by Phil Ware –
I was recently asked, “Why do so few churches regain their former glory once they realize they are past their prime?”
The answer to that question is as simple as it is harsh: nostalgia.
Many people seem to believe that the only way for a church to regain its former glory is down the road named “Nostalgia.” Nostalgia allows us to paint a glowing picture of the past as a special time without remembering the warts, problems, and conflicts that actually existed. Nostalgia sees the past in rosy hues and the present in harsh black and white. Nostalgia glorifies the past and denigrates the present. Nostalgia keeps us measuring “effectiveness” using old (and often out-of-date) yardsticks. Nostalgia also prevents us from being the vibrant church God wants us to be right now. God wants us to be vital today: vital to today’s culture, vital with today’s resources, and vital for today’s seekers.
A better question might be, “How can an aging or declining church Re-prime itself for valuable Kingdom ministry today?”
Of course, there are a couple of knotty questions that need to be addressed first:
- How do we as leaders move beyond “buns and funds” as our only measure of success?
- How do we help our congregation evaluate what we do in terms of faithfulness to God’s call as His people, in this place, at this time, and with our current resources and opportunities?
Attendance and finances (“buns in the pew and funds in the plate”) are real issues. We have to pay our obligations and fund our ministries. We need to have sufficient number of people to do this. Unfortunately, when a church loses momentum, attendance and funding can become the only concerns. Pursuing God’s call gets moved to a back burner behind the pressing realities and urgent demands that fall on leaders. Yet pursuing “God’s call for us now” — with prayer and faithful passion for that call — can often generate the needed momentum to inspire our folks to invest personally and financially in a new era of spiritual vitality and ministry.
The crucial understanding, however, is captured by this phrase: “God’s call for us now.” We cannot return to the glory of yesterday. Yesterday is gone. Nostalgia feels nice, but it is a drag on the present and future work God is inviting us to do with Him now. So rather than returning to our former “prime” we need to Re-prime ourselves for the work that God has for us to do today!
Re-priming can be described as a process of five distinct steps or movements. (You can find more about each of these, especially the middle three, on our website.)
- Realizing we are in, or headed into, decline.
I have a friend who loved to say, “Many church leaders have the baby Moses syndrome: they are a basket case in de-Nile.” I know it’s a corny saying, but it hits the mark. We ignore, deny, or explain away the slow creep toward negative momentum and then look for some magical cure — a new program, a young shiny twenty-something preacher in a plaid short-sleeved shirt over a t-shirt and blue jeans, a new industry coming to town, a change in worship style, or simply doing the same thing we did “back when.” This magical cure is supposed to restore us to our former glory. Sorry. There is no magic cure … and anyone who says different is trying to sell you something. Perhaps the most important step in Re-priming is the necessary but painful first step: admit we are facing decline. Facing reality with faith and hope in the Lord is essential to changing the trajectory and emotional direction of a congregation.
- Re-viewing the community around us as well our resources and connections to reach them.
Notice the dash. We’re not talking about reviewing our past, but Re-viewing our now … Re-viewing our community, resources, and connections with fresh eyes and real facts.
- What is the community our congregation is called to serve really like today?
- Who has God positioned us to reach based on our location, congregational make up, our resources, and our gifts?
- What are the needs in our community today that are unaddressed and yet God would have us meet?
- Who are the forgotten and neglected in our community that God has equipped us through experience and expertise to touch with grace?
- What do we need to do to be known as receptive to our neighbors and our overall community?
- Who does God keep bringing to us to serve?
- What are some passions in our members that are making the difference in the lives of other people in our community?
Drive through the neighborhood around your church and ask God to give you fresh eyes to see what He sees … ask Jesus to help you recognize the needs that presently exist … and ask the Holy Spirit to lead you to people and churches who are already addressing some of the needs revealed to you. Spiritual insight, hard demographic data, and information about identified and needed social services are crucial pieces of information to help us Re-view the community around us properly. [Take a look at the Core Values Series and Search Process Outline.]
- Re-listening for the call of God for our congregation.
Prayerfully ask (and keep asking) one crucial question: What does God want our congregation to do right now, right here, with these people? God didn’t bring your congregation into existence by accident. God has a plan and purpose for your church family in His Kingdom work. So let’s ask for God to reveal this to us.
- One of the best ways I know to do this is to “prayer walk” the neighborhoods around your church. Challenge your congregation to do this with you.
- If you live in a smaller community, you can cut up the phone book and begin to pray for people by name in your community. You can invite other people in the congregation to join you as you pray your way through nearby neighborhoods.
- Meet your neighbors naturally as you walk the neighborhoods. Don’t intrude, but greet them, and, when given the chance, let them know you are “prayer walking” the neighborhood and ask if they have things that need to be prayed for personally or for the neighborhood or community in general.
- Occasionally get together with other folks in your church family and share your experiences. Ask God to guide your conversation as you share these community needs while asking the Father to help reveal His specific will for which ones He is calling you to address. [Take a look at the Theology of Calling Series.]
