Hey, I’ve got a great idea for how to grow a church! Want to hear it? OK, here goes: We keep on doing the same old things in the same old ways, but here’s the big difference—We’ll expect different results this time! Do you like my idea?
Uh … frankly, no, I don’t like that idea.
Why not? Isn’t that the recipe for success that many churches have adopted? “Doing church” pretty much the same way that every other church does, with only slight preferential or doctrinal differences?
Obviously, this argument seems flawed. But after some experience in ministry, I came to find out that it was easy to unknowingly engage in this pattern of thought.
I’ll give you one recent example: My wife and I heard a pastor here in the UK say in a sermon that at his church, they spent an entire year coming up with their “new vision statement.” (He said it with some satisfaction too, by the way). It was a three-part vision statement: First, have a relationship with God. Second, have relationships with other Christians. And third, have relationships with nonbelievers. It may not be compelling, but it is biblical, isn’t it?
The only problem is a few years ago at our former church in Portland we once spent an entire year’s worth of weekly meetings coming up with exactly the same “vision” statement! “A heart for God, a heart for others and a heart for the community!” Virtually identical! After hearing this pastor, I turned to my wife and whispered, “Well crap, I could’ve saved him at least a year’s worth of meetings!”
My problem, when I was a pastor, was that I didn’t have one clue when it came to church leadership. I even went to Bible College and seminary, but in all those years of schooling, they didn’t really teach us anything about what it took to lead a church. As the old cliché goes, “Bible college/seminary never prepared me for this …” How many times have you heard—or said—that one?
So what did I do? I did what they taught me in school: Heavy doses of preaching, and then I sort of faked the rest.
Listen to people who’ve been around the church a long time; surely they know what it’s about, don’t they? Try to placate the largest number of people possible, try somehow to make everybody happy. Let people do any and every ministry idea they come up with, no matter how ill conceived or how ill equipped they are to lead it. Spend a year coming up with a “List of Church Values,” and then put them in a drawer and forget all about them. Spend another year coming up with a “Church Vision Statement,” and then for the next year or two, try to convince people that now, we really had some direction! But hey—at least we were putting forth a lot of effort! You can’t fault us for that, can you?
But at the end of all those years of work, the church still wasn’t growing. But why wasn’t it growing? We had done all the things that everybody recommended, what all the other churches seemed to be doing; yet somehow we weren’t going anywhere or accomplishing anything significant. And I have the sneaking suspicion that this statement is true of a lot of churches in a lot of places.
A friend of mine once discovered a cardboard box full of baby mice in his basement. After watching the mice for a few days, he noticed that they couldn’t seem to get their act together. Some would try chewing their way through the box but would give up when they were too tired. Others would try to build a nest out of shredded paper, but then another mouse would use it for a bathroom. He told me that if somehow the mice could have gotten organized, if they could have somehow worked together, they could have easily chewed through the box; they could have built a great bathroom and comfortable sleeping quarters. But even though individual mice expended tremendous amounts of effort, overall they didn’t accomplish anything significant.
This is a picture of many churches, I believe. Churches are filled with people who are working really hard and putting forth tremendous amounts of efforts, but overall nothing seems to happen. On a large scale, little or nothing is being accomplished; there is no sense of vision, or direction or purpose.
So is there a formula for church growth? Many people will tell you that there is one: Just do A and B and C and your church will grow! Do the “40 Days of Purpose!” Bring in the Alpha Course!
Now I have nothing against any of those things. Certainly lives have been impacted through them. But what is lacking in some churches? Answer: The idea of what leadership is … leadership with vision, direction and purpose. Leadership that seeks to build an intentional community that is compelling to the world. Leadership committed to creating and maintaining a church of health, unity and safety where lives can be transformed through biblical community.
So is there a formula for building that kind of church I just mentioned? No, and there can’t be: That would be to miss the whole point. One thing that great leaders have in common is commitment to leadership on a level that is more about an ownership of values than a formula. It certainly isn’t easy, but the journey is definitely worthwhile.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Clint has stirred the pot, but I’m curious about your church’s mission statement. What’s your church’s mission statement and your opinion of it?