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Archive for Church

Here’s some research from Christianity Today on the Decline of Mainline Denominations and the Impact on Evangelicals.

The main takeaway for me is that while mainline defectors first preference for relocation is in an evangelical church, evangelical defectors number one relocation spot is to become part of the rising “nones.” Surprising to no one should be the statistic that the number cause for the decline of both mainlines and evangelicals is the attrition due to aging.

Categories : Church, Church Growth
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Jun
20

Overcoming a Bad Church Experience

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We all know someone, probably more than one, who used to be an active part in a local church, but no longer attend due to a “bad experience.” Anywhere. At all. Maybe they felt judged because of a decision they made or by their lifestyle. Maybe they felt shamed when they blew it, or invalidated when they struggled. Perhaps they felt forgotten, neglected or left out after they were no longer new and shiny. Maybe they didn’t agree with all of the church’s teachings. Or maybe they just asked too many questions. I know this list is incomplete. And I know that everyone who has been a part of a church has felt some level of relational friction or personal injury. Some drop out never to return, while many remain, determined to push through.

I’ve been reading Life Together, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It’s a brief book describing the unique Christian fellowship he experienced in an underground seminary during Hitler’s rule in Germany. As I read his book I think about the scores of people I’ve talked to who walked away from church.

I think there’s a lot of uniqueness to each person’s story, but two general themes rise to the top. First, is unrealistic expectations about what church should be. Yes, the community of Christ should be characterized by unconditional love and grace. At the same time, the characters in that same community are flawed and broken human beings. I’m not suggesting that the bar should be lowered. I am suggesting that the fact that people in the church should be acknowledged for who and what they are. Imperfect human beings attempting to live divine lives. Always remember that expectations are disappointments under construction.

A second reason is that the local church often possesses an uneven playing field. True enough, there are hierarchical structures embedded with a church’s governance. But if we’re being honest, we recognize there are unofficial hierarchies that are based on standards such as longevity of membership and dollars donated. There are cliques at work, especially in siloed ministries, that create territorial and turf wars over calendar availability, budget allocations, and the attention of talented volunteers. For some, these experiences can feel like the drama of high school, where bullies run the show and determine seating arrangements in the cafeteria.

When Bonhoeffer wrote Life Together, he was fully aware that the community Christ envisioned and the reality of the same were not the same. His words, which I cite in length, represent one of the most profound texts on the subject I have read.

Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and if we are fortunate, with ourselves.”

By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world. He does not abandon us to those rapturous experiences and lofty moods that come over us like a dream. God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth. Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise given to it. The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community, the better for both. A community which cannot bear and cannot survive such crisis, which insists upon keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of Christian community. Sooner or later it will collapse. Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of Christian community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.”

There are those who love the idea of community and seek to foster the conditions of perfect fellowship where everyone looks, acts and thinks the same, eliminating any possible diversity which would threaten it. Then there are those who unconditionally love their Christian brothers and sisters. The churches that seek the latter and not the former are the churches that will remain.

Categories : Church, Community
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“More than a year after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Church is beginning to reopen in the United States. This process has been uneven, with many cities still under significant restrictions while others are able to operate with relatively minor accommodations. At the center of this season of reopening is the pressing need for churches to gain clarity on the state of their membership. While online services and ministries have offered a necessary lifeline of connection, the rapid change and inherent disconnectedness of the pandemic has produced a season of uncertainty. How are churches in the United States fairing in terms of attendance, giving, and staffing? How are pastors navigating the new pressures of reopening after over a year of unprecedented challenges? The National COVID-19 Church Attendance Project (NCCAP) represents an effort to answer these questions by tracking church reopening. The report processed responses from over 600 churches representing over 400,000 weekly worshippers from 47 states and the District of Colombia.” — cited from the Overview of the full results of the Project Report.

You can view the full report at https://churchattendanceproject.org/full-results/. To read commentary on the Church Attendance Project Report, go to https://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2021/may/church-decline-and-recovery-during-covid-19.html?&display=checkout and https://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2021/may/church-decline-and-recovery-during-covid-19-part-2.html.

What do you think of the research? Does it reflect your particular congregation?

Categories : Church, Church Growth
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With the exception of one Elder led congregation, I have always been a part of a congregational church. A congregational form of church government means that the membership sits atop the organizational chart, providing the final thumbs up or thumbs down to initiatives from subsets of the church. A congregational church may delegate some of the day to day decisions to the church staff or to a board, but reserve the “big” decisions for church wide business sessions.

