Stetzer – Why I Have No Difficulty Helping “Issue Christians” to Move On

Wow – I had no idea – how pervasive this was, or how much of a problem it could cause (see I really am just a lay person).  Interesting – while Ed is just happy to let them move on, my heart went straight to why does this issue get in their way.  I have been at a church where issue christians raised a stink about various things, (a whole chunk left the church over home schooling) but I had no idea of the magnitude of the phenomenon.  What can a church do, when it’s members become “issue-ish”, and what can we do to prevent this, or to help issue christians regain some “balance”. 

I have always thought that it was simply a case of “majoring” on the “minors’ – meaning taking one’s focus off of the core responsibilities of church and of mission, and micro-focusing on some peripheral aspect of it. 

Pronouns and discipleship | Think Christian

Interesting thoughts about how we talk.  How we talk to God, to each other, about our faith, our needs, our selves – apparently is an indicator for our maturity.  Scholarly ideas with some pragmatic applications.

The Fluidity of Change | Foundation Ministries & Publications

Linking change into our spiritual development and our desire to fulfill God’s purpose.  Can we be missional and resistant to change?  When a church is resistant to change, what does that mean?  See the first link above….

Status Quo

I wonder how many church “leaders” feel that their role is to maintain the status quo. I wonder how many church “leaders” are really qualified as leaders. I wonder if the qualifications for elder and deacon offices listed in the new testament, are missing the obvious qualifications of leadership. As if, the author expected us to select natural leaders, and merely wrote out the constraints or “passive” criteria for the job.

I have been elected or called to church office twice in my life, both times have been somewhat terrible experiences, but for different reasons. The first time, I was young, and not very mature spiritually. I was seduced by the call, and was asked then to lead the board, when the then chairman stepped aside unexpectedly very shortly after I started on the board. I really had no idea what the board was respnsible for, nor had I experience as a board member before being asked to be the chair. There was nothing that I could do but try to maintain the status quo. My prayers were that the board and I would not fall down on the job, and that we could keep things going.

The second time I was called was 12 years later in a different church. I was called to a board that was largely apathetic, and not well organized. Our two greatest responsibilities were preparing the church budget, and maintaining the facility. I clearly felt that neither of these responsibilities were particularly suited to my talents and gifts. I served my term, but realized during my term of service, that both boards really only served to maintain the status quo, and that whenever they wanted to change something, they formed a more executive structure focused on the change at hand.

I am not suggesting that all churches are like this, but my my conversations with others lead me to believe that my experiences are less common than one might expect.

The new testament church talks about three officers:

Deacon (Diakono) – Literally servant or minister – Do the bidding of others
Elder, Overseers, Bishops () – in a position of oversight –
Missionaries, Apostles (Apostolos) – those specifically called to be sent out –

With the exception of missionaries, I think that most who are called to the offices of deacon or elder are focused on maintaining the status quo, except where there are problems, where the status quo needs to be restored. When the status quo no longer is effective (you know this when everyone in your church is older than 50, or other sign) changes to the status quo may be necessary. Obviously, or perhaps not so obviously, if we want to prevent that state, we can make more frequent, smaller changes – rather than waiting until there is an obvious problem, then making significant and painful changes. As you might expect, the way to figure out what needs change when is by measuring fruit.

There is no clear precedent or directive in the new testament for how change is to be instituted. While the tree huggers (people who don’t like change) reading this will cheer this statement as a directive to keep things the same forever, institutionalizing the literal implementation of the new testament church – the rest of us recognize that even the new testament church continually changed and adapted to every local culture it invaded, with only the dictates of mission and doctrine as constants.

So who identifies opportunities for change, who decides that change is required, and who leads that change? It seems to me that each church or ministry should maintain in it’s leadership one or more “malcontents” or “troublemakers” whose job it is to suggest opportunities for change, but who do not have the right to unilaterally decide to implement that change. Likewise, each church or ministry should maintain in it’s leadership one or more agents of change whose job it is to champion and implement a change once it has been decided.

That leaves only the decision rights. Every ministry has their own form of governance. Some are more executive (less people make decisions) and others are more congregational (more people make decisions).

