Why Collaborate?

There are many challenges we face as leaders, such as:

  • Burnout and loneliness
  • Similar burnout and loneliness among others who lead with us
  • Lack of new leaders
  • Lack of vision or creativity and resulting struggles with casting a vision
  • Lack of buy-in for our vision

I believe that one simple thing can provide solutions to all these challenges: the practice of collaboration. And I’d like to share the story of how I began to learn it.

A few years ago, I returned to the U.S. after a mountain-top experience visiting my homeland of Australia. Although my time there was wonderful, the tearful goodbyes and return to my life in the U.S. awakened my grief at the loss of home and family. The many hours spent beach-combing for exquisite shells there remained with me, and I found myself wandering my inner-city Cincinnati streets and continuing the same habit of collecting – not shells but broken things. I didn’t realize that I was doing it until things began gathering in a box by my back door.

During this time, a friend invited me to make art for his counseling center for inner-city kids. I knew that such art needed to be honest about the challenges of life but also hopeful. So it seemed fitting to make something out of the junk I’d gathered from the same streets where these kids live. I began to see the trash in new ways, no longer signs of something discarded but opportunities for something new. My habit of collecting broken things changed with my new perspective—I began looking for the perfect piece of glass or green bottle cap to complete my creation. Somehow—and I don’t know exactly the moment it happened—I began to be drawn into the re-creation.

As I began to see the potential for healing and hope in this repurposing of junk, I wanted to invite my community in some way. The city was still recovering from race riots, and tension had become a normal part of life in the neighborhood. So I considering making more of this art and having a little one-woman art show.

But I’m glad I didn’t. If I had, then I would have missed the opportunity to learn the power of collaboration. I realized that the power was not in looking at the art but in creating it.

And so I created “The Collect: A City-Wide Trash to Art Event.” Through local media, I invited local folks to donate their junk at any of six cafes across the city. Among the treasures offered, we got a watch-band collection and box of camera lenses and a pair of old shoes. A team of 18 artists chose the trash that most inspired them and transformed it into amazing art, which we auctioned for charity.

During this six-month process, as I worked with local media, cafe’s, artists, and neighbors, the project took on the color of many stories and became so much more interesting and multi-faceted than if I’d done it alone. I started watching how we all felt a little homeless, how we all longed to belong somewhere. I had an opportunity to hear stories of how others were also taking what felt broken—in themselves and their communities—and were finding new ways to create something new.

By the end of this collaborative process, I felt part of something. I felt home.

If I had just done a one-woman art show, I would have tried, and probably failed, to solve my problems alone. I would have missed the opportunity to let the community shape the idea. Instead, I invited others to see behind the scenes, to join the process. Although I started it, I lost track of whether I was making it or it was making me.

We think the product is the point, but community grows in the process. Our call as leaders is not to show our plans but ourselves.

As pastors, we think it’s our job to fully shape a five-year plan and sell it to folks. But what if we brought people into the process much earlier and allowed them to help shape the vision? What if we trusted that the best ideas grow from the community and that, when folks help shape and execute ideas, there’s no point at which we have to push for “buy-in”? Might we feel less lonely, less burned-out? Might the ideas be bigger and more beautiful? Might they connect more with our communities (since that’s where they grew)? Might the process of working together itself develop leaders and community?

Beyond all this, the most beautiful part of collaboration is this: one of our deepest human longings is to feel a part of something bigger than ourselves. When we have a seed of an idea and plant it in a community, we get to watch it take on life and color which we, alone, could never have created. In collaboration, the folks in our community get to enjoy the unfolding with us, watching God in his creative element. Whatever we’re making takes on the story of the soil from which it grows. Although we were the instigator of this idea, we can look over the life that grows from it and know it was bigger, more beautiful, and more multi-faceted than we could have created alone. We feel a small part of something large. And there is no shame in the smallness. It’s a moment as transcendent as taking in the stars on a clear night or singing in a choir when we feel our connection to one another and to God.

Collaboration is permission to be human, together.

How Can Your Church Reach Young People for Jesus?