A couple of things about that fact strike me as strange. For example, voting on issues always creates winners and losers. All in favor say “aye,” and all opposed say “nay.” Let’s count the votes and see which side has won and which side has lost. American politics reminds us that we have winners and losers every two years.

A second thing that is striking is that all votes are equal and count the same. The wealthiest member of the congregation gets one vote. The oldest member gets one, as do the youngest and newest members. Every member gets one vote. Just one. They’re not weighted, which is appropriate. Every time I step into a voting booth I am reminded of the fact that any other number of registered voters can cancel my vote. While this is striking, it works for America and it works for congregational forms of church government.

There is one more thing about congregation wide voting that I find interesting. Voting is based on a model of approval and disapproval. If I approve of an initiative or a candidate, I can vote “yes.” If is disapprove, I can vote “no.”

So what happens if I “lose” the vote? What do I do if I find myself in the minority of the will of the people?

Whenever I am in the minority, I move from approval to acceptance. I don’t have to approve of the action of the majority to find a position of acceptance as a minority voice. You see, I am troubled when I see a celebrity look into a television camera and say, “If so and so is elected then I’m moving to (fill in the blank some other nation).” There have been plenty of elections when I didn’t “approve” of the majority opinion and my horse didn’t win, but I didn’t move to another nation. I remained a good citizen of my community, state, and nation. I paid my bills and my taxes. I exercised my right to vote in the next election. I didn’t approve, but I accepted the outcome.

One of the things those of us in congregational churches need to remember is that sometimes things are going to happen when we don’t “approve.” But for the sake of the whole, we can come to a point of acceptance. We can continue to faithfully serve, continue to give as instructed by Scripture, and continue to work to advance the cause of Christ by serving our community and living as a faithful witness. We don’t have to always “approve.” But we can learn to “accept,” for the sake of something bigger than our one vote.

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This data was compiled during the COVID-19 closures in 2020. However, it is interesting to see how generations differ in what they missed and what they value in the corporate worship experience. What did you (or do you) miss most by not gathering in person for worship?

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Barna Research released a study this week which assessed how church goers feel after attending worship. These emotions range from feeling encouraged, disappointed, connected and more. To read the research you can use the following link: https://www.barna.com/research/churchgoers-feel/.

The surprising statistic from this research is the level of disappointment people feel following worship attendance. A full 50% of churched adults feel some measure of disappointment, and nearly 40% of practicing Christians feel the same. I am reminded that disappointment is the result of failed expectations. In other words, there is a significant disconnect between what pastors and worship leaders are providing in a worship experience and what attendees are actually looking for or need. This is critical, because disappointments are also resentments under construction. People may feel a wide range of emotions on any given Sunday, but repeated disappointment is a foundational crack that needs to be addressed.

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Apr
11

I’m Spiritual, But Not Religious

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Over the past several months I’ve enjoyed many conversations with irreligious people about faith. In my encounters I’ve heard one recurring theme over and over–“I’m spiritual, but not religious.” One person, when I pressed for further understanding, quipped, “Religion is sitting in church thinking about fishing. Spirituality is going fishing and thinking about God.” Without question, people are very open to spiritual things, but simultaneously bypassing organized religion to find and fuel their spirituality. Religious institutions are becoming less and less where people turn to in order to find meaning and make sense out of life. So where do they turn?

Harvard Divinity School published a study titled, How We Gather, that centered around the question, “How can we retrieve the ancient wisdom, without the constraints?” The research team discovered that people who seek spirituality do so by accessing several practices outside the confines of formal religion.

  1. Finding community by valuing and fostering deep relationships that center on serving others. Creating new communities is often more powerful than joining existing ones.
  2. Striving for personal transformation by making a conscious and dedicated effort to develop one’s own body, mind, and spirit.
  3. Seeking social transformation by pursuing justice and beauty in the world through the creation of networks for good with the goal of closing the asset gaps. This effort extends beyond geographical and political boundaries. It is global in its focus.
  4. Finding purpose and hope by clarifying, articulating and acting on one’s own personal life mission. (Yes, the secular world is challenging their employees to write their own personal life mission statements.)
  5. Fostering creativity by allowing time and space to activate the imagination and engage in play, especially as digital interfaces become more common.
  6. Valuing accountability by holding oneself and others responsible for working toward decided goals, often without a centralized authority.

