Stupid Church Tricks (Part 3)
Most churches start on fire with the mission: to reach new people for Jesus. But as “new people” become “church people,” the voices on the inside of the church become louder.
The topics we’re going to discuss this week go beyond stupid church tricks related to leadership, staffing, or your ministry strategy. These tricks are particularly stupid because they go against the sole reason the church exists: the Gospel.
In fact, if your growth is happening because of methods or strategies that are making ANYTHING more important than the Gospel and the Great Commission, then your growth is unhealthy.
MORE STUPID CHURCH TRICKS
As churches grow, all-to-often their mission shifts from reaching the people on the outside to appeasing the people on the inside. Doing “church things” becomes more important than reaching new people. And to be clear, once this shift occurs, the church is headed toward decline.
In this episode, Amy and I discuss the ways churches get off mission and become insider-focused and give advice on how to reverse this trajectory. We’ll cover:
- The trap of what we’re against vs. what we’re for
- Making theology and formation louder than the Gospel
- Practical steps for re-focusing on the mission
- A story of how one church made this important shift
This Episode is Sponsored by PlainJoe Studios:
PlainJoe: A Storyland Studio partners with churches, nonprofits, faith-based organizations, and educational environments to create unforgettable strategic, digital, and spatial stories that lift the Spirit.
Through architecture, branding, interior design, website development, themed environments, and more, PlainJoe champions churches as Sacred Storytellers and collaborates with a wide range of world-changing people and organizations.
To learn more about working with PlainJoe’s team of down-to-earth specialists, architects, strategists, artists, and problem solvers, visit plainjoestudios.com/getunstuck.
Other Episodes in this Series
- Stupid Church Tricks: Leadership & Staffing – Episode 330
- Stupid Church Tricks: Complexity & Lack of Alignment – Episode 331
- Stupid Church Tricks: Multisite & More – Episode 333
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Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we are exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. Most churches start with a fire for the mission and the hope of reaching new people for Jesus. Sometimes, though, the mission shifts from reaching people outside of the church to appeasing people who are already a part of the church. On this week’s episode, Tony and Amy continue our series on Stupid Church Tricks with a conversation on what happens when churches make other things louder than the gospel message. Before we go there, though, if you’re new to the podcast, head to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast and make sure you subscribe to get the show notes in your email. When you do, you’re gonna get resources to go with each week’s episode, including the Leader Conversation Guide. Again, that’s theunstuckgroup.com/podcast to subscribe. Now, before we get into this week’s conversation, here’s a word from Tony.
PlainJoe, A Storyland Studio partners with churches, nonprofits, faith-based organizations and educational environments to create unforgettable strategic, digital and spatial stories that lift the spirit. Through architecture, branding, interior design, website development, themed environments and more, PlainJoe champions churches as sacred storytellers and collaborates with a wide range of world-changing people and organizations. To learn more about working with PlainJoe’s team of down-to-earth specialists, architects, strategists, artists and problem solvers, visit plainjoestudios.com/getunstuck.
Well, welcome back to The Unstuck Church podcast. I’m here with Amy. Amy, I’ve been, it’s been a busy season for me. I’ve had the opportunity this week to work with two great churches, one from Canada, one from Indiana. Both, both of them, they’re just, it’s amazing what God’s doing in, in churches across North America right now. So it was fun to engage. One of the conversations was more about figuring out how do we align our staff team to what we’re trying to accomplish as a mission.
And then, the other conversation, really starting to unpack and get clarity around both a reach strategy and a discipleship and spiritual formation strategy. And as you know, for me, both of those conversations are fun conversations. So, it’s been a fun season. Amy, have you been busy, as well?
