Trends in American churches tend to travel on buzzwords. In the last two decades, words like “missional” and “revitalization” have caught the attention of many pastors and church leaders. This is for good reason: most of the churches in the U.S. are plateaued, declining, and aging. The positive side is that God is increasingly getting the attention of church leaders. You don’t hear much about it, but there is a massive wake-up call occurring in many congregations. From church history, this is often described as an “awakening.” An “awakening” is a move of God among those churches who (finally) realize that their church, and the Christian movement, is losing ground. They have a renewed vision for reaching the unchurched.
These churches are simultaneously (1) receptive to what God can do, (2) open to changes with reduced resistance, and (3) vulnerable to strategic approaches that are biblically productive (as well as approaches that can all but destroy their congregations).
Church Doctor Ministries has been consulting churches since Lyle Schaller first trained me, almost 35 years ago. It has only been in the last 10 years, however, that we have seen an increasing number of churches that have been decimated by attempts to get more effective at making disciples for Jesus Christ. In almost every case, the leadership had the right goal but the wrong strategy. My purpose in sharing this material is to save you the distraction and the pain, while encouraging you to move your church to health and growth (my buzzwords).
The Quick-Fix Syndrome
Contemporary culture is inundated with instant results. The passion for immediate gratification really took off with fast food decades ago. Today it is symbolized by rapid information retrieval and instant messaging. Christians, like everyone else, are tempted by the quick fix.
It is not that God is limited from quick-fix results. Jesus healed many on the spot. When He called Lazarus out of the grave, bystanders didn’t have to wait a week. To be clear, God can do anything quickly.
So why did Jesus spend three years with the 12 disciples? It is likely that God knows, from the human side, change is often slow. Not always. You can share Christ with a receptive person who has never been a Christ-follower. By God’s miracle, they can pray to receive Christ right away. Yet, it is likely that God has been “cultivating the ground” and the person has faced a crisis — perhaps for months or even years.
For a declining church, the increase of empty seats and the decrease in finances often trigger a crisis mentality. God can use that, especially when a church has strong, spiritual leadership. It is ironic that many churches that have been decimated are led by some of the most talented, outreach-thinking pastors — the kind we are praying for God to multiply, to lead churches, to retake a great portion of our nation for God.
To their credit, these pastors already get the Great Commission. They have a passion to reach the lost. They want their churches to grow and impact their communities. Sadly, the quick-fix culture has led them to accept top-down strategies. This scenario is clear in most churches where there has been a blowup.
The diagnosis among those damaged churches is amazingly similar. The pastor, with good intentions, attends a conference where an impressive leader speaks about reaching people for Christ. The speaker uses a great deal of evidence from Scripture. Of course! This is the mission Jesus gave to the church, the Great Commission, to make disciples.
For a pastor of a declining, aging, or plateaued church, this seems like an answer to prayer. So far, this is great. Many church leaders need to be reoriented to the primary purpose of the church. The potential devastation of the church comes in the strategic approach, not the goal.