Revitalization Game Plan: An Interview with Terry Tieman

The following is excerpts from a fall 2015 interview with Terry Tieman. The complete interview is available in Today’s Vital Church, Volume 2.

Terry Tieman, who lives in the Memphis area with his wife Becky, began his career in ministry as a pastor in Michigan and Arkansas. He then served for 13 years as Mission Executive of the Mid-South District of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS).

In January 2009, Terry became the Executive Director of Transforming Churches Network (TCN), which helps churches become more effective in reaching their communities with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. TCN’s transformation process – which is based on Biblical principles and was developed through worldwide research on effective mission movements and pilot projects – has successfully changed hundreds of churches from the inside out. Terry continues to gain front-line experience as Revitalization Pastor at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Memphis.

In this interview, Terry explains how a church can put together a revitalization game plan.

An Inward Focus

…I began to get frustrated with our church planting process. We planted so many churches that got stuck at 75 or 100 in worship — some grew to be larger than that, but most didn’t. Now some of that was because they were in smaller communities, but there were some, especially in larger cities, that should have gotten bigger.

Several of us Mission Executives around the country formed a task force and did a study…What we discovered was that most of these churches were planted out of convenience. They were Christians, primarily Lutheran Christians, who just didn’t want to drive 25 or more miles to the nearest church of their denomination, so we had helped them start new churches in their area. (In a few cases, it was more of an ethnic or immigrant situation.) Once they got to around 100 in worship, they thought that they had enough people to support themselves, and so they didn’t work very hard at outreach. That “outreach DNA” just wasn’t in most of those churches. The planted ones were just like the old ones. They were inward-focused.

Bolinger: They were just attracting like-minded Lutherans in their communities, not bringing in people who didn’t know Christ.

Tieman: Right. They were bringing in some dechurched folks – who had gotten disgruntled with their former church or who were excited about a new church plant – but there wasn’t a lot of conversion growth, people going from not knowing Jesus to coming into the Kingdom.

Bolinger: Were you seeing a similar dynamic in established [LCMS] churches?

Tieman: Yes. And that’s what got me started with TCN. It was a realization that most of our churches were inward-focused. Outreach and connecting to the community were really not a passion. They knew they should do it – it’s Scriptural – but it wasn’t very well organized or at the top of the priority list for pastors or churches. Only when they got desperate, seeing so many fewer people in the pews, did they consider making outreach a priority. But it wasn’t in the DNA of a lot of churches. It was not seen as the primary reason they exist: to make disciples for Jesus and reach lost people.

People in our denomination started talking about what we could do to get churches to start focusing outward instead of inward…Most older churches are declining, because they have forgotten their first love, they have forgotten why they started. A church gets complacent after a while. It gets a building that it has to maintain, and programs to keep going, and these things become more important than sharing the Gospel with the community and making disciples. A church often gets complacent because its decline is so slow that it doesn’t even recognize that it’s happening…

Things don’t have to continue to decline and deteriorate. They can be better. Your best days can be ahead of you. From a Biblical perspective, it’s Law and Gospel. (Laughs.) The Law is that what you’re doing is wrong and needs to change. The Gospel is that there’s good news: God can change the situation; He can empower you and use you to make disciples.

Of course, you really need to have outward-focused pastors and help them through the change process. That’s why we have developed Learning Communities, where we bring pastors together and show them a new and better way. The challenge is to help pastors change the way they do ministry so that they’ll stick to it and not blow up their church by going too fast or making too many changes without getting ownership from the congregation. Directional coaching can help here, too.

Hinge Factors

Bolinger: Let’s consider a church that recognizes that it’s declining and has a sense of urgency about turning things around. Leaders at the church are willing to “shake things up” and do things differently. People at the church have a sense of hope that they can do this. What are the critical things that they need to do in the first year?

Tieman: The four components are vision, relationships, ministry, and structure. You need to have these components in the right places in your church.

Imagine that a church is a car. A declining church usually has structure – governance, how you run your church – in the driver’s seat. The church focuses on maintaining facilities and programs. It’s about survival. A typical small, declining church does not have enough people to man all the positions that are required by the constitution and by-laws. Boards and committees don’t get completely filled, and many people wear numerous hats. They spend all their time and energy essentially going through the motions, having meetings, and trying to maintain the traditions of the past. Meanwhile, they’re not getting into the community and sharing the Gospel. There’s no sense of excitement or the power of the Holy Spirit working amongst them.

When structure is driving, the church is focused inward. We want to put structure in the back seat, because we want vision in the front seat. The vision is a clear picture of a preferred future. Where does God want this church to go? To determine that vision, the leaders of the church must stop focusing inward and start focusing on the community that they want to reach.

…there are human factors, or hinges, that open the door for the Gospel into the local community. Through our research, we have identified eight Hinges that churches can use to open their doors to the community. So the first step is for a church to do an assessment survey to find out how well they are doing in each of the eight areas.