Yeah, I actually had an, an office week. That doesn’t happen very often for me, but that’s when I work with a lot of my churches that I was on site with previously, and now, we’re kind of helping them implement their plans. And you can imagine, a lot of the churches I work with are going through some form of restructure as a result of the work we did. And it was really fun. I had had like a three-month gap chatting with one of my churches, and three months ago, they were in the throes of the mess of a reorg, you know, just all the, the predictable parts of it and the unpredictable parts of it, but it was just delightful. They’re past that now, and they have a new senior leadership team. And it’s a new day for the lead pastor, and the executive pastors learning those new muscles. So, just fun to see the progress. You know, that, again, we never get super excited about our charts and our plans. We get excited when the churches actually lean in and move through some of those tunnels they have to go through to get to the end, to the light. Right?
Well, we are in week three of our series on Stupid Church Tricks, and it seems like our topic today is just a little bit different than where we’ve been so far. So, as we dive in, Tony, can you explain where we’re headed with today’s conversation?
Yeah, Amy, the topics we’re going to discuss in today’s episode go beyond dumb church tricks related to leadership and staffing and ministry strategy. These tricks are particularly, I would call ’em stupid because they go against the sole reason for why the church exists. In fact, if your growth is happening because of methods or strategies that are making anything more important than the good news, the gospel message and the great commission, then your church is really in a unhealthy place. And you’re probably not experiencing, not, you’re not experiencing health, but you’re probably not experiencing growth, as well.
Yeah, we talk a lot in the podcast about church growth, but to be clear, we don’t want churches to grow for the sake of growth. We want healthy churches to grow so that they can reach more people and make more disciples.
That’s exactly right, Amy. And if reaching people for Jesus and making disciples isn’t what you’re after, well, number one, this is probably not the podcast that you wanna be listening to. But you may wanna consider a different job, too, because that’s really what we’re about. So, before we dive into these church tricks, I want to acknowledge that most churches don’t start out this way. Most churches start on fire with the mission. They’re trying to reach new people for Jesus. But as new people become church people, the voices on the inside of the church become louder. And people are coming, and we want to keep them coming. People are giving, and we wanna keep them giving. And then, eventually, our mission shifts from reaching people on the outside to appeasing people on the inside. And doing church things, churchy things becomes more important than reaching our community. And to be clear, once this shift occurs, our church is headed towards decline.
Yeah, that’s right. And we’re gonna dive into what the things are that drive us to become insider focused and make other things louder than the gospel. And because we don’t want any church to stay in that place. We’ll talk a little bit later about how to get out of this mentality as well. So, Tony, where do you wanna start today?
Yeah, so, the first stupid church trick is when anything becomes louder than the the gospel. And here’s the challenge around this one, Amy. Sometimes, the anything is things that you would step back and look at and say, “Well, that’s actually a, I mean, that’s a great thing that the church is engaged.”
So, sometimes, it looks like serving needs in the community. Sometimes, it looks like engagement and missions around the globe. Sometimes, it’s churches taking a biblical stance on a specific cultural issue. Sometimes, it’s around mobilizing Christians to actually engage in local politics, state politics and so on so that Christians can have a voice in helping to transform what’s happening in our communities.
I like what you’re saying there—that some of these are good things. The challenge is when those good things become more important than the gospel. You and I both worked with a good, you know, church. It was kind of a network of churches recently, and they had social justice causes that were amazing. I mean, I’m so glad the church was doing those things. But when we were on site with the, with that group, you could see that that thing had become the front issue and the gospel had kind of tucked behind that.
And, Amy, sometimes it, it’s actually very upfront and visual. Driving through a community, I’ll pass a church, and it’s very clear from the signs on the property to the presence that they’re trying to have, as far as their physical presence in the community, that something has become louder than the good news. And here’s, here’s the deal. We, the church should be about doing good works. I mean, it, it is part of what God’s called us to do. However, we just need to make sure that the highest priority is helping people meet and follow Jesus. And related to this then, I think, anything we can be doing to support other nonprofits in our community, partnering with them, partnering with other churches that are engaging in specific good works in the community is a good thing. One church I was just talking with recently, as an example, they know there are some people in, lots of people in their community that are dealing with different addictions and things like that. And rather than starting their own ministry for that, they’ve decided to partner with another church that has that ministry.
