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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Reinventing Church

George Barna’s research studies are one of the sources that tell us today’s church is in serious trouble. Dozens of churches in the U.S., for example, shut down every week. They actually go out of business! Of the remaining churches, many seem to be on “auto pilot” --- hardly making a real difference in anyone’s life or the communities around them.

It looks like we have saddled the church institution with tradition that now cries out for meaningful transformation in today’s fast-changing world. So while we have religion, one of the richest nations may be inhabited by some of the most lost people on the planet. The story is the same in other western countries too.

Maybe your church is one of those churches that look ripe for reinvention. Maybe you’re comfortable with it, but don’t believe it’s achieving all it could be. You’d like to see your church doing a better job of spreading the good news, making disciples out of converts and loving the lost around you. If so, you may be like many church leaders today, who are saying, “We need a strategy!”

Strategy may be important to a church, but what does it mean to have a good strategy? Look at Christian publishing today. It is chock full of books, tapes and other resources for church growth, church strategy, church effectiveness, etc. There are seminars, conferences and even consulting firms --- all promising to empower you with the secrets of making yours a dynamic church with eternal impact. Each one screams, “Pick me! Pick me!”

Is it really such a great mystery --- running a dynamic, impactful church? What if your church needs to reinvent itself. Where do you start? God’s plan for His church works much the same way as His plan for everything else on this earth. What we need are revolutionary changes in our approach as leaders, so that revolutionary changes can emerge in our churches. In other words, we obey and God delivers.

Order emerges out of simple rules. Too many leaders try to design grand visions for everyone to follow. Instead, they should be working to create conditions that would help their congregation be obedient. I think leaders generally spend too much time working on "the strategy" and not enough time working to create the conditions out of which new results-oriented actions are likely to emerge. We have to have an environment where dynamic people come and grow. That’s all it takes to produce relevant churches.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that church leadership is irrelevant. But the job of church leadership is not to develop strategies. Church leaders are called to build an organization that can continually spawn cool new ministry concepts, to design context rather than invent content. Top leadership puts into operation rules that can create a deeply innovative organization. Let’s make no mistake, the concept of church strategy is really that simple. Nonetheless, implementing some of those rules may be a formidable challenge for many of today’s church organizations.

So I've thought about this a great deal. I think I would refer to myself as a "student of church models." I've been intrigued with how churches function for years. As a result, I've done a lot of homework, a lot of research, a lot of observing and admittedly, a lot of armchair quarterbacking. Consequently, I have some recommendations.

Set Unreasonable Expectations
Select a minimum of 25 people from your congregation, with average levels of spiritual maturity. Ask them this question: "What would be a reasonable expectation for our church growth this year?" Compute the average answer from the responses. Is it 20%, 30%, or something substantially less ambitious? The answer says quite a bit about where your church is going. You see, no church can outperform its aspirations. So if most of your people believe you are in a 5% or 10% growth mode, you are.

I was in one church a couple of years ago where a leader explained that their strategy was not to grow. And sure enough, they weren’t! I’ll consider the possibility (albeit remote) that it could truly be God’s will for your church to grow at such a moderate rate or not at all. But in most churches, the people probably haven’t asked God. Informal surveys usually reveal that the majority of regular church-attenders assume that there is some preordained, uninspiring ministry growth rate. But let’s be clear. The beliefs of your people set the upper limit on what you can actually do.

A bold aspiration won't suddenly by itself produce a multitude of revolutionary strategies. But its absence always yields bland, me-too strategies. If your objective is growth --- however you measure it --- transforming innovation begins with unreasonable goals. However, if you set unreasonable expectations, human nature will cause some folks to search for shortcuts. Don't let them get away with it. If it’s worth doing, it’s still worth doing right.

Convincing people that it is reasonable to strive for unreasonable goals is tricky. Mere exhortation is not enough. You have to demonstrate, with real examples. Show them that it's actually possible to dramatically exceed the average. Remind them that God doesn’t usually live by averages either. Without understanding and belief in the possible, aspiration and vision have no credibility. Whatever your growth rate, never ever believe that your church is in a mature state of existence. There are no mature churches, only mature people who accept someone else's definition of the boundary.

