Sunday, August 24, 2008

Your Church Can Flop!

Pity the American pastor. Over the past couple of generations there has been a clear and consistent shift in what is expected of him (or, in some cases, her) as a church leader. Just look at the host of articles, ads, books, seminar opportunities and the like that address how “we” (that is, pastors) can make “our church” grow. Just explore a website like to see what I mean. Here you can find a boatload of resources to “make your ministry more effective”. By clicking on the “Growth Products” tab, the needy pastor can access resources such as the book Welcome to the Family which claims to contain the: “Way to Unlock the Secret to Growing Your Church… Guaranteed”. The come-on continues:

“You’re working hard to build your congregation. Even though you bring new people to Christ, you can’t quite seem to grow. As quickly as you bring them in the front door, they slip out the back door. Now you can close the back door---forever!”

Don’t you love how that whole spiel characterizes the pastor and their calling?

I gotta admit; these marketers have really done their homework. By tapping into the latent guilt many pastors feel about how “they” can’t get “their church” to achieve a net gain (even after “they” have brought “new people to Christ”), the purveyors of these products have effectively identified their target. In my opinion, their message to church leaders comes down to this: “YOU are the problem. YOU work hard but not smart. YOU bring new people to Christ but YOU can’t seem to grow (after all: YOU ARE your church, pastor). YOU are letting them “slip out the back door”. But YOU are also the solution! YOU can get it right (if you, ahem, buy and implement our book) and make YOUR church grow successfully… guaranteed!” How inspiring!

All of this makes me think of those display boards churches used to mount in their sanctuaries back in the day. Have you seen those things? Each week there would be an updated account of the prior week’s attendance and giving figures there for all to see. I can remember hearing Jack Hayford remark some years ago that if you turn one of those things over and look on the back you’ll find it inscribed with the words: “Made in Hell”. Could it be that the whole notion of “YOU” growing “YOUR CHURCH” came off the same diabolical drawing board below? Who knows? One thing I can say with certainty, however, is that it didn’t come from Jesus.

“I will build my church”, Jesus said (Matthew 16: 18). He did not say: “YOU will build my church”, or “I will build YOUR church”, or “YOU will build YOUR church (for me).” But I can tell you from personal experience that if you could overhear a room full of pastors talking about their lives, their concerns, their plans, their hopes and their dreams (not to mention their needs and frustrations) you would think they’d never heard of these words of Jesus.

When church leaders talk from their hearts, it is clear that -- whether they realize it or not -- they have come to define “growing their church” in corporate terms (i.e., bigger market share). This definition of church leadership success is just so pervasive that many have come to see achieving it as their number one responsibility as a spiritual leader. But check it out: statistics tell us that only 5% of American churches are “mega” (2,000 or more average weekend attendance). Furthermore, the average church in America still numbers less than 100 and church attendance here is at an all-time low and declining more with each passing year. This leaves the vast majority of pastors feeling like THEY are the problem and that THEY are failing in their vocation. It’s heartbreaking to think of how many pastors secretly believe that if they could “unleash the secrets of church growth” then “THEIR CHURCH” could “grow”.

But the truth is more like this: someone has handed a whole bunch of good men and women a terminally broken system (churchianity) that has already failed Europe and is steadily losing ground in the rest of the West and then told them: “This used to work for most. It still works for some. Now -- if you want to be a success -- make it work for YOU”. The more I think about this, the angrier I get.

So, I’ve got a different message for frustrated pastors who feel like they are a walking, breathing failure: “YOUR church can flop!” In fact, if what YOU are building is YOUR church, then let it flop. It’s the only hope you have of fulfilling your true calling. Stop spending YOUR time and energy blowing air into the punctured beach ball of American churchianity. Doing so only continues to spread the disease of contemporary consumer spirituality to what remains of the faithful.

Pastor, church leader, elder -- listen to me: it is time for you to return to your first love. It is time for you to re-discover Jesus and the Church HE is building. It is time to re-discover the gospel, the mission of God and the value of a life lived for the kingdom. It is time launch your quest for something more in God and see where it takes you. And, who knows, fellow traveler, perhaps, one day, our paths will cross.


t-mo said...

Good stuff Bill. I'm glad I "stumbled" across your blog (you can thank your son for that). I'm an out of work pastor, not sure what God wants to do vocationally with my life, but certain that He wants to give me a greater experience (knowledge) of Himself... I appreciate your transparency/honesty. May the Lord greatly illumine the path He has for you!

Andrew Faris said...


I wish I could write like you.

Otherwise, one comment: are you in any danger of extrapolating from too small a sample size here? Some churches are doing well, and that without too much marketing. Also, I'm not totally convinced of the Europe and America analogy. I wonder how much the church being in bed with the government (read: the church being the government) had to do with that. It's hard for me to compare the churchianity of medieval and post-medieval Europe with the churchianity of America in some respects.

Bill Faris said...

That some churches are doing well is so self-evident I didn't focus on it. But, as a whole, the American church is in crisis.

An interesting statistic from Southern Baptist writer / researcher / pastor JD Payne helps us see the scope of the crisis (Southern Baptists being the largest protestant denomination in America). According to Payne's sources, 2003 statistics showed 31 percent of S.B. Churches had NO baptisms in the prior year. When you factor in 1 baptism, the number goes up to 38 percent. That means nearly 4 out of 10 of the 43,000 Southern Baptist churches (famous for their value for evangelism) had 0 to 1 baptism in the previous year.

What if you had a burger franchise and, while some franchisees were doing great, 4 out of 10 had 0 to 1new customers the previous year?

So, for a moment, forget about the dismal situation in Europe and look at the fact that churches in America are not keeping up with even teh rate of population growth in the US.

A lot of pastors know this, or at least feel it, and don't know what to do (they've tried being seeker sensitive, purpose driven and all the rest). It's time to stop treating the symptoms and look deeper at where these problems are rooted.

Thanks for the compliment on my writing, but I think you are quite a writer yourself.