Tuesday, January 12, 2010

By David Horn, ThD
Director, The Ockenga Institute

It’s like wandering through the mall. That’s the landscape of the evangelical church today in America. In our part of the country we have Nordstroms and Macys and Marshals and Sears. These are the economic pillars of the mall, the anchor stores. Surrounding these commercial behemoths is a myriad of lesser lights: bookstores, jewelry stores, electronic stores, game arcades, build-your-own-teddy bear shops, the food court.
And we have our mega-churches, churches with multi-million dollar budgets that shore up huge bureaucracies of pastors and support staff, which, in turn, facilitate layers of programs designed to meet every conceivable need of the consuming public. The vision statements of these organisms are now large enough, apparently, to encompass the future of entire countries in Africa. For better or worse, these mega-organizations now anchor our movement.
As I work with churches and pastors, I am increasingly finding that the real impact of these organizations is not limited to their obvious assets. Not only have they become bigger-than-life in real terms; they have become bigger-than-life in our minds and hearts. Whether we want to admit it or not, the mega-church has become the standard by which we define success.
It’s annoying, isn’t it? We have all heard the statistics; it seems like 50% of church attendees in America attend about 5% of our churches. And yet, in the back of our minds as pastors, as we put our new fall programs together or drag our congregations through another envisioning process or consider a new evangelism campaign for our churches, there exist the notion that this just might be the year that God does in our church what He has done in what is described on the back cover of books written by one of a few meg-pastors.
But, the cold hard reality is that for most of us in ministry, we are called to manage a Lids Store or a Hallmark card shop on the far end of the corridor, not one of the anchor stores. How do we live with this reality while seeking God’s best for the place God has called us to serve? How do we long earnestly for growth and change and renewal in settings resistant to growth and change and renewal?
Several years ago, I had an extended yearlong conversation with fifteen pastors from mainline churches around New England on the nature of renewal within their theologically compromised contexts. We met monthly to discuss what it would take to change the climate and attitudes of congregations in need of spiritual renewal.
After our yearlong conversation, we summarized our time together into sixteen precepts that describe what it takes to turn a church around. I have wondered more recently whether many of these precepts relate equally to small, struggling evangelical churches as well. Here they are:
16 Precepts for Turning a Church Around
1. “Called to obedience, not success.”
2. “Longevity matters.”
3. “There will be a point of crisis. Get through it.”
4. “Look for the remnant.”
5. “Old guard, new guard: It’s a matter of critical mass.”
6. “What’s more important: bylaws or vision statement?”
7. “Leadership is generational.”
8. “De-code the battle: personality or theology.”
9. “Conserve your energy” or “Choose your battles carefully.”
10. “Finding the thread that leads to renewal in YOUR church.”
11. “Sometimes the point of absolute death is the point of opportunity.”
12. “Wheat and Tares: Evangelism within.”
13. “Patience, patience, (gasp), patience.”
14. “Renewal: A never-ending story.”
15. “Know when to leave.”
16. “It’s not ultimately you. It’s the Spirit!”
As I have overheard pastors talk about their churches in more recent years, I would add to the above sixteen the further observation that churches are oh-so-very-fragile creatures. In the current marketplace economy of congregational life in America, I am continuously amazed at how quickly churches can loose their momentum. Whether through conflict or through more subtle attrition, seemingly vital churches loose their vitality. It is only through God’s grace and power that our churches--flawed as they may be—become renewable resources for His greater glory.

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