In addition to what they’re trying to do to move the gospel mission forward, and get this, not only are they sending people to that ministry, they’re actually financially supporting that other church. So, one church financially supporting another church so that both churches can really stay focused on their primary mission. And that’s the key here. Our primary mission needs to be about making new disciples of Jesus. Businesses, nonprofits, educational institutions, political parties, all of those entities have very different missions. And as the church, we can do good works, and we should do good works. But our primary focus needs to be on our mission.
That’s great. All right. What’s the second stupid church trick?
Yeah. So the second mistake that many churches make in this area is that what we’re against can be louder than what we are for. And that also becomes louder than the gospel. And so, let me just share some examples here of what I’ve seen in churches. Obviously, some of this can be related to the issues that we just talked about previously, but it’s just coming from a different attitude. So we’re not for this, but we’re against that. But, Amy, this is typically how I see this one playing out. It’s, it’s related to how we engage the mission as a church. And it comes down to some basic things. So, I’ve seen churches that have taken this position. Of course, it’s funny; every church thinks they are the only Bible-teaching church in the community. Every church thinks that for whatever reason; however, I’ve seen some churches that have really, you know, it’s, they, they even, it’s articulated with their staff team, their leadership. Sometimes, it even comes through in the teaching on Sunday morning. We will never do topical teaching in our church. We are only gonna do expository teaching, diving into specific passages of scripture. And so, we are against topical teaching, or I’ve seen other churches, the way we approach worship: this is authentic worship. And because of that, we will never have haze. We will never have moving lights. We are against haze and moving lights. And then, other churches that might be around their discipleship strategy. We will only do discipleship with people gathered in classrooms and qualified Bible teachers teaching. We, we are, we will never do groups and homes because we can’t control the teaching that’s happening in people’s homes. We are against small groups. I’m, I, I mean, this is the extreme, but in every one of these areas, I’ve heard these.
And what’s interesting is the focus is so much on what we aren’t gonna do as a church or what we’re against as a church, that again, we kinda lose sight of what we’re supposed to be about as a church. And lo and behold, sometimes, those strategies, those ministry strategies that we’re against would actually help facilitate us actually sharing the good news with more people. And so I just, the big thing here is we can’t let the strategies get in the way of helping churches actually accomplish the mission that God’s called us to. And we’ve alluded to this a bit already, but that kind of blends into this third mistake, Amy. And it’s one of the, the key traits of an insider-focused church. The mistake is this: the way we do church becomes more important than why we do church. In other words, we’re so focused on our ministry strategies that we lose sight of the mission that God’s called us to.
Yeah. I think this is probably the headline reason that such a high percent of churches are stuck or dying right now. These churches look no different in approach than they did say 30, 40 years ago. In a sense, I think their church is their methods, if I could put it that way. I think there’s a fear of change. They don’t want change. And what you said a few minutes ago, it’s really about the people that are already a part of their church. You know, I’ve had the opportunity this year, Tony, to actually work with a lot of growing churches that engage us because they’re stuck for reasons of health and growth. But it was just a little bit over a year ago, I worked with a very large mainline church. And over the past six years since this new pastor had become their senior pastor, he had through blood, sweat and tears successfully move the church from, in the life cycle from preservation to maintenance. Now, that’s an uphill battle, right? It’s almost like physically you have to push that church back up there.
So, a lot of hard work, but it was so clear through the engagement that the church wasn’t going to make more progress, and most likely, was going to slip back to preservation because of their refusal to change. In fact, the lay leaders there and many attenders continually threatened this lead pastor that if he made more changes, they were gonna go to the same denomination, right, to the church down the road, ’cause there were four or five churches in that denomination around their church. So, he was sort of, you know, bound, like he didn’t have options. And again, this was a very large, insider-focused church. Really sad. And it, it actually made me think of, so years ago, I don’t know, Tony, if you ever read the book, who Moved My Cheese? Did you read that?