Regardless of the participation model, when deciding to implement change, there are benefits to correctly communicating and articulating that change so that it does not come as a surprise. Your community may not be 100% in favor of the change, but if you can articulate rationally the reason for the change, especially the desired outcome of the change, you will do a better job of getting people on board. The smaller, more gradual changes are easier for people than the larger more drastic feeling changes.

In summary – your leadership should not only be maintaining the status quo, they should be evaluating the results (fruit) from the status quo and recommending and implementing changes, in order to continue to produce fruit in accordance with the mission and vision of The Church.

Status Quo Vs. Tradition

Status quo is fact. This is the status quo – the state of things – the way things are. There is little emotional attachment to the status quo, other than the natural human inertia – the aversion to change – even change that is potentially positive.

Tradition is different! it is “the way we have always done it”, “the way they did it when I was young”, “the way Dad (or Mom) always did it”. It is imbued with nostalgia and emotion. People have an inherent tendency to view the familiar as correct, and unfamiliar as somehow less right. Perhaps “right” is not the correct word, perhaps it is “normal” vs. “abnormal”. Having watched my share of national geographic specials as a kid, I remember thinking over and over – how can those people be so weird? They simply were raised with different traditions.

During Jesus ministry on Earth, he consistently railed against the traditions of men, especially when those traditions were interfering with people having relationship with God. The Jewish people at that time, especially a party called the Pharisee’s, had established a system of legalism and ritual that portended to make it easier for people to figure out if they were following God’s law, while at the same time it masked the fact that all men are sinners and in need of God’s mercy. In the end, it was a system that created status for the Pharisees thus they were heavily invested in those traditions, because of the status afforded them.

So how do traditions manifest in ministry today?

Some traditions are involved with the worship service, the liturgy, the music, etc. Others have to do with kids programs: AWANA clubs or Pioneers. Some traditions manifest in attitudes towards christian education or home schooling. All of these traditions can be beneficial, but can limit fruitfulness. Perhaps one of the most insidious traditions has to do with legalism and behavior: the No drinking, No dancing, No movies approach. It leads to a judgemental spirit – and it tends to alienate those that we most seek to enter our fellowship – sinners. This tradition, so common in Baptist churches of the last two generations, is the reason that it is hard to find a church with Baptist in the name in any suburban community.

Traditions can become part of the ministry brand or identity – aspects of our ministry that “cannot be changed”. These are difficult to change because without them, “we wouldn’t be us”. If you think about ministry branding, our brand should be Jesus Christ, any distinctive we try to attain for our ministry is really in the end only differentiating ourselves from Him.

A conclusion:
As the church membership dwindles, the remainder of parishoners strongly identify with the traditions, and threaten to leave if change is implemented. What is to be said about this?

Likely the traditions were established as new practices or methods at the time, replacing some older cherished tradition. They were innovative and effective at producing fruit. I think of “The Reformation” as a classic example of replacing traditions that had become unfruitful. Now, the culture around us has changed, the demographics of the community have changed, the demographics of our ministry participants have changed. Time for change – specifically to become more effective at producing fruit.

Ministry participants who care more about the traditions than about fruit need to be educated, indoctrinated, and re-purposed. If they think the purpose of the ministry is to please them – they are mistaken. It is not – it is to please God. It is to Make Disciples. It is to do the good works that God has prepared in advance for us to do. They either are willing to be re-purposed or not. It can either happen at their current church or somewhere else. When they leave the church, they will have much less authority or “say so” than they currently think they do, or are entitled to, especially if they have inhabited leadership positions in church.

A leader who threatens to leave your church is literally holding your ministry hostage. He or she is a terrorist. Do not negotiate with terrorists. If they are a large contributor, give them their last months contribution back.

Worst case scenario:
What about a church split. I think that most church leaders fear this more than anything. Church splits can be painful, dividing even families, and can hurt the ministry’s effectiveness.

Lemonade from lemons:
Maybe you should consider turning the split into a plant. If the difference of opinion is not over doctrine, but something less essential (tradition), rather than parting company in anger, support that leader and maintain a healthy relationship – plant a new church. Especially if the ministry overall is healthy, growing or maintaining and producing fruit. Let God find a way to make a problem into an opportunity to produce even more fruit.