How do young people come into a faith relationship with Jesus Christ? The research is clear: the vast majority of people (young, as well as old) come to faith through a relationship with a Christian friend or relative.[1]

Jesus often modeled the process. To the demon-possessed man (Mark 5:19) he said, “go home to your friends and tell them what wonderful things God has done for you…” When Zacchaeus believed, Christ told him that salvation had also come to his friends and family (Luke 19:9). After Jesus healed the son of a royal official we learn that the Centurion, and all of his family and friends, believed (Mark 2:14-15). Jesus knew that the way the Gospel would travel around the world would be through relationships.

How to Get Started
The foundation of an effective outreach strategy for young people is building relationships with them. How do you start building relationships? C.S. Lewis gives us a wonderful insight: “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: ‘What! You, too? I thought I was the only one.’ ”[2] To reach young people, we must create times and places where friendships can grow between Christians and non-Christians. Think of these as “relationship greenhouses”.

How do such friendships flourish? Two ingredients are required: (1) time and (2) common interests. In other words, young people need to spend time with Christians with whom they share things in common. Once you have these two ingredients, you’re well on your way to effective outreach.

These days, finding one of those two ingredients — time — may prove difficult. What do you do when people tell you that they can’t make it because they don’t have time?

Change the Question
The leaders of a Lutheran church in Burnsville, Illinois encountered this problem. They conducted small group meeting after small group meeting but had few attendees. The common excuse? “We just don’t have any time.” Then an insight hit them and they solved the problem. Rather than asking, “Would you attend our group?”, they started asking, “What kind of a group would you change your schedule to attend?”[3] When they found people’s “hot buttons” for which they would make time, they solved their small group attendance problems!

There are two categories of groups for which young people will change their schedules to attend: recreational and developmental. The first category relates to how young people like to spend their free time. The second category relates to dealing with major life concerns, such as health, finances, relationships, and employment or school.

To attract young people, you need to build your “relationship greenhouses” around felt needs. If the attraction is strong enough, the promise appealing enough, and the first step small enough, then young people will come.

From Felt Needs to Deeper Needs
But focusing only on felt needs limits your potential for nurturing deeper relational and spiritual growth. A good “relationship greenhouse” moves from felt needs to deeper needs. What are the deeper needs of young people where real relationships will grow? Young people are looking for five things:

  1. a place to belong
  2. a sense of balance
  3. authentic relationships
  4. help through transitions
  5. spiritual answers

If you can provide for these deeper needs, then you will see people coming back even after their felt needs have been met.

From Deeper Needs to Eternal Needs
Ultimately, the “pilgrim’s progress” will move from deeper needs to eternal needs, and the pilgrim will develop a relationship with Jesus that fills the God-shaped vacuum inside every human being. But young people won’t make those jumps from felt needs to deeper needs to eternal needs with people they don’t know or trust. Disciple making is a process. And such journeys take time. I recommend Bob Whitesel’s book, Spiritual Waypoints,[4] for a helpful discussion on facilitating people’s journey from ignorance to intimacy with Christ.

What’s Our Product?
A marketing executive with Ford Motor Company once said to me, “I’ve often imagined what it might be like if our church were a business. What would be our product?” He went on to answer his own question: “I think our product would be ‘relationships.’ A relationship with God through Jesus Christ, relationships with others in the body of Christ, and, finally, relationships with people in our community.” Hmmm. That’s a great product, isn’t it? And there’s certainly a need in the “marketplace”!


[1] See Side Door: How to Open Your Church to Reach More People by Charles Arn, Wesley Publishing House, 2013, p. 9.)
[2] C.S. Lewis. The Four Loves. Harcourt, Brace, & Company, Orlando, FL: 1988 p. 247.)
[3] David Stark. Growing People Through Small Groups. Bethany Press, 2004, p. 94.
[4] Bob Whitesel. Spiritual Waypoints: Helping Others Navigate the Journey. Wesley Publishing House, Indianapolis: IN, 2010.

Baby Steps toward Church Transformation

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.