Stretch Your Definition of Ministry
Who are we? This is perhaps the most fundamental question churches can ask themselves. How we answer determines whether the church searches for unconventional opportunities. Too many churches define themselves by what they do (e.g., small groups, seeker-oriented) rather than by what they know and what they have (their resources). But even the gray-haired revolutionaries aren't bound by a narrow self-concept. I’d actually like to recommend that churches break with tradition and start defining themselves by who they are.

A growing, dynamic church requires a culture of why-not rather than why. An elastic definition helps curb the boundaries of tradition. In the most dynamic of churches today, leaders actually spend time looking for opportunities outside the boundaries of the ministries they currently manage. Every ministry leader needs to be a ministry development officer for the church --- always on the look-out for an opportunity to stretch the definition of the church’s ministry. In other words, instead of working with what’s allowed, they work with what’s possible.

Of course, an elastic ministry concept is not a license for all kinds of ill-conceived diversification. Entering a new ministry where God hasn’t led you is a recipe for a big failure. So start asking your people, “Who are we? What do we currently regard as off-limits?” Get a few people together and start redefining your ministry in terms of what it knows and what it has rather than what it does. Start teaching your people to look for the possibilities instead of the limitations. Frankly, the limitations are easy to find. There’s no challenge or fun in that anyway!

Create a Cause, Not a Church (or Worse Yet … a Business!)
Gray-haired revolutionaries must periodically shed their skin. But without a monumental purpose, individuals will lack the courage to do so. Anyone poised between a comfortable --- but tired ministry model and an exciting --- but untested ministry concept is bound to ask a few questions. Will my gifts and my relationships be as valuable in this new church as they were in the old? How much will I be asked to unlearn? How hard will it be for me to adapt? These are genuine, heartfelt questions that can't be answered in advance.

The courage to leave our comfort zone and strike off for parts unknown doesn’t come from any kind of assurance. It comes from devotion to meaningful cause. (I believe Rick Warren calls that being “purpose-driven.”) In some churches, there might be months, perhaps years, of savage debate. Factions could form. Positions may even harden. The notion of fundamental change in something that may not appear to be broke would strike fear into faint-hearted elders. Some might even call it heresy!

Today we live in the "information " society. And church leaders need congregations who bring their gifts and resources to church. Yet if we rob them of the chance to feel they are working on something that really matters, can we be so enlightened? Every volunteer and staffer should know (not “feel”) that he or she is contributing to something that will make a genuine difference on an eternal scale. It’s the job of church leadership to give them that knowledge too.

Listen to New Voices
Consider Bill Hybels (Willow Creek), Rick Warren (Saddleback) and Brian Houston (Hillsongs) and others who lead dynamic, impactful churches. Who are they and how do they do it? More often than not, church gets “reinvented” by outsiders who are free from the prejudices and constraints of veteran tradition. Yet in most churches, strategy is the preserve of the same few people talking to the same few people year after year. No wonder the strategies that emerge are dull.

What, after all, can the dozen most spiritually mature leaders in a church really learn from each other? Their positions are so well rehearsed they can finish each other's sentences.What is required is not a cohort of wise elders or a bevy of planners, but a taproot sunk deep into the organization. Without new voices in the strategy conversation, the chance for revolution is dim.

There are revolutionaries in your church. But all too often there is no process that lets them be heard.Surprised that I would say that? Take a look around. Maybe they are constrained by stifling tradition or bureaucratic process. Maybe they’re people who occasionally appear a bit outspoken. They may look divisive. Maybe they’re not a spiritually mature as your elders, and you’ll readily conclude that they “still have some growing up to do.”

Wherever they are, if your church intends to be God’s tool for spiritual revolution, leadership must give a disproportionate share of voice to at least some of these constituencies that are typically not represented in your elder body or other bodies of church leadership.

The first is young people, or more accurately, anyone with a youthful perspective. Why exclude the very group with the biggest emotional stake in the future--the young--from the process of strategy creation?

A second constituency that deserves a larger share of voice is those near the fringes of the church. These probably aren’t the people who show up every time the church doors open. More than likely they’ll look like the people who regularly attend, but rarely are heard from or seen. Orthodoxy doesn't hold the same sway with them as it does with church “insiders.” Don’t you wonder why?