The eight Hinges fall into two different groups of four. The first group applies to leadership, especially the senior pastor, and the second group refers to the congregation as a whole. Specifically, the pastor factors are:

  1. Empowering God’s People for Works of Service
  2. Personal Leadership
  3. Visionary Leadership
  4. Bridge-Building Leadership

The congregation or church factors are:

  1. Community Outreach
  2. Focused Prayer
  3. Functional Board
  4. Inspiring Worship

Of course, there are lots of surveys and assessment tools out there for churches to use. The big difference is that ours is tied to a systematic revitalization process called Seasons of Discovery. This is a step-wise church transformation process delivered in four seasons over two or more years, designed for easy integration into the parish calendar, that helps the congregation engage their community with the Gospel. This approach has been very effective in hundreds of congregations all over the country. In every case, congregations that were inward-focused have begun to open the doors of their church outward and have had a missional impact on their community.

The key ingredient in the process is that the pastor receives a trained coach. The coach, who is an expert in the revitalization process, helps the pastor and congregation work through the various hinge factors, especially those where improvement is most needed. TCN provides a whole package of resources, including sermons, bible studies, training guides, leadership lessons, etc., for each of the four seasons. And what are the four seasons you ask? They are 1) Preparation, 2) Visioning, 3) Outreach, and 4) Empowerment.

First Steps

…after the Hinge Survey is taken and a coach begins working with the pastor, the next step is to recruit a core group of people to begin doing missional activities. We call these folks People of Passion because they are passionate about Jesus – they love their Lord. They love their local church. They love their community, and they want to see it change for the better. They want to see people coming into the Kingdom. Every church, no matter how small, has some people like that. We ask the pastor to recruit as many as he can. We start with that group. This will be the leaven in the loaf, a way to establish critical mass.

We have them start with prayer walking. That’s the first session. What most churches want to do is study things to death, and they never get around to doing anything. We give them 10 minutes of orientation, and then we go do it. There are lots of variations of prayer walking, which I won’t go into now. They just pray for what they see, and they get a sense of their community and what God’s already doing. They almost always come back excited, because they see God doing stuff, and they realize that things can change. So it always begins with prayer. They need to go into a period of prayer and pray like they’ve never prayed before.

The next step is community surveying. You go back to the same places you prayer walked – perhaps joined by additional people who are excited about the possibilities, so your group is expanded – and you ask people questions. We have three very simple, non-threatening questions that we recommend you ask:

  1. Describe our church in three words. – This indicates if anyone in the community knows who your church is and, if so, what their perception is. That’s very powerful.
  2. What needs do you see people struggling with in this community? – You ask about other people’s needs instead of the needs of the people whom you are asking the questions.
  3. If you were interested in finding a new church, what qualities or characteristics would you be looking for?

All of the questions are non-threatening. You’re not trying to witness or solicit, unless, of course, they ask you. Some groups knock on doors. We generally don’t recommend that. Just go someplace where you’ll find people.

Then you go to community leaders: the mayor, the city council, the Chamber of Commerce, schools, police. We have a list of questions you can ask them, but you’re basically asking what the needs of the community are. Usually, they’re happy to tell you. You finish with a very important questions, which is, “How can we help you meet the needs of the community?” In other words, “How can we partner with you to help you do your job better?” Community leaders love that. Nobody asks them that! People usually come to complain. You’re starting to establish partnerships in the community.

…Once you have worked through these missional activities under the guidance of your coach, the next step is a visioning day. You bring the leaders of the church, the influencers of the church, the people of passion together, and you go through a process where, by the end of the day, you can write a vision statement. You are trying to discern what God is telling you to do. You choose the mission targets where you are going to start based on your prayers and where the needs of the community intersect with the gifts of the church. Depending on the size of the church, there will be one to four targets. A tiny church can handle only one; a large church may have four.

Once you have determined your vision and your initial mission targets, then you need to determine your main strategies or ministries. Most churches are doing way too many things, and they may not do any of them all that well. Even if they do them really well, the ministries may not be connected to the community – they may just be serving their own members. We try to help them narrow it down so that they do a few ministries really well and connect them to whatever targets they are trying to reach.

All your activities, all your events, and all your programs should be in alignment with your vision and your targets. You should connect all of this to Scripture as to why you are doing it. That becomes the accountability mechanism for the future. You measure an outreach activity or event on how many people from your target showed up.

To determine if all of a church’s activities are aligned with its vision, we would ask the church to do a ministry audit. If they are not [aligned], then the church needs to quit doing them or change them so they are [aligned].

For the rest of my interview with Terry Tieman, pick up a copy of Today’s Vital Church, Volume 1. And be sure to get a copy of Hinges, the book co-authored by Tieman.

Copyright 2015, 2016 Revitalize Ministries, Inc. All rights reserved.

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