- Re-envisioning our congregational mission.
If we have been Re-viewing the community around us as well as our resources and connections to reach that community, and if we have been Re-listening for the call of God for our congregation, then it is time for the leaders and congregation to come together and Re-envision what God has called us to do as a church family. [You might consider some consulting from the outside to supplement focused congregational prayer and a “vision team” working to focus the church on the here-and-now.] You need a mission statement. Not some nebulous statement that sounds churchy or was borrowed from some other great church we’ve heard about. Not a some flashy words to hang on a poster. Mission statements should be specific.
- Specific outreach targets, ministries, and people-groups – God has called us to reach.
- Specific answers to “who, where, when, and why” questions so that our vision has clarity and focus.
- Specific ways to assess our effectiveness and measure our faithfulness to the call.
Churches get stuck ‘doing church’ the same way for a long time and fail to think in fresh ways. Praying and trusting that God will lead your church to some fresh insight and a renewed sense of mission is absolutely essential. [You might also look at ministry moves others have tried that have borne fruit. See the list below * for some ideas you may not have considered. We’d love to hear from you about ideas the Lord has revealed to you, that you have implemented, and that you have seen bear fruit. Also check out the Developing a Mission Statement Series.]
- Re-priming our church for Kingdom ministry.
After all the Re-viewing, Re-listening, and Re-envisioning, it’s time to go public.
- Share the mission statement with the church.
- Make clear what you believe God has called the church to do.
- Commit (as leaders) to put your full energy and passion behind this mission.
- Make changes in the way you do things, decide things, and pray about things–changes that reflect your new sense of purpose, mission, and ministry.
- Pray about these key shifts, new areas of focus, and dedicated ministry efforts publicly.
- Write about them in your bulletins, websites, and email updates.
- Talk about what is happening in your Bible classes and small groups.
- Tell stories involving real people about how God is changing lives because of your church’s renewed sense of mission.
- Be convicted (and convict others) that God wants us to do these specific things in the here-and-now to make a kingdom difference.
- Invite people to join you, pray for the effort, and give of themselves and their monies to make it happen.
- Most of all, ask everyone to pray for the power of the Holy Spirit to be released through our efforts to honor God … to empower us to do more than we can dream up, plan, sequence, or cook up on our own.
If we follow this recipe and do all ths work, will that return us to the glory years?
Probably not. Certainly not in exactly the same way we experienced our prime once before. On the other hand, what God does with us, for us, and through us now will bring Him a lot more glory than us sitting around pining for the “good ol’ days” — which were never as golden as nostalgia makes them seem (by the way) and too often center on our successes rather than God’s glory.
Who knows? The new “prime” just might be more exciting and God-glorifying than the season we look back upon as our ”best times”!
Okay, here are a few ideas to help you “re-prime” your idea pump:
- Target a demographic that is consistent with your community and your call.
- Who has God placed at your doorstep that some of your folks are already touching? Who is doing effective ministry in your area to people you believe the Lord has called you to reach?
- Look at new ministry options to connect Boomers and retirees wanting to invest in significance.
- Partner with experienced short term mission groups and make a commitment to re-visit the same areas to build relationships, network, and grow the Kingdom. (Groups like Partners in Progress, Let’s Start Talking, Global Samaritan, Olive Branch Ministries, Missions Resource Network are good places to start.)
- Reaching out to Internationals in your own city is another good place to stretch your missional wings: teaching ESL classes, doing Friend Speak with local immigrant groups, mentoring immigrants or migrants trying to learn their way around town or find productive work. Organizations like Big Brothers, Big Sisters are always looking for a “Big” … or someone who is willing to be a “lunch buddy.”
- Embrace “Involved Benevolence” — a food pantry, financial mentoring, a Habitat for Humanity partnership, and a host of other things that empower people and involve your members.
- Empower local “Satellite Missions” for populations your congregation would have a hard time reaching from your church building. (Teens, young professionals, artistic communities, etc.). Once you’ve established a meaningful connection to the these groups, it is crucial to maintain some authentic fellowship. (The following are some real ministries making lasting impact on unusual groups of people.)
Freedom Church — a congregation made up of ex-offenders who are baptized believers but do church out of a recovery model
House Church—gatherings of believers in homes that offer a full worship experience with weekly communion in order to connect to the un-churched, de-churched, and sometimes anti-church-in-the-box people who recognize they need some kind of connection to God and His people.
Bar Church — an effort to connect with folks who are never going to come to a church building but are ready to talk about Jesus. The location is not about the booze, but about making it clear that Jesus meets people where they are with grace.
Twenty-Somethings Church — designed to reach those who are younger, partnering with young leaders and mentoring them through their mistakes, affirming them in their passion and successes, and supporting them in their commitment to reach their peers with the gospel of Jesus.
Clearly this is not an exhaustive list, but is intended to give you a few ideas you might find intriguing enough to stimulate your own Re-viewing, Re-listening, Re-envisioning, and Re-priming.