The third constituency is newcomers. Particularly useful are those from other churches or communities, who have so far managed to escape the effects of your church’s failings. Churches sometimes pretend to celebrate diversity while at the same time doing whatever they can to systematically stamp out diversity of thinking--which is what counts most. Don’t ask newcomers to fit into your mold --- ask them how your church fits into theirs.

Very few churches regularly have an open-ended dialogue at this level, where fresh voices with new ideas get a hearing. Here's a challenge: The next time someone in your church convenes a meeting on "strategy" or "innovation," make sure that half of those who attend have never been to such a meeting. Load the meeting with young people, newcomers, and those from the fringes of the church’s nerve center. That's the way to quadruple your chances of coming up with truly revolutionary ministry concepts!

Design an "Open Market" for Ideas
There are many successful churches around. But we have to consider whether the leaders of those churches have thought about how they might instill the passionate, creative values of the church into all the people. How can a church ignite the ministry in its people when they’re not in church? Perhaps we can take lesson from secular businesses in this area.

The secret to business innovation is not some super race of entrepreneurial visionaries but the existence of three tightly interconnected concepts: a market for ideas, a market for capital (often manifested as authority) and a market for talent.

In most churches, ideas, authority, and talent are fragmented and silent. It's no wonder that most of the mega-churches of today were started by ministerial entrepreneurs. The individuals who started them were the kinds of people who probably couldn’t (or wouldn’t) get a hearing in a traditional church. In other words, some of today’s most dynamic churches were built by men and women that other churches wouldn’t have.

Everyone in the church must understand that radical ideas are the only way to create change, both corporately and individually. Until your congregation believes that rule-breaking ideas are a legitimate way to respond to God, the market for ideas will remain barren. God isn’t usually willing to fit into our churchy boxes. His people aren’t usually willing to live in those boxes either!

Even in churches where leaders acknowledge the need for an open market for ideas, many only have one place to pitch a new idea --- up the “chain of command.” Just one negative response in that precarious process will kill the idea completely. There should be no one individual in your church who can say no to a new idea. Remember that most of the ideas that have launched today’s most dynamic ministries and churches were the very ones that were rejected by other church organizations.

Moreover, you cannot have any prejudice about who is capable of inventing a ministry concept. No one cares how old you are, what academic degrees you've earned, where you've ministered, or whether you graduated from seminary. In any innovative church, what counts are the quality of your thinking and the power of your vision. It’s how God works. Is it how you and your church work?

Offer Authority To the Masses
Most ministries operating in the world today were started with scant funding, by people who had no money. But most of them weren’t started by existing churches or church organizations either. Why is that? Regardless of the budget, creative ideas seldom get funded or authorized within existing churches and church organizations.

But does it really make sense to set the same criteria for a small investment in a new experiment as for a large, irreversible investment in an existing ministry? If we want our churches to be dynamic, transforming organizations, we have to find ways to make it less difficult for good ideas to get some authorization and even the smallest amount of funding.

A new ministry concept is not a contract or a business plan. It usually cannot be budgeted. It's a story. It's a story about an opportunity and a calling. It’s a story of a committed, passionate person who is going to obediently be an instrument of God’s work. It’ll take some funding to play that story out too. Will you be willing to fund it?

In most churches the goal of the budgeting process is to make sure the church never makes a bet-the-farm commitment without knowing where the funding will come from. Fundamentally, you and I both know that’s not how God works anyway, but knowledge and actions are two different things.

Most churches budget everything they do. In the process, they guarantee that they never “get into trouble, but they may also be placing a ceiling on what God will do through them.The goal is to make sure you have a big winner --- not to make sure there are no losers.

But you won't create that next high impact church or dynamic para-church ministry unless you're willing to write off a few failed experiments. But in most churches, anyone with a vision for a radical new ministry concept must seek his or her funding from the defenders of the old ministry model. The people running the old ministry concepts have veto power of the new ministry concepts. Here again, tradition stifles innovation. Innovation only happens when we put some money behind the unorthodox.

