By Phil Scott
Of the more than 350,000 churches in America, 85 percent are stagnant or declining in membership. This means that “average” churches are actually unhealthy. Healthy growth comes to churches that rise above being typically average. The need of the day is unaverage churches.
Average congregations are led by a small number of key older men and some women, paid and volunteer, who replaced previous older leaders. The strong influence of the charter members, founding fathers and mothers, or the founding pastor may be unknown or gone. The first generation is made up of the founding mothers and fathers who were drawn together by a vision of something new, for which they paid a high price. Moreover they faced risk, for there was no assurance the new organization they founded would survive; they were bound together by strong ties of fellowship and oneness of purpose.
But the children of these first leaders have grown up within the framework of the church and its programs. They have not taken the risks or paid the price of their forefathers. The cost for them is not so high, and neither is the commitment. They acquire secondhand the vision that motivated their parents.
By the third, fourth, and fifth generations, the new movement has become ordinary. Collective memory conversations that often begin with, “I remember when . . .” have a strong tendency to inflate facts while overlooking the sweat, pain, and setbacks of the past.
Leaders in unaverage churches know there’s nothing wrong with being older. But they look at cultural shifts and technology changes as opportunities to determine which changes will lead to positive progress for the church or which changes will be counterproductive for the church.
Unaverage congregations are constantly pursuing ways to deepen the spiritual roots of the church. They understand that Bible knowledge is the raw material of the Holy Spirit and that obedience to the Word increases a believer’s Holy Spirit intuition.
Unaverage congregations are passionate about reaching the lost, and refuse to pretend the line between lost and saved is blurry or insignificant. Unaverage church leaders are culturally intuitive and find new ways to connect with visitors and build relationships outside the circle of the saved. They also understand that church shopping is common because entertainment and technology are more highly valued than heritage. They plead with cliques or closed groups in the church and lovingly explain how offensive these are to outsiders. Older leaders value the cultural insights of younger believers.
Average congregations function with a simple treasury of income, expenses, and designated funds or reserves. This creates a tension between the church as a corporate institution and the vision of living by faith in God’s promises. Most congregations have some paid staff and support various mission efforts. The control of money is one of the components that reinforces status quo. In declining churches the treasurer is viewed as a manager and guardian so surpluses should be saved for the future. This creates a bottleneck that keeps these churches from moving forward.
Unaverage congregations are financially flexible, so there will be inconsistencies in the way money is spent on outreach opportunities; leaders may decide not to use money that was budgeted in one area in order to overspend resources in another area. Unaverage congregations periodically discontinue programs that no longer function effectively. Leaders are unashamed to confess they took a risk that was unproductive, unafraid to reevaluate and update the newsletter, VBS, sound system, technology, and website, and are always looking at the building through the lens of those they are trying to reach.
Average congregations resist being bullied into making changes, but are not satisfied with their current declining reality. This creates tension between complacency and the needed steps toward increased complexity and revitalization. All congregations have been forced to grieve the loss of members who pleaded for change but finally withdrew confused, fatigued, and heartbroken. Losses in membership and income change the process by which decisions are made.
Unaverage congregations accept tension and increased complexity as part of Christian life. No organism or corporation grows without increased complexity and coordination. Unaverage churches expect criticism and unfair comparisons in the journey to growth. Sometimes leaders will shoulder the burden of listening to critics and confess quickly that a problem or setback was not handled with love, grace, and honesty.
Unaverage congregations understand that some people will be left behind because they tied their commitment to a method or policy that is no longer effective in the church.
Average congregations meet on a weekly basis for Bible study, worship, prayer, fellowship, and participation in approved rituals. Such congregations believe these activities give them connectedness to God. Perhaps this point is too obvious to mention, but herein lies some of the most volatile issues related to growth.
Unaverage churches understand that all believers have assumptions and preferences, but the weekly gathering and activities of the church are not neutral ground for the outsider who is looking in. Before the unchurched person ever asks what a church believes or how it is striving to be the kingdom of God, he or she observes what the church does. Intuition leads the unchurched person to wonder, Are the Bible studies in-depth or topical? What translation does this church use? Is the worship music traditional, country, contemporary, or a blend? Would my coworkers attend this church? Is the preaching passionate, lecture style, evangelistic, and convincing? Does the fellowship feel warm to outsiders? Will a person with tattoos and piercings feel looked down upon? Will there be negative comments made about Republicans, Democrats, Hispanics, or homosexuals? Will I see anyone dressed like me? Would a person in a wheelchair have access to this church? Has any money been spent on the infant nursery and does the children’s area look and smell ready?
Unaverage congregations create multiple networks to connect with those who are unchurched. They will constantly upgrade the use of technology, nursery security, and information conduits. Bulletin boards, outdoor signs, and posters are changed immediately when the event is past.
Unaverage churches design worship services to connect in relevant ways with outsiders without isolating members. They are committed to excellence in message and song without being obsessed with perfection.
Unaverage churches understand there is a tension between what is relevant to believers and what is relevant to nonbelievers. Believers want to be reminded what they believe, but nonbelievers want to be invited into a meaningful adventure. Believers draw strength from meaningful repetition, but nonbelievers draw strength from creativity and imagination.
Unaverage churches design programs that will equip believers to acquire deeper faith and end programs that have become ineffective. They offer numerous new member discipleship courses because the learning style and lifestyle of a 12-year-old boy from a Christian home is very different than that of the 45-year-old recovering alcoholic with emotional scars and very little Bible knowledge. Unaverage church leaders weep for the missed opportunities and programs that could have been much better.
Unaverage congregations are purpose-driven, soaked in urgency, quick to confess, courageous, flexible, centered on Scripture, culturally intuitive, and sensitive to whispers of the Holy Spirit. May God help us be unaverage.
Phil Scott is senior minister at First Christian Church, Dodge City, Kansas.