Transformation

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!

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).

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).

Fixing the Leaks in Your Church

Imagine you and the rest of your congregation are on a boat. The boat may be large or small. It may be powered by wind or motor. You might know where you are headed or you may not. However, if your church is struggling and in need of revitalization, then your boat is certainly taking on water, sinking into the deep.

Chances are that, if your church has been struggling for any amount of time, you have several holes in your boat where water is entering. Signs of leaks in your boat may include:

  • Your worship tastes like two-day-old fast-food fries.
  • Your nursery and restrooms look like a truck stop.
  • Your building has an odd musty church smell (you know the one).
  • Your theology has some elements that are debatable or even errant.
  • Your pastor retired ten years ago but told no one.
  • You have a conflict rooted deep into the bedrock below.
  • Some of your communication leaves people guessing rather than informed.
  • A few difficult people have completely handcuffed your leaders.
  • Your discipleship is stuck somewhere in the 1960s.
  • Your community outreach is on life support.

Too often in struggling churches, our response to taking on water is to try to get more resources – particularly people and finances – to help bail water from the boat. There are two major problems with this response:

  1. It focuses on dealing with the results, not the causes, of the problems we have created, so it is very likely to fail.
  2. It doesn’t attract new people, because no one wants to jump onto a sinking ship, so it weighs down the existing congregation.

Instead of focusing on the getting more resources to help manage the result of your problems, you must now identify the actual problems that have led to your church’s decline. What is making your church take on water and sink? Where are the holes? Where are the leaks?

Don’t go at this task alone, as your perspective is too limited! Seek the help of the most spiritual and/or influential in your church, enlist help from outsiders, and look to God’s Word prayerfully. Read through Jesus’ letters to the churches of Asia Minor in Revelation 2-3. What kind of letter would Jesus write to your church today, and why? Be sure to guard your heart, as this task can easily lead to despair.

After you’ve made a master list of your church’s needs, the next task is to categorize these “leaks”. Try three categories based on the difficulty of fixing the leaks.

Some leaks are easy to fix. Rooms can be painted in a day or two. Church communication can be improved immediately. Denominational resources may be readily available. Your building can be cleaned well in a week. Begin by fixing these areas as quickly as you can, creating momentum. This momentum will be helpful as you address more challenging leaks.

Some leaks are harder to fix. They require significant change to the church’s culture. They necessitate the church’s influencers to be on board. They require funding that may not be available. Prayerfully begin taking small steps in the direction of addressing these issues, preparing yourself for when the opportunity is right to fully address them. I can tell you of the times when the right family moved to our church at the right moment. I can tell you of the times that God dropped thousands of unexpected dollars into our offering plate at the right time. I can tell you of the time that difficult person approach me to complete the very task I thought he would be the hurdle to complete.

Some leaks seem impossible to fix. They require major change in the church’s structure. They require new staff that you cannot afford. They may require a significant property upgrade. Instead of letting these issues constantly eat at you and consume your emotional energy, make these issues your top prayer priority, turning them over to God. Apply the truths of Philippians 4:4-9 to these leaks. Trust in Christ and ask for his peace. After all, he walked on water and can keep your church afloat!

Hope for Your Church in Prayer

“In order for the church to be revived, it will demand a mighty work of God’s Spirit.  Following a particular methodology or program does not guarantee success.  One might greatly desire for the church to revitalize and grow, but genuine church growth calls for more than personal passion.  It requires the Spirit of God.” [1]

The sad truth is that most of our churches rarely pray. We may hold prayer meetings. We may take prayer requests. We may have prayer lists, chains, and newsletters. We may talk about prayer. We may hold Bible studies on the topic of prayer. We may spend a few minutes in our worship services praying. Yet, we are far removed from the early church’s commitment to prayer: “And they devoted themselves to … the prayers” (Acts 2:42).

If there is hope for our churches and if they are to be revitalized, then we must become serious about prayer. The time for talking about praying is over. The time for merely studying prayer is past. The time for prayer meetings with little prayer must cease. We must truly, deeply, and passionately pray. We need to pray.