Yes, I realize that these are all core values of religions groups and local churches. The key distinction is the structure and constraints of religion and local churches. The listing above is expressed in the ministry of Jesus and the apostolic work reported in the Book of Acts. Perhaps the key is for churches to reevaluate their “constraints.” Churches have a lot of rules, some of them written, many of them unwritten. Unfortunately, many of these rules are reinforced from obscure verses from the Bible and the particular interpretive biases of church and denominational leadership. What isn’t cited from Scripture is purely the culture of the congregation. The result is that many feel invalidated as persons. Much of local church life is on the top shelf and inaccessible.

No, I don’t advocate tossing the Bible aside and giving in to every whim of popular culture. But I do think churches need to reassess what is most important and direct their resources and energy in that direction. The mandate of Jesus was and is, “follow me in a life of discipleship.” Not, join a church and become like them. The standard must be higher, not harder.

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In a recent poll released by Gallup, American church membership has declined to below 50% of the population. The study cites that in 2020, only 47% of U.S. adults belong to a church, synagogue, or mosque. That’s a 20 point reduction since the turn of the century (1999). The survey states the following reasons for this steady decrease.

  1. There is a decline in religious affiliation, due in part to the increased number of churches that have eliminated formal church membership.
  2. Values have shifted through generations. With each generational stage comes a decline, which should come as no surprise.
  3. No demographic sub group is unscathed. The decline in membership is non discriminate toward race, gender, socio-economic status, political affiliation, etc.
  4. While the pandemic certainly didn’t help the numbers, it didn’t cause the numbers. The pandemic revealed the trend that was already underway.
  5. While estimates remain unclear, it is certain that many churches will be forced to either close or form mergers in the coming years in order to remain sustainable.

What are the options, then, in the face of this trend?

First, churches need to re-evaluate their values toward formal church membership in favor of committed participation. Regular attenders may never formally join a church. At the same time, these same attenders may provide stability through volunteerism, leadership, and financial donations. If a church is narrow at this point, it may miss opportunities to disciple people and fellowship with them.

Second, churches need to immerse themselves in their communities to find the needs that are present instead of “just guessing at it.” For example, the Gallup Poll cites a 2017 poll among church goers which details the major reasons people attend a particular church. The results are interesting.

Reasons for Attending Church or Other Place of WorshipMajor factorMinor factorNot a factor
%%%
Sermons or talks that teach you more about scripture76168
Sermons or lectures that help you connect religion to your own life75168
Spiritual programs geared toward children and teenagers642115
Lots of community outreach and volunteer opportunities592713
Dynamic religious leaders who are interesting and inspiring542817
Social activities that allow you to get to know people in your community493614
A good choir, praise band, cantors or other spiritual music383625

Three things immediately stand out. First, participation in a particular church or denominational brand is not listed. Brand loyalty is a diminishing value that may not be persuasive. The second is the placement of worship style as number seven out of seven. So guitars and drums do not guarantee growth. Again, becoming immersed in your community will enable churches to discover the needs of people and design strategies accordingly. No, you don’t have to “guess at it.” The third and final observation is that people have a desire to be involved, but not necessarily in the way churches are designed. Take, as an example, a congregation with a heavy committee structure. It is not uncommon for a church to have 6-8 standing committees, in addition to a governing board, elder board, or deacon board. These committees may have 6-9 members each. At that point it’s a math problem. Six committees with six members each equals 36, not counting other leaders, officers, or staff. For most churches in America, that’s a substantial percentage of their adults. And because churches value membership, you can’t serve on a committee even if you were willing. Younger generations may not have their grandparents values, where membership included service to a committee. Service? Yes. Committees? Pass.

These statistics can lead us to do one of two things. One is to throw our hands up, give up, and close up. The other is to allow God’s Spirit to lead us to think about church in ways we haven’t thought before. We don’t have to give up. But we may have to let go of some things that we have gripped with white knuckles. As Corrie Ten Boom once wrote, “I’ve learned to hold on to things loosely, because it hurts too bad when God has to pry them from my hands.”

You can find both surveys at the following link: https://news.gallup.com/poll/341963/church-membership-falls-below-majority-first-time.aspx

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Apr
04

Is The Window Closing?

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When John F. Kennedy ran for President, he often stated in campaign speeches that the Chinese word “crisis” was a combination of characters that combined the words danger and opportunity, yielding the meaning of “dangerous opportunity.” Since then, many leaders of business, education and popular culture have quoted this sentiment. But in actuality, the Chinese word weiji is composed of two words: dangerous and change point. Though typically misinterpreted, the principle remains the same. Crisis points yield moments of decision. What we do at that change point is risky. To choose wisely can create opportunities. To choose incorrectly can bring disaster. But worse, indecision can be fatal.