Yes, I did.
But if I remember right, there were two mice in this, it was a parable kind of thing. Two mice, Sniff and Scurry were their names. And then, they had two little humans, Hem and Haw, and they all were in this maze that represented, you know, their environment. And the book begins because they found this cheese-filled corridor. So Sniff and Scurry know the cheese is gonna run out one day. So, they’re always actively looking for what’s next. But Hem and Haw, on the other hand, they’re very guarded, and they kind of started protecting the cheese. And they thought it would never run out. And then, of course, at the end of the book, one day the cheese is gone, and Hem and Haw, they stand there going, “Who moved my cheese?” And they don’t even look for new cheese because that would disrupt their routine. And they’re super fearful of the unknown. But, you know, the, the point of the book comes there: if you don’t change, you can become extinct. And I think that’s churches where “Our methods are more important than our mission.”
That’s what they’re doing. They’re guarding. They’re protecting, and eventually, we know, they, they slide down that lifecycle. And eventually, they’ll die. So, you know, anything you’d add to that?
Yeah. No. Another example of that playing out is when a church recognizes the, the church is growing older, they’re not reaching young families.
And so they hire a younger senior pastor to help them connect with more young families, but they don’t allow that younger senior pastor to make any changes to the way he or she teaches, to how they do worship on Sunday, to how they’re engaging with families, with kids, so, by improving what’s happening in kids’ ministry. And so they’re, they’re so focused on the way they’ve done church through the years that even if they bring in a younger voice with new perspective and hopefully some new ideas for how to engage the gospel mission, they’re not allowing that pastor to make changes. So, unfortunately, Amy, that’s, I mean, that’s just the, the natural progression. And, what’s challenging is when we think about churches that are so married to the way they church, do church, that they’ve forgotten the why. I think our mind naturally goes to the very traditional, mainline-type churches. And there’s no doubt there’s some, there’s definitely opportunity there to rethink how we’re engaging the gospel mission. However, it’s, it’s fascinating. Any church that has had some “success” at some time in the past, whatever led to that success in the past, that that church can get married to the way they found success. And so, we have seen even, younger, we would call ’em more modern, maybe even not necessarily denominational but nondenominational churches, we’ve seen even in those churches the way that they do church becomes more important than why they’re doing church. And so, this I, as you suggested to a moment ago, I really do believe this is the primary reason why churches are getting stuck.
I agree. All right. Well, what, what’s the next mistake, Tony?
Well, another way we see this all playing out is when defending the Bible becomes louder than making new disciples. And, Amy, goodness, well, we’ve seen this play out so many times in recent years. But, the bottom line here is we, we need to leverage God’s truth, no doubt, and people need to hear the truth from God’s word in order for them to consider their next steps towards Christ and then, once they cross the line of faith, to continue to take steps in their faith journey. However, the bottom line here is, and it’s simple, do we want to win the, the theological argument? Or do we want to help someone meet and follow Jesus? And it’s just fascinating. I, we see churches all the time that are so focused on their version of biblical truth. And I said it that way specifically because sometimes it’s over key areas of theology that, my goodness, there are great theologians and churches that have landed on both sides of that. But for them, whatever their version of biblical truth is has become the the kind litmus test for whether people fit in their church or not. And so, it becomes more about winning the argument than it’s actually about helping people meet and follow Jesus. And then, finally, and kind of related to this, the final mistake I wanted to talk about today is when spiritual formation becomes louder than the gospel. And, again, we certainly we don’t want people just to take steps towards Jesus, and then say yes to Jesus and then not experience spiritual formation after that. That could be the furthest thing from the truth. But what we’re talking about here is we can’t just focus solely on spiritual form, formation and then neglect our, our call to share the good news with people that aren’t currently in church, with people that are, aren’t currently Jesus followers. We have to get to a place as a church where we’re focused both on reaching new people and helping people take their next steps towards Jesus.