Open Up the Stage for Talent
The best people are called to a variety of roles, not a single leadership position. Leaders cannot hold onto good staff when they want to try new things. When it comes to people, possession is not nine-tenths of the law. And the situation is even more profound when it comes to lay leadership and volunteers. You cannot shoehorn people into a role and keep them there. If someone believes he or she is called to do something, and you don’t let them do it, you’ll most likely lose them to another church.

Workers in churches change employers with less angst than most people change jobs within companies. Sure, they jump for money, but more than that --- they jump for the chance to work on the next great thing. Companies pursuing killer opportunities attract the best talent. Churches are no different. People are attracted to churches that they believe are the most strategic, the most effective. If you don’t believe me, ask Rick Warren or Bill Hybels how many unsolicited resumes they get.

If talent isn't mobile in your church, and you’re not attracting new talent, there's virtually no chance that you'll be able to expand your ministry reach. People search out opportunities. They vote with their feet.

In too many churches, our concept of leadership is too defined. But the marginal value a talented individual adds to a ministry running on auto pilot is often a fraction of the value that the individual could add to a ministry that’s just learning to walk. There are many gifted leaders sitting on the side lines because they don’t have “ministry credentials.” Who told them to sit there? In most cases, their churches!

Find out who the “movers and shakers” are in your congregation. What are their gifts? What are their market-based skills? What resources do they have? Identify your most capable and get them fired up about your most impossible expectation for the ministry. And let's be clear about how much is at stake. Christ told us to spread the good news (convert the masses), make disciples out of new believers and act in love. The mandate is clear. The impact is eternal.

The merit of an innovative idea counts just as much as the merit for service itself. There’s no way to raise the impact of your church in fulfilling this mandate unless you can engage the most capable people you find. Empower them. Pray for them. Expect God to do great things through them. After all, this is the business He's in!

Lower the Risks of Experimentation
When it comes to taking risks, most churches are torn between good stewardship --- where it may be better to be a fast follower than a foolhardy risk taker --- and innovation vision, where it may be better to capture the inspired moment a church must move boldly. But this is a false dichotomy. Neither cautious following nor rash risk taking is likely to pay off. It is possible to find a way between these extremes.

Henry Blackaby taught us to see where God is at work, and then join Him. In today’s fast-paced world, many Christians don’t know how to see where God is at work. They may launch out in what they believe is obedience, only to later discern that they misunderstood the message. Or, they may not realize that God can be at work in what looks like a failure.

But speed is everything. It defines obedience to the leading and call of the Holy Spirit. Obedient people take risks. Sometimes they take outrageous risks. And they don’t spend time talking about doing or getting ready to get ready.

Of course, that kind of attitude does mean that you'll fail sometimes. In fact, a smart church body will understand the risks and have an exit plan for anything it takes on. This so-called exit plan is where we manage the tension between good stewardship and bold obedience.

Such planning doesn't evidence any lack of commitment to new opportunities. It simply recognizes that what is true in even the best of circumstances: we live in an imperfect world, and humans can fail. We need to help our people know that it’s okay to fail, and that God could even call someone to a failure. (He did in the Bible!)

People can be encouraged to develop little initiatives that help the church learn about bigger opportunities. The early-stage goal of such an experiment is to maximize learning.

Maybe you’ve read about the pastor who, when faced with a funding shortfall for the new building, passed the collection plate and asked each person to take out $5.00. He then told the congregation to take the $5.00, invest it in whatever they thought might be a good idea, and bring the returns back to the church in a specified period of time. This is one way to avoid jumping into something you’re not ready for, and yet it’s also a way to engage the people at every level, and help them own the ministry individual.

Think of your experiments as a portfolio of opportunities to accelerate learning. Celebrate the people who champion the experiments as they listen to God. This is the core of low-risk experimentation. And it is a critical design rule for building churches that are consistently revolutionary. If you want proof, visit some of today’s most dynamic churches and look at the diversity of their various ministries. Some of them are doing some pretty crazy things!

Make Like a Cell--Divide and Divide
A human embryo grows through a process of cell division: A single cell becomes two, then four, then eight and so on. Some cells become lungs, others fingernails, bones, tendons, or any of the other organs and structures of the body. Division and differentiation are the essence of growth. The same is true for churches. When churches stop dividing and differentiating, innovation dies and growth slows.

