A few years ago, there was a television commercial promoting Fram Oil Filters. While the spokesman walked around an auto repair shop, a mechanic overhauled an engine in the background. At the end, the spokesperson held up a Fram Oil Filter and said, “The choice is yours. You can pay me now, or you can pay me later!” The message was simple: If you spent a little more on a premium Fram Oil Filter now, then you would avoid the much bigger expense of an engine overhaul later.
If your church is declining in size and vitality, then you have a similar choice. Will you chart a new path now, or will you continue to do what you have been doing until you run out of options and face a major overhaul, or worse?
After over a decade of working with hundreds of churches, we have found a way that churches can “pay now” and avoid disaster later.
The dynamic power in this change process is rooted in the word transformation. Transformation, by its very nature, requires deep and lasting change (Romans 12:2). Such change rarely occurs quickly, easily, or without significant sacrifices. At its core, it requires repentance.
To repent simply means to turn around, to change directions. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for repentance is shuv, which literally means to turn around. If a farmer is plowing with a team of oxen, when the animals would get to the end of a furrow, he would yell, “Shuv,” i.e., turn around, go in the opposite direction. Thus, to repent means to turn away from what you are doing and move toward another option.
Declining churches need to turn away from inwardly-focused, self-protective behaviors and turn toward loving God and loving others. They need to adopt activities and behaviors that take them out into their communities with the Gospel.
The transformation of a church occurs when a plurality of people move from being primarily a spiritual club for church insiders to being both a caring assembly and an externally-focused ministry serving others in the name of Jesus Christ. The church therefore seeks to emulate Jesus by serving others rather than being served (Matthew 20:28).
Merely doing “church” better or getting more people in the pews is not the goal and is not acceptable. Nothing short of deep change or transformation is the true goal. When that happens the church will be different, behave differently, be renewed, improve the way it lives out its calling, and ultimately bring more people to Jesus.
Transformation of Patterns
Practically speaking, the transformation of individuals and of churches involves the transformation of patterns. For instance, if you try to lose weight, stop smoking, or change an addictive behavior, it’s not enough to depend upon will power or making a New Year’s resolution. Yes, it begins with commitment and resolve, but there must also be corresponding life pattern changes. Simply wanting to do the right thing is not enough.
David Maister, in his wonderfully-titled book, Strategy and the Fat Smoker, makes this powerful statement: “The primary reason we do not work at behaviors which we know we need to improve is that the rewards (and pleasure) are in the future; the disruption, discomfort and discipline needed to get there are immediate. To reach our goals we must first change our lifestyle and our daily habits now. Then we must summon the courage to keep up the new habits and not yield to all the old familiar temptations. Then, and only then, we get the benefits later.”1
So how do we change our bad habits now so we can gain these wanted benefits later? One way is to begin taking some baby steps!
Dave Ramsey, the personal finance guru, talks about getting out of debt in “the same way you learned to walk—one step at a time.”2 For instance, it is much easier to take the baby step of starting a $1,000 emergency fund than to take the giant leap of removing a $100,000 of debt. Therefore, start with small, relatively easy to do tasks, like starting a small savings account for emergencies, and eventually you will be able to completely change your lifestyle and reach your ultimate goal of having financial peace.
What would be some meaningful baby steps related to transforming your church and ministry? To put it another way, what can you do now to begin opening doors to your community with the Gospel?
One way to jump-start the process is to take advantage of the expertise and experience gained by others in similar situations. Instead of reinventing the wheel, use something that is tried and true, and you will begin to establish a clear path for your baby steps.
To help you get started, we have developed a workbook entitled Skill Builders: Leadership Tools for Opening Doors to Your Community,3 which provides practical skills to help churches engage their communities with the Gospel. These are skills that can be applied in any kind and size of church.
Consider, for example, the case of a small, stagnant church located on the far western edge of the Ozark Mountains. With an average age of 72, the congregation was known in the community as the “church for old people.” However, after taking some baby steps, the congregation took up the challenge of reaching young families with the Gospel. They planned a special week of summer camp activities for children. The members developed their own lessons and activities. To help ensure maximum participation, they provided meals and snacks. The summer program concluded with a Mexican dinner and mariachi band concert. The whole community was invited.
To prepare for the crowd, members were asked to park in a vacant field across the road. They used golf carts (one of the perks of having elderly members in your church!) to ferry members to the door. The paved parking lot at the church was reserved for guests. When a local restaurant heard of the event, they volunteered to donate the tacos, rice, and beans for the meal. The members donated the dessert. With over 500 people in attendance, this was the single largest event in the church’s history. Over 80 prospects were identified. The congregation is building on this success with a weekly afternoon camp experience for children. More than that, the church is now thriving and growing and is no longer viewed as just a “church for old people.”
Resolve to Start the Process
Taking baby steps like the ones mentioned above is a great way to begin breaking old patterns and start revitalizing your church and ministry. Certainly, there are others as well. (Check out the other articles on this website for more examples!) What’s really important at this point is that you simply resolve to start the process.
Back when I was growing up on the farm, my dad used to say, “Don’t just stand there, do something!” The point is clear. If you want to accomplish anything worthwhile, you have to get started doing it. And what could be more worthwhile, indeed eternally important, than being instruments of Christ in opening doors to your community for the Gospel?
The tendency, of course, after reading an article like this is to put it aside and not really do anything differently. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the dozens of books and binders and CDs that you have in your office, church, or home right now and then mentally make a list of how they fundamentally changed your life. The reality is that probably none of them made a significant difference. This article won’t either, unless you allow the Holy Spirit to spur you to take action and start doing some things differently.
The choice is yours. Do you want to pay now or pay later? Will you take seriously Jesus’ command to “go and make disciples of all nations” and experience the joy the angels feel whenever even one sinner repents? By investing yourself and your congregation in a church revitalization process now, you can be sure that, by God’s grace and power, there will be those who will not have to pay later for their sins in hell, because they will come to know the One who has paid for everything by giving His life for us all.
1 David Maister, Strategy and the Fat Smoker (Boston: Spangle Press, 2008).
2 Dave Ramsey, “Take Control of Your Money One Step at a Time”.
3 Terry Tieman and Dwight Marable, Skill Builders: Leadership Tools for Opening Doors to Your Community (Cordova, TN: Transforming Churches Network, 2012).