Yeah. And this might be just my opinion, but I’ve seen it play out, maybe I’ve said it before in the podcast, but you know, when you watch a, is it a gaggle of geese? Is that what they’re called when they’re flying through the sky? I don’t know. I know it’s a murder of crows, but it may be a gaggle of geese. But when they fly, they’re in a V formation; there’s this lead goose that’s really cutting through the flight path, and all the other geese draft behind them. Or if you watch, you know, the Tour de France, there, there’s, they draft. It’s makes everything move easier. In my opinion, I think if anything gets ahead of evangelism in that lead goose spot in a church, it’s, again, eventually, that church will die because there won’t be any more new people to disciple. And I think it was Moody who said the Bible wasn’t given for our information but for our transformation. And so, again, this search for more information, deeper study, I think, again, that’s the natural drift of any church. And we’ve talked about this, that’s really the easy route. That’s really not too hard to just keep studying the Bible. But it takes a lot of intentionality to keep focused on people who are not connected to the church right now because that’s the fresh, the freshness and the newness in a church with new people to continue to disciple.
And, and Amy, I Google, Googled to find the gaggle was correct.
It was right? One for me today.
So, gaggle, gaggle, gaggle on Google was confirmed. Yes.
You Googled that a gaggle of geese is correct.
All right. Well, we’ve talked about a lot of the ways that churches become stuck and insider focused when they make anything louder really than the gospel. So, now let’s move on to the solution side of things, Tony. If churches find themselves in any of these places we just discussed, what are their next steps?
Amy, a, a few different things come to mind here. When we find that our churches are making either political or social causes louder than the gospel and it’s causing division in our church. And I know many churches experienced this in 2020. We really have a, it’s, it’s a spiritual maturity challenge to overcome. We need to continue to encourage people to take their next steps towards Christ and experience a heart change that begins to elevate loving God and loving others over personal preference, preferences and politics. And secondly, as leaders, we have to constantly remind others of who we are and where we’re going. We need to elevate the mission, and this is why we exist as a ministry. And we need to recast the vision, and explain this is where God’s calling us to go in the future. And by the way, there, there’s always going to be another election that’s coming, as an example. And so, especially as we think towards in the U.S. another big election here later this year, I think we need to get ahead of that and really help prepare people in our church. And teach to this so that we can help, help people, again, understand whether we win or lose in the political realm, doesn’t matter if our candidate wins or loses. At the end of the day, for us as Bible believers, as Jesus followers, we’re, we’re trying to help people take their next steps towards Jesus. And we, so we need to get out ahead of this right now.
That’s so good, Tony. You know, we’ve seen time and time again in these situations that the only chance of establishing unity is to work hard and often to maintain alignment on the ultimate mission of the church.
What, what other ideas?
Yeah. So if your church is experiencing maybe a more general insider focus that many churches drift to over time, here are a few steps that we typically recommend. So first, be intentional about shaping culture. Your staff and your congregation need to embrace the fundamental belief: My church is for me, but it’s not about me. Secondly, you need to clarify who are, who are you trying to reach? Your mission field isn’t a location; it’s a group of people. Then, prioritize reaching new people and fight against that insider-focused mentality. And to do that, to, to return to healthy growth, you must address this key question: What are we willing to do to reach people outside the church and outside the faith? And then, you need to plan for new people to actually show up. Your weekend experiences should be planned with new people, new believers in mind. And then, finally, you need to identify distractions that might be pulling you off mission. Just because something is helpful or good doesn’t mean it’s going to advance your mission. We call this complexity creep. And the most common form of complexity we see in churches is when they become over programmed. And it’s just much easier to add a program than it is to redefine the strategy. But a unified ministry strategy helps you determine how to use space, how to invest money, how to leverage leaders and how to engage volunteers in ways that will actually fulfill the mission that God’s called your church to.