When my church bottomed out sometime in 2008, the list of administrative tasks to be performed, decisions to be made, and meetings to be held seemed beyond number. The juggling act of trying to determine which ministries to keep and which to let go was all-consuming. The task of caring for a demoralized membership was exhausting. Every numerical category by which we measure a church was sinking.

In the midst of these troubles, I led my church to pray:

  • What do You want, Lord, from our church?
  • Do You want us to keep the doors open?
  • Will You meet this particular need? That particular need?
  • Will You give us the strength when our strength has disappeared?

So, I began praying with everyone, all the time. I would pray to open and close meetings, as well as any time in the middle of a meeting the discourse became difficult, challenging, or uncertain. I would pray with my leadership team, with individuals, and by myself. I would pray with anyone in the church who was willing to meet me for that purpose. I would ask anyone outside the church who was willing to pray for our church.

I would love to tell you that I began praying because I am a super-spiritual Christian. Truth be told, however, I had no choice. I had nowhere to go. I had nowhere to run but to the Lord. I had to pray.

For the very first time in my life, I learned what it meant to truly depend upon the Lord. Our church was broken. Our church attendance was dismal. Our ministries were on life support. I had no idea where to go. I was uncertain about the future. However, I had Jesus and, for the very first time in my life, that was enough.

As I prayed and as our church prayed, God slowly began to renew our hearts and renew our church. He began to show us a new path. He began to help us renew our strength in him. He began to give us hope.

I firmly believe that none of this would have happened if we hadn’t prayed.

If our churches are to have hope in the midst of despair, we need prayer, because the work of revitalization requires the hand of God. We don’t need to talk about prayer. We don’t need more studies on prayer. We don’t even need more prayer requests. We need to pray.

There is a vinyl wall cling in my office that highlights two verses from Proverbs, which serves as a reminder of what God taught me about depending on him in prayer during this season at my church. The wall cling reads, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (Prov. 3:5-6).

We need to pray.


[1] William Henard, “Can these Dry Bones Live” (prepublication book presented at Southern Seminary’s Intro to Church Revitalization Course, Louisville, Kentucky, 2014). This work has since been published, available here.

Is There Hope for Your Church?

God is in the practice of restoring, renewing, and revitalizing people and churches, if they are willing to follow him and pay the price to see it happen. There is hope for your church![1]

Given the point to where God has led your church today, do you see any hope? Perhaps the downward trend has been a slow, demoralizing road. Perhaps the stagnation has you longing for something greater. Perhaps your church imploded after a season of conflict. Maybe your church’s struggle is different altogether. Yet, is there is hope for your church?

As I launch my small corner on Small Church Center, I want to begin, in a series of entries, telling you my story, as pastor of First Baptist Church of Aurora. I believe that many of you will be able to identify with the struggles I have faced, with the despair that I have felt, and with the hurt that came into my heart. If 80% of churches indeed have a flat or declining attendance and if 5,000-7,000 churches close each year, we and our churches are anything but alone in our struggles. However, I also believe that my story will help you to see that there is still hope for you and your church.

My first vocational ministry, at the not-so-ripe age of twenty-three, was at First Baptist Church of Aurora. After earning my undergraduate degree in theology, I accepted bi-vocational role in 2005. As I had grew up in a church that experienced several demoralizing cycles of conflict, First Baptist was a breath of fresh air. The church had been growing at 7-8% annually the previous two years, we had a new facility, and, most importantly, there was life. When I first arrived average attendance was just over 200. Eighteen months later attendance swelled to nearly 250. The church was growing financially as well, as the church was able to transition my part-time position to a full-time position in those eighteen months.

However, between mid-year 2007 and mid-year 2008, our church went from an average attendance of 250 to an average attendance of 50 people. Our budget was slashed by 2/3. All staff members in the church had left, with the exception of me. Conflict was everywhere. Blame filled every corner of the facility. The resulting demoralization was thicker than morning fog. The situation in the church was so bad that our youth pastor divorced his wife, yet nearly no one in the church even knew it happened.

