I try to attend at least two or three leadership conferences each year. There is a lot of value in hearing talented, gifted people share their stories and experiences. In addition to hearing great speakers, the conversations with other attendees are priceless. Some of my greatest learnings and takeaways have happened over a cup of coffee in-between sessions with like-minded leaders.
My wife and I recently relocated to the Lake Cumberland area in Bronston, Kentucky. We love our new home, new friends and the lake isn’t bad either. But there are a few things I miss about our previous home. For example, I miss our large deck that was surrounded by huge oak trees. The oaks provided plenty of shade in the summer, but they also provided something else… squirrels.
During the first few years we lived there, they weren’t an issue. Fast forward several years and the squirrel population grew. After that, it didn’t take long to learn that squirrels could be a real nuisance, especially when they found their way into the attic. Fortunately for me, I didn’t have to get rid of them because the people who bought our house inherited the new fluffy-tailed family.
If I could give pastors a magic wand to fix one thing in their church, I believe most would wave the wand over their volunteer problem. I often hear the pain of a broken volunteer strategy. Words like disengaged, burned out, tired and overworked hang in the air.
Lots of things can contribute to a lack of volunteering, but the shifts you can make to energize this area of your ministry can actually be quite simple.
We love sharing stories from churches that have gotten unstuck. One of our goals with everything we publish is to encourage pastors. You may feel stuck today, but there is hope! Revitalization can happen.
So, in that spirit, today we’re sharing five questions with Burt Miller, the lead pastor of Solid Ground Church in Lewes, Delaware. We worked with Burt for about a year, and he and his church really began to see results about 6-8 months into the process. We’ll let Burt tell you about it.
I remember the days as a lead pastor when word-smithing a vision statement was of the utmost importance. Once crafted, I would post it everywhere a person may have the opportunity to read it (including the back door of the stalls in the men’s bathroom). I wanted people to memorize it, understand it and quote it at a moment’s notice. I think I may have been the only one who met those expectations.
Successful churches understand that strong leadership is non-negotiable and that leadership development is equally important. Unlike most secular organizations, it is imperative to create leadership roles beyond paid staff. Lay leadership is critical to the success and mission of the church.
One of my favorite movies is Blast from the Past starring Brendan Fraser. The movie follows the Webber family, and is set in the 1960’s, when everyone thought that a nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was possible. The father spends months building a fallout shelter in preparation. Eventually, a plane crashes into the Webber’s home, causing him to believe the end has arrived. In his mind, it’s the beginning of a nuclear war, so he takes his pregnant wife to the fallout shelter. The massive steel doors to the shelter are armed with time locks that, once engaged, could not be unlocked for thirty-five years. No worries of anyone getting in…or out.
The family is secured in their shelter while the world above continued as normal. During the first year, the mom gives birth to their son Adam. While sheltered for safety, the world above drastically changes without the Webber’s knowledge. Then finally in 1997, the timer releases and unlocks the doors. Adam finds himself immersed in a society where his language, dating skills and understanding of life in general is outdated and irrelevant.
Today, many churches in America have behaved like the Webbers. They have built their own fallout shelters with steeples and stained glass windows, bell towers and wooden pews, and even modern music and cool lights. Regardless of the shelter’s design, the purpose is the same – protection from the sinful poison outside in the world. The doors may not have time sensitive locks, but that’s okay. People rarely show up anyway, and if they do, they don’t stay long.
These churches are safe and predictable. If they are challenged to change, they’ll push back. They’ll call anything new a “spiritual compromise.” Their loyalties lie more to past traditions than Jesus. These traditions are guarded at all costs, even if means not reaching unchurched people. They are stuck, hiding in a fallout shelter, while the people who are far away from God, walk right by them. When these churches do attempt to reach someone, they have about as much luck as Adam Webber trying to land a date in 1997, using his 1960’s dating techniques.