The COVID-19 pandemic placed every church at the cross roads of weiji, a dangerous point of change. Unfortunately, many church leaders (pastoral and lay) have yet to seize the opportunity placed before them. Things are starting to loosen and open up, which is good. But there’s a red flag waving furiously every time I hear the phrase, “I can’t wait until things get back to normal, and we can go back to the way things were in February, 2020.” Many churches went into “sleep mode” in March, 2020, holding on for the magical day when they could go back to the way things were. The problem with that is that the world has changed and adapted, which has produced a new normal. Business has changed, education has changed, and most of all, people have changed. Business and education have changed and adapted to new futures. The pandemic has provided all of the above time to recalibrate their values and in some instances find contentment in simplicity. People who began working at home out of necessity may never go back to brick and mortar office buildings. Children who have learned virtually may never go back to the classroom. People and families alike have become more deeply connected with one another as they profited from discretionary time they never knew existed.

COVID-19 was and still is an opportunity for the church to change and adapt as well. The pandemic was a catalyst for change and adaptation for those who chose to view it through the lens of blessing and not burden. The past year could and should have been invested in observing culture and in honest self assessment. Was there something new to start? Maybe something that needed to stop? Were there new practices to learn? Or was there something in place to master?

For example, about a year ago I presented a list of opportunities to the last Church I served.* We had the capacity to live stream worship services on our website already in place so we did not need to struggle there. But there were opportunities to consider a host of things like reorganizing the staff to manage and keep pace with technology and digital communication, to enhance and promote access to online giving, the possibility to return to live worship with an additional worship service that featured contemporary music, to re-engage our growth consultant for guidance in updating our mission, values and strategy in anticipation of change to name a few. These suggestions were casually met with “when we get a vaccine, we’ll get back to normal.” Thomas Watson once wrote, “Storms will drive ships into the harbor.” And many churches responded to COVID just like that, waiting for the skies to clear and the waves to calm so they could safely return to sea.

Its late, but not too late for churches to seize the opportunity embedded within the pandemic. The future is wide open, and to paraphrase Thomas Freidman, “belongs not to those who can think outside the box. The future belongs to those who can think without a box.”

*I stepped out of the pastoral ministry on August 24, 2020. The transparent details of my personal journey from sacred to secular are forthcoming in my first series of podcasts at Out of Ur.

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Mar
13

A Church Called Tov: part 2

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Narcissism and power through fear are the entry points for toxic and dysfunctional church culture. When these are active in a church, the soil becomes fertile for increasing levels and variants of dysfunction. Let’s unpack those observations from McKnight and Barringer.

The first step toward dysfunction is narcissism, a personality disorder that couples self love with lack of empathy toward others. This is often manifested in the need for control of the organization and its direction.

Second is power that is maintained by fear of losing one’s status or position in the cultural hierarchy. Fear, in this instance, is passive, where violators are excluded or disenfranchised versus actively oppressed. It’s often said that cultures are developed by the behaviors they reward and the behaviors they punish. In church cultures, punishment is withdrawal and withholding, while reward is promotion and inclusion.

Next is institutional creep, which is the belief that the organization itself is first and foremost over and against the individuals that comprise the organization. Maintaining the brand and brand loyalty would be secular comparisons to this concept.

Fourth is the absence of honesty. McKnight uses the word truth here, but I prefer to think of it in terms of honesty so that no one assumes he means doctrinal purity. Since goodness and truth can not be divorced from each other, it is essential that churches that aspire to goodness make honestly the gold standard. The issue arises when authenticity is enforced on a person or persons without mutuality. And when honesty is demonstrated, it is often punished and shamed. This leads to the development of false narratives, image management, damage control and spin doctoring. The goal is not to be transparent, but to present a version of truth that is palpable to the listener and protects the institution from any appearance other than playing the victim card.

The last three threats McKnight and Barringer point out are directed toward church leadership. They a culture of blind loyalty and allegiance, the elevation of pastor as “celebrity,” and the emphasis on leadership to the exclusion of Christ, who is the true head of the church.

When one or more of these are present, Tov (or goodness) is not embodied. While it looks bleak, there is good news. Next week I’ll delve into the antidotes for each of these dysfunctional traits.