At twenty-six years old, the church asked me to lead the church in the interim, following the departure of the lead pastor. My job for a year was to try to figure out everything that our church could not do anymore. The list of what we couldn’t do was larger than what we could still do. At twenty-seven, they removed the interim tag. Despite the pastor search team’s encouragement, I knew I would be held responsible to lead the church back to some sort of past glory.

Where was there hope for my church?  Where was there hope for me? Is there hope for you?

[1] Gary L. McIntosh, There’s Hope for Your Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012), 24

Feeding Hearts

Late last night I headed to the grocery to pick up some needed items.  As I was leaving the store’s parking lot, a car came roaring through the lane next to me.  I say “roaring” not because it was speeding, but because the car’s windows were down and the ground was shaking with the emanating […]

Why Churches Don’t Grow

Healthy people grow. Healthy animals grow. Healthy trees grow. Healthy plants grow. Healthy churches grow. Growth is a characteristic that God breathed into all living things. And the body of Christ – the local church – is a living thing.

So, when a church is not growing, it is helpful to ask: “Why not?”

Here are five “growth-restricting obstacles.”  My purpose is not so much to describe the solution, but to help correctly identify the cause. If we understand the reason for non-growth, it is easier to accurately diagnose and prescribe the cure.

Obstacle #1:  The Pastor. One of three pastor-related reasons may stunt the health/growth of a church:

  1. The pastor does not have a priority for outreach. Churches grow when they have a priority for reaching the unchurched. When the pastor doesn’t, the church won’t.
  1. The pastor does not have a vision for outreach. Lack of vision for outreach is as much an obstacle as lack of priority. Pastors of growing churches believe God wants to reach people in their community and assimilate those new believers into their church.
  1. The pastor does not have the knowledge to lead the church in outreach. Working harder is not the secret to effective outreach. The secret is working smarter. Unfortunately, little is taught in seminaries or Bible schools about how to effectively reach and assimilate new people.

Obstacle #2: The Church Members. There are often competent and skilled clergy in non-growing churches, because the problem is in the pews. Church members can keep a church from growing when…

  • Members have no priority for reaching the lost. “Sure, our church should reach people,” some will say. “But me? I’ve got three kids, a job, membership at the health club, and a lawn to mow. Someone else with more time should feel compelled.”
  • Members have a self-serving attitude about church. If people believe the pastor’s primary concern should be to “feed the sheep,” the flock will never grow, and will eventually die.

Beyond the pastor and members, there are other barriers that keep churches from growing…

Obstacle #3:  Perceived Irrelevance.  Growing churches start with the issues and concerns of the people in their community, and then relate the Gospel to those points of need. Non-growing churches are seen by the unchurched as having an irrelevant message to their life.

Obstacle #4:  Using the Wrong Methods. Any farmer knows you can’t harvest ripe wheat…with a corn-picker. Using inappropriate methods can be worse than no methods, since they create resistance to the Gospel. A bull-horn on a street corner…tracts in an urban neighborhood…youth outreach methods in a senior adult community… None of these methods are wrong. They are just inappropriate for the harvest field.

Obstacle #5:  No Plan for Assimilation. Over 80% of those who drop out of church do so in the first year of their membership. A new member does not automatically become an active member without an intentional plan by the church on how to assimilate them into a caring, loving, Christian community.

There are many reasons why churches don’t grow. But there are no good reasons. Healthy churches grow. God wants your church to grow. He created it to grow. Sometimes it’s just a matter of finding out why it’s not growing, and removing those obstacles. What about your church?

Marriage Ministry: Where Do I Begin?

Chances are that you are aware of one or more couples in your church who could use some help with their marriages. Chances are that you unaware of more couples who also need help. And, of course, you have more things to do than you can handle and more people asking for your help than you feel like you can help.

How do I know? Before I went on staff at FamilyLife, I was the pastor of three different small churches in Ohio for a total of 17 years, and that was my story at each of those churches.

