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Rescue Your Church from the Slippery Slope

Aug 24, 16
JMorgan
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Conyers, GA, USA - August 22, 2015: Competitors carefully make their way down a large slippery dirt mound at the Rugged Maniac Obstacle Course race in Conyers, GA.

After college I spent 2 years on Capitol Hill working for a U.S. Congressman, got an M.B.A. from the University of Chicago, served for 15 years as a management consultant to business executives, and invested the past 13 years running a ministry devoted to serving churches.  Yes, quite a varied career, but the Lord had a plan throughout.  He showed me that there are similar, hard-to-resist forces at work in all three…

Entrepreneurial Life Cycle

  • A company begins with a solid understanding of customer needs
  • Founder sees an opportunity to provide better products and services
  • That commitment to serving target customers leads to success
  • Infrastructure struggles under the weight of the resulting growth
  • Spurring process improvement and restructurings, turning focus inward
  • Becomes more out of touch with evolving customer needs and competitors step in
  • Either refocuses on the market and innovates before it’s too late or goes bankrupt

Political Life Cycle

  • A community activist holds ideals dearly that resonate with other citizens
  • Recognizes an opportunity to seek office and make positive changes in the city, state and country
  • Rallies support for his/her candidacy and gets elected
  • Quickly realizes that powerful party forces are at work that restrain the ability to make those changes
  • Acquiesces for the time being, hoping the party’s promises to one day have real power come to fruition
  • Becomes a “politician”, gradually losing touch with those original ideals and constituency
  • Finally arrives at the point of less restrained power and influence, yet by then has little positive impact

Church Life Cycle

  • A church plants in an area with a vision for reaching and impacting that community for Christ
  • Evaluates local needs and ways to bring help and hope to the lost and needy
  • Starts to grow because of those efforts to engage and reach out to the community
  • Reallocate energy and budget to accommodate that growth, adding buildings and staff to meet the needs of the congregation
  • Interactions with those outside the church become more sporadic and arms-length (e.g. mailers)
  • Slowly loses sight of the needs and issues in the community, feeding perception that the church is busy taking care of its own
  • Must refocus externally at some point or (healthy) growth will cease and impact will diminish

Why Too Much Internal Focus Doesn’t Work

Organizations (and leaders) that retrench into their own confines atrophy until they decide to reconnect with the outside world.  A club closes its doors to new members, enjoying the comforts of exclusivity, while its members age.  A business divides into departmental “silos” and the accompanying politics and posturing ensue.  A charity gets short on funds and begins to compromise its original mission for the sake of raising money.  A church plant grows to the point of realizing it has something to lose, becoming more about attracting and retaining than transforming and releasing.

All of those scenarios involve an inordinate degree of self-absorption.  None of them lead to long term success because they redirect attention to the needs of those on the “inside” and away from target “customers”.  When the Church in America redefined its “customer”, increasingly catering to members rather than equipping them to pursue the real “customer”, it ensured its decline.  It violated the most critical mistake any organization can make – largely ignoring its intended “customers”.

The most common church growth model in America is Invite-Involve-Invest – the “rallying cry” of the internally focused church.  It has been a key catalyst in the shift toward the “member is the customer” mentality:

  • INVITE – Ask members and attenders to invite their friends because invited people “stick”.  Friends want to spend time with friends.
  • INVOLVE – Make the church even more “sticky” by engaging people in deep relationships or entrenched in serving at the church.
  • INVEST – Because where their money goes, their hearts will go also.

Nearly every aspect of the Invite-Involve-Invest model perpetuates an internally focused church.  For example, “Invite” relegates members to “customer” status, asking them to extend invitations and leave conversions to the “professionals” rather than entrusting members with the responsibility to BE the Church.

As churches became increasingly reluctant to challenge members to live up to the Great Commission standard, worrying they may not come back next Sunday, they:

  • Broke a Sacred Trust – Diverted resources away from the community it was established to reach and serve, making the intended “customers” think the Church stopped caring about them
  • Ignored a Time-Tested Adage – “People don’t care what you know unless they know that you care”

The consensus view is that churches tend to “take care of their own”.  Society frequently hears the Church speak out on the social and moral issues of our day, but rarely sees it engaging with those outside the “4 walls”.  An air war fought with a louder megaphone has replaced a ground war of compassion – and we’re therefore losing the culture war.  More talk and less action explains why most now view Christians and churches as more legalistic than loving, more about judgment than justice.  As a result, the Church is on the short end of those moral issues – the courts, schools and public opinion have moved in the opposite direction.  Meanwhile, the number of frequent churchgoers in America is shrinking.  Clearly, the Church’s growth, impact, influence and perception today are diminishing.  No, internal focus rarely works – not in business, politics or in a church.

Tips for Regaining an External Focus

Act More Like Millennials than Boomers – Churches should share the deep concern millennials have for social justice and the welfare of those less fortunate.  Many boomers I know focused on building careers and only began thinking more seriously about addressing social issues upon retirement. The trick is for churches to think about impact throughout their “lives” rather than turning their attention to giving back only when they first plant or after reaching a point where “success” provides disposable time and money.

Reallocate Budget to Community Engagement – It’s difficult today for most churches to cover expenses because average giving per family is dropping.  Yet ironically, clinging to those limited dollars only speeds a church’s demise.  Investing back into the community actually would bring more funds into the church.  Using the business analogy, companies who fail to reinvest in sales, marketing and customer service quickly find themselves in financial straits.  Similarly, churches should invest generously in equipping members to serve and share the gospel within their circles of influence – the real “customer”.  But that’s not the case today with only 2.5.% of the average church’s budget invested in missions and small groups almost entirely replacing more intensive discipleship methods.

Convince Members that they ARE the “Church” – Share the cold hard facts about the costs of discipleship and responsibilities to make disciples.  Expect members and frequent attenders to live out the Great Commission.  Do all that even at the risk of losing church “consumers” to another church down the road.

Use Health, not Growth, as a Barometer – Jesus preached His most challenging sermon near the height of his popularity.  What Jesus was left with were a few disciples who changed the world.  Church growth is not always healthy.  Like people, churches often need to lose some weight to get healthy.  The trajectory of a thriving church is typically down before it follows the hockey stick back up.  Likewise, planting more churches that simply replicate the same flawed growth model doesn’t strengthen the body of Christ.  A few healthy churches full of disciples would have a far greater impact than scores of unhealthy ones.

Stop Thinking “My Church is Ok” – Back on the topic of politics, people often say, “Congress is completely dysfunctional, but my congressman is fine.”  Too many Christians defend their church but don’t blame the “Dones” for walking away from other churches, failing to realize that their own church likely is among the vast majority that in many ways no longer follows Jesus’ model of building Powerful Disciples and challenging them to demonstrate Jesus’ love before telling them who He is.

It’s Your Turn

Have you seen the life cycle mentioned at the start of this blog post play out in a church before?  Did the church regain an external (discipleship and compassion) focus in time to restore it to healthy growth?

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