That’s really good, Tony. And hey, before we wrap up today, I wanna highlight a story of a small church who did exactly what you just said. They recognized that other things were becoming louder than the gospel and louder than their mission to reach their community. And they had to make a choice to turn that around. When Pastor Steve Street was called to pastor Trace Ridge Baptist Church in Ridgeland, Mississippi in 2010, the congregation, it’s really small, had shrunk to just 30 people. But there was a distinct sense that God wasn’t finished with the church. And over the next five years, God began to grow that church again. But like you said, unfocused programming, an unclear vision eventually caused the church to hit that 200 person, we call it growth barriers. And by 2017, the church was in decline again. So Pastor Steve told us this. He said, “We were on the maintenance side of the life cycle without a clear path of how to return to health and growth. And our staff began reading The Unstuck Church book as a team. And it helped us clearly see how we had drifted away from health. And the book offered encouragement and help, but we quickly understood the need for more. We needed someone to guide us through how to apply and implement all of that information in our context and with our leaders.” And the biggest challenge Trace Ridge encountered was that fear of change we talked about mm-Hmm. And also this challenge to unite their team around the new vision. So Steve continued when we were talking with him, he said, “Change can be scary, but not accomplishing the Great Commission is scarier.” Isn’t that good?
“Change can be scary, but not accomplishing the Great Commission is scarier. So, reminding our church of that was essential. And once The Unstuck Group helped us clarify our church’s mission and vision, strategic initiatives that helped us simplify our ministry programming, it gradually changed the entire culture of the church.” And so, you know, Tony, we coach churches that both a strong vision attracts and repels and Trace Ridge experienced this firsthand. Steve continued. He said, “Some people decided that the change was too much for them, and they found new churches. However, we corporately surrendered our agendas to His will, and God made us into a church that was healthier, more diverse, more outward focused and more gospel centered than ever before.” So, on the other side of The Unstuck Process, you know, here’s some of the things he shared. He said they are experiencing the fruit of their willingness to do whatever it takes to bring people to Jesus. Since first going through The Unstuck Process, they’ve seen nearly 50 baptisms.
Think of that for a church that size.
And they are growing by all measures. He said, “We’ve eliminated many sacred cows within the church and have become centered on disciple-making rather than tradition-holding.” And that the outward focus has led them to cut unnecessary programs and advance every essential ministry. So, we just asked him, we said, you know what? Offer, what, what advice would you offer to other pastors? And Pastor Steve said this. He said, “I would encourage you to begin asking God to reveal the answers to some hard questions to you and discuss it with the leaders and key influencers, specifically there,” (there’s four questions). “One, is our church accomplishing its mission? And do we even know what our mission is? Are we inward focused or outward focused? If our church disappeared tomorrow, would our community notice? And I love this last one, is our faith in what God can do bigger than our fear of change?” So, I just had to share that because I think it perfectly illustrates everything that we’ve been talking about today. And it takes a strong perspective shift to move, right, from insider focus back to health again. But it’s possible. We see it all the time. So, Tony, I took up a lot of that time. Do you have any final thoughts as we wrap up today’s conversation?
Well, Amy, I love that you shared that story, that that’s why I do what I do. So, it’s so fun to hear that because it really does, it paints a beautiful picture of the churches we get to serve every single day and the churches that are truly committed and on mission for the gospel. So I love that. I just wanna say that if you’re listening and you resonated with some of the topics discussed today, sometimes it, it does, it takes an outside perspective to help turn this insider mentality around. And we would love to walk alongside your church as you seek to get back to a place of health in this area. So, you can start a conversation with our team today at theunstuckgroup.com.
Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. At The Unstuck Group, our goal is to help pastors grow healthy churches by guiding them to align their vision, strategy, team and action. In everything that we do, our priority is to help churches, help people meet and follow Jesus. If there’s any way we can serve you and your church, reach out to us today at theunstuckgroup.com. Next week, we’re back with another brand new episode. Until then, have a great week.