So where do you begin? Let me give you three options:

  1. Connect with me. While I primarily serve churches in northeast Ohio, I can work with churches anywhere. You can use the contact form on this website to get in touch with me. Once we connect, we can set up a time to talk about some high-impact marriage resources that will take very little time for you to implement in your church and potentially help dozens of couples.
  1. Have someone in your church connect with me. I know that you are busy. Overloaded, most likely. I also know that you probably have at least one church member who has a strong interest in doing something to help others in their marriages but doesn’t know where to begin. Using the contact form on this site, provide contact information for that person, and I’ll get in touch with him or her.
  1. Have me come to your church. If you are in northeast Ohio, then you can schedule me to come and speak at your church on a Sunday morning to share about marriage ministry and some of the resources that we use to help small churches succeed in this area. If you are outside northeast Ohio, then there may be someone else on the FamilyLife team who can come to your church. It doesn’t hurt to ask!

What Small Churches Can Learn from Great Inventors

Greenfield Village

I have always had a fascination with history and especially with innovators and inventors who have changed the course of history with their creativity, skill, and just plain stubbornness in sticking to their principles and goals. That fascination, and appreciation, was sparked again this past week when I had the privilege of visiting one of my new favorite places in the world – Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan. If you have never been there, this is a must-see! For those who are unfamiliar with this gem of Americana – and I was until a year ago – it is a place put together by Henry Ford where America’s past can be experienced in the present.

Ford’s idea was that “we ought to know more about the families who founded this nation, and how they lived. One way to do that is to reconstruct as nearly as possible the conditions under which they lived.” And that’s exactly what he has done at Greenfield Village, an enchanting place where there are “83 authentic historic structures, from the lab where Thomas Edison gave the world light to the workshop where the Wright Brothers gave us wings…[to] the farmhouse where Henry Ford grew up.”

As I walked through these “authentic historic structures” and listened to the actors portraying these giants of the past, it struck me that these great historical icons weren’t just technical geniuses; they also possessed a huge amount of wisdom that is still prudent for us to apply to our world today. And, I believe that is especially true for small churches.

Thomas Edison

One of the greatest minds and inventors in American history was Thomas Edison. While probably best known for inventing the light bulb (although what he really invented was a practical, long-lasting filament made of carbon fiber) and “electrifying” America, he also held an amazing 1,093 patents, which included the phonograph, movie camera, storage battery, and the electric generator. He was truly a remarkable and talented man!

But here’s the thing: the biggest reason for his success wasn’t immense talent and intellect, although he certainly possessed those traits; rather it was hard work and belief in himself. So…with that in mind, here are five great truths we can learn from the likes of Thomas Edison and other great inventors.

Lesson #1: Success Begins with Hard Work

Edison understood better than most how important hard work is in reaching one’s goals. It was not uncommon for him to work hours and days on end – often without a break –until a task was completed. He even had a bed installed in his library at his lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey, so that he wouldn’t have to take the time to go home if he was in the middle of an important project. Now that’s an extreme that we are not recommending for pastors and church leaders, but you get the point!

Great churches don’t just happen. Certainly, anything we accomplish in life and ministry is through the grace and power of God, but there is also a huge correlation between the amount of work put into something and the results that are achieved.

Small churches are no exception. They are not going to get larger (or better) without a certain amount of sweat equity, beginning with the pastor. Anyone who thinks that a small church is an opportunity to coast or take it easy or ease into retirement or that it simply won’t make any real difference (or throw in your own excuse for not giving your best) is sadly deluding himself.

“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”  — Thomas Edison

Tieman Edison 90 percent and hard work

Lesson #2: Never Give Up

Edison was once asked if he felt like a failure, because his thousands of attempts to invent a usable light bulb didn’t work. His reply: “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that didn’t work.”  Well, by not giving up, he finally found a filament (and a bulb created by using an innovative vacuum pump) that did work and, as they say, the rest is history. He literally changed the way that people lived and worked in America and around the world!