Look at the concept of cells and small groups in some of today’s most dynamic and impactful churches. The objective is to divide and divide, creating new cells. Our most dynamic churches today have oodles of small groups, many with special interest focuses. Always be on the look out for a new ministry opportunity. Always be ready to divide one cell and make two (or more)!

Cellular division drives innovation in many ways. Let’s look at four of them now.

First, it frees potential and “political capital” from the tyrannical orthodoxy of any single church model. I used to work for a company that had 144,000 employees. It looked not like one giant company, but rather like a collection of about 10,000 little companies. It was named one of America’s most admired companies. Ask yourself why. Cellular division creates space for new thinking and ministry models.

Second, cellular division provides opportunities to nurture entrepreneurial talent. I want a church that doesn’t look like one giant mega-church --- but rather looks like a collection of hundreds of little churches collaborating with each other. That way, everyone has ownership. Everyone knows where they belong. Everyone makes it "my church."

Third, by keeping units small and focused, cellular division puts shepherds close to the sheep. Let’s be honest here. It is difficult for the sheep in a herd of thousands to follow the shepherd whom they can only see on the giant screen on the wall or in a podcast. It’s hard for love to be translated to those sheep. The shepherd on the stage may love them, but they’ll find that a most unbelievable proposition. So break the herd up. Get more shepherds in touch with more sheep.

Fourth, by dispersing power, it undermines the ability of strong divisions to be divisive or threaten the overall health of the ministry. If one small herd of sheep goes over the cliff, the rest of the herd is saved. If one minister falls, there are many others who still have credibility and can lead. Think of it like running your investment portfolio --- where keeping a balanced portfolio is the best way to mitigate risk.

Pay Your Innovators Well (It's Biblical!)
You can't reward rain-makers as you reward stewards. Companies that fail to understand this simple fact will hemorrhage entrepreneurial talent. Churches will too. If you get real leaders who can make rain, pay them well. It’s Biblical that the temple leaders be paid by the people they minister to.

I don’t mean buy them a corporate jet and a Rolls Royce. But certainly take care of their needs. Make sure they are living at the same standard the rest of your church families are living at. If the median household income in your church is one number, the household income of your pastors should be similar.

I am absolutely sickened by the way many churches today are treating their pastors and staff. The parishioners live in gated communities, send their children to private schools, take fabulous vacations and have a lake house. At the same time, they somehow have the deluded notion that it’s okay for their pastors and church staff to live in poverty.

Do you know that many of today’s pastors in urban churches don’t have health insurance or retirement plans (and are exempt from Social Security)? Do you know that many of today’s pastors qualify for food stamps, ADC (Aid for Dependent Children) or other social welfare programs? Do you think that’s okay? Let me assure you, it is not okay!

I know, I know ... you've got such a huge church mortgage that you can't afford to pay your people any more. And therein lies the problem. Churches tell their people to look at their checkbooks and their calendars to see what their real priorities are. I would tell churches to do the same. Look at your church budget and see where the bulk of your money goes. That is what your church believes in. So if you are strangled by a huge church mortgage, it's apparently what you believe matters. Good luck with that though. I've never seen anyone come to Christ because of the beautiful church facility. I've never seen anyone believe that they were loved, find practical application of Biblical truth in their messy lives or get discipled by a "state-of-the-art" church campus.

God wants us to take care of our people. If you’re people aren’t worth paying, then get rid of them. They’re probably not what God wants for your church anyway. But when you ask God to bring you the right ministers to make your church bloom, be accountable for taking good care of them.

There are many solid leaders who are called by God and anointed for ministry. They could produce vibrant, world-changing churches. The trouble is they are so defeated and so stressed out, living in the face of such spiritual warfare that they can barely function. Go have a conversation with each of your pastors. Ask them what needs their families have right now. Then commit yourself to meeting those needs.

So I’ve talked through several areas where making some changes could produce some radical, game-changing churches. Do you have the courage to make those changes? Are you bold enough to challenge the paradigms that your church lives in today?

Make no mistake about it --- God calls each of us as Christian leaders to lead the strongest churches possible. The Great Commission and Greatest Commandment are to be lived out in these churches. It is clearly God’s will that these lofty objectives be achieved through our churches today.

Will you be a roadblock? Or will you be a conduit?

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