When a church becomes stuck, they are no longer relevant to the people they are supposed to be reaching. I am not saying that showing up in skinny jeans, t-shirts and flip flops will bring unchurched people through your doors. This is not merely a language or dress code issue; this is a heart issue. Whether we like to admit it or not, the world has changed, while many of us hid in a fallout shelter. Think about it. In the 1950’s it would not have been the least bit weird for an unchurched person to walk into a service and see everyone in suits, ties and dresses. More than likely, he or she would probably be dressed the same. That was the culture for most of our country.
Reaching people of this generation, and the next, requires us to accept the culture of today and leverage it for the Gospel. Of course, the Gospel must remain unchanged – that’s a no brainer. We must be willing to do whatever it takes (short of sin) to reach people for Jesus. This means we have to come out of our shelters and remove the obstacles that may be keeping unchurched people from showing up on Sunday. Or worse, causing the ones who do show up, not to come back.
How do we get the culture of our church unstuck? How do we maneuver through culture change without losing our values and vision? I wish I could tell you that changing the dress code was the instant fix, but it isn’t.
Here are three things that will place you on the journey of getting your church culture unstuck:
- Complete a church health assessment; see where you are. What is the heart of your leaders? Who are you reaching? How many are you reaching? How many are staying?
- Review your messages and sermons. Are they inwardly focused? Do they promote evangelism? Are they relevant?
- Assess your facilities. Review your order of service. Talk about your connection points for new people. Ask yourself, “Is our church one that unchurched people want to attend?”
Get your team together and discuss these questions. They could radically change your church’s Gospel effectiveness.
When coaching pastors, I have heard a question along these lines:
“My church is one hundred twenty-three years old. There have been pastors before me who tried to make changes and grow the church, but they failed. Why should I believe I could make a difference?”
It’s a valid question.
I could have responded with the old seminarian quote I’ve heard so many times before, “It is easier to give birth than raise the dead.” (In other words, go plant a church and let dying churches die). I’m not sure that is always the answer. So many pastors face this same dilemma — their church has been stuck at 400, 200, 100, or less for years. They want to lead a change, forge a new trail and see something fresh happen, but they just don’t know how to do it.
While I agree that church planting is a fast track to reaching the world, we can’t overlook the smaller churches throughout America who, like any church, should be making a difference. There are times churches must close their doors and end their era of ministry, while others simply need help. Perhaps that’s a hard decision, “Do I go or do I stay? Do we close or do we keep going?” Personally, I believe it all depends on whether or not the pastor has had what I call a “Burning Bush Moment.”
I use the Exodus term because I believe many pastors ask a similar question that Moses asked, “God, how do I lead your people to something new (the Promise Land) who have been doing the same thing for four hundred years?” For Moses, his challenge would be convincing the people things could be better. For us, it’s more likely persuading people to abandon powerless traditions.
Many churches across America live behind the walls of “doing” church that produce little or no impact. And, despite the obvious fruitless trends over the last twenty, fifty or one hundred years, the people have become married to these traditions. They have accepted their way of doing church as a lifestyle because it’s safe and predictable.
What we’re really talking about, then, is the concept of leading churches from traditional to intentional. And to do that, every pastor needs a “Burning Bush Moment.” Not a gooey, angelic experience; rather, a fiery desire in their heart to see Kingdom growth. A sense that God is up to something. When a pastor has a Burning Bush Moment, no one can talk him into leaving and nothing can prevent him from staying. He just knows, with resolve, that God is on the move.
Maybe you’re leading a smaller church and you’ve experienced your own Burning Bush Moment. Perhaps there’s a fire in your heart that will not let you rest. What are your next steps? How can you lead a traditional church to becoming Gospel-intentional? And if you take some next steps, what can you expect?
Here are three things I believe you’ll experience:
1) While everyone loves the idea of leaving Egypt (tradition); not everyone will love the change and discomfort that comes with it.
2) Burning Bush Moments are always followed with Red Sea Moments, meaning, you’ll have to be ready to take some risks that will affect all of your people…and yes, you’ll lose some.
3) At the end of the day, you must discover, build and empower the Joshuas and Calebs around you… because you can’t do it alone.
These are just three of many things you’ll probably experience. My best advice to you is to seek out help. Remember, there is safety in a multitude of counsel.