In a small church setting, it can be pretty easy to feel like a failure, especially when we start comparing ourselves to larger ministries around us. As a result, there is a tendency to give up, or more likely, not give our full effort. That is a huge mistake! The fact is we reap what we sow. That’s a biblical truth! (Galatians 6:7) Therefore, we need to continue to sow ministry and gospel seeds, if we want to have any hope for good results in the future. It may not happen right away – in fact, it usually doesn’t – but eventually there will be fruit! That’s God’s promise (John 15:5), and the experience of Edison, Ford, and other great inventors!

Tieman Edison try again

“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” — Henry Ford

 Lesson #3: Believe in Yourself

Henry Ford was a man who came from humble beginnings and a tough childhood. He was born on a farm in Greenfield Township, Michigan and his mother died when he was 13. And yet, he went on to form his own multi-national company, set the record for most cars built of any one model – the Model T – and revolutionized the manufacturing industry by perfecting the moving assembly line.

Tieman Ford

Like Thomas Edison, the reason for Ford’s success wasn’t that he was smarter than everyone else. It was because he worked hard and believed in himself. And others believed in him, as well. While working for the Edison Illuminating Company, Ford approached Edison with his ideas about gasoline-powered automobiles. With Edison’s encouragement, Ford went on to create his own car company. Ford always believed that he would do something important with his life and work, and he did!

As a small church pastor or leader, your life and ministry is important, too! There are people who are looking to you for leadership and direction. They expect competence, character, and consistency in everything that you do. They believe (or they should) that you have been called to serve them and their community as God’s servant and undershepherd. To behave and think in any other way than that would be a disservice to those following you and a discredit to the divine office to which you have been called. So believe in yourself, believe God has called you to where you are for a reason, and others will, too!

“Your worth consists in what you are and not in what you have.”  – Henry Ford

Lesson #4: Experiment: Try Something New

We have already chronicled the importance of hard work and never giving up. These truisms naturally coalesce in another life lesson, the importance of experimentation. Edison demonstrated his belief in this idea by trying over 10,000 different filaments in his incandescent light bulb. Even after he came up with a workable model, he continued to tinker with success, ultimately settling upon a carbonized bamboo filament that would last over 1,200 hours in his new bulbs.

Tieman Einstein

Edison was never satisfied with his inventions. He not only wanted to improve them, he also wanted to move on to that which could be even bigger and better. In the church, it seems that we often do the opposite. Once we find something that works – or more likely, worked once upon a time, but doesn’t any longer – we stick with it no matter what. This is particularly true in smaller churches. If it was good enough for my parents and grandparents, it is good enough for me! And yet, the reality is that over 80% of our churches are not growing, in large part, because we are still using methods and strategies that haven’t worked in decades.

Why not try something new? What’s the worst thing that could happen? It could fail just as miserably as what we are already doing. What’s the best thing? It might actually work! Remember Einstein’s famous definition of insanity?  “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Maybe it’s time to try something new!

Lesson #5: Trust God for the Results

When Henry Ford was asked if he ever worried, he replied: No. I believe God is managing affairs and that He doesn’t need any advice from me. With God in charge, I believe that everything will work out for the best in the end. So what is there to worry about?”  Another wise man once said, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about…what you will wear. But seek first [God’s] kingdom and [God’s] righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:25, 33) Oh, that wise man was also God!

In the end, we don’t know how all of our hard work, perseverance, self-belief, and experimentation will pay off. (Although I think we would all agree, that things will be way better than if we hadn’t invested in those pursuits!) What we can be sure of is that our great and loving God will be with us every step of the way and that He will give us the results that He desires!

Edison, Einstein and Ford were great inventors and thinkers, and there is much that we can learn from them. They believed that with hard work and dedication to an idea anyone could accomplish anything. In so doing, they accomplished some amazing things.

What about you? What’s your dream for the future? What would you like to see God do in your life and ministry? Whatever it is, if you are willing to work hard, keep after it no matter what, keep believing in yourself and your dream, and willing to try new things, there is absolutely no reason that you can’t accomplish your God-sized goal. Never underestimate the power of God, yourself, or your church!