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If It Could Happen Here ...
Turning the Small-Membership Church Around
By Jeff Patton
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2002 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Then and Now
I hope that what you are about to read will change you and how you view Christian congregations. This book is about the process of turnaround and how a congregation can overcome many handicaps as it grows into an effective mission-driven, vision-oriented, faith-based, permission giving community that knows there is more to church life than taking up room in a pew. This can happen where you are!
East Canton was able to overcome many handicaps because of the imbedded heart-driven desire "that all might know Jesus." In addition, this community gradually believed that God really was "able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine" (Eph. 3:20 NIV). We overcame many obstacles because we were willing to care about those who were lost, hurting, and alone. We were able to overcome the handicaps because we understood that new times require new approaches if we are to be effective in reaching people with the good news of Jesus Christ.
Understanding our situation—the times, events, cultural climate, and demographics—was crucial in our success. Until we saw the situation accurately, we continued to operate on faulty assumptions. For example, when we realized how spiritually hungry people were, we addressed their core hungers. Previously we had thought that people simply were not interested in worship. Now we understand that they were interested, but we did not speak their language.
To assist you and your congregation, I will provide an overview of the historical situation of Christian congregations at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy looks around the new world where she has landed and makes the discovery that she's "not in Kansas anymore." When we look at the world around us, we make a similar observation: The world is different, strange, hard to understand, and more complex than ever. Like Dorothy, we can say this is not what we are familiar with. The landscape has changed. Words have new meanings. Humankind is different, more diverse, more intellectually aware, more spiritually open, more resistant to organized religion, and more morally confused.
Our culture, in general, is moving forward technologically, but morally it looks like that of the first-century Roman world. Sure, we have laptops and cell phones in our cars, but ethically, we are in radical decline, declining to the days of Plato when the most clever argument would carry the opinions of the populace. When any action is "okay, as long as it doesn't hurt anyone," it becomes politically incorrect to suggest that there is a God or that our actions have consequences. The philosopher may delight in this condition, the sociologist may have much to research and to detail, the moralist much to bemoan; but like it or not, we are not in Dorothy's Kansas, nor are we in 1959. We are not even in 1999.
Turnaround congregations understand this dramatic shift and changes in culture. Furthermore, they view these changes as opportunities for an invasion of the world with the life-changing message of God's love in Jesus Christ. This is an opportune time for Christian believers, for we face a world that is in moral decline but also wide open to the new life Jesus Christ has to offer. People are more open to spiritual thoughts and ideas now than in the last forty years. Old and new forms of religious expression (both Christian and not) are growing all around us. The search for meaning, in a holistic sense, now captures the attention of many people who appear to have it all but still have no meaning. The opportunity is in front of us. What we do with this opportunity will decide the fate and future of many mainline congregations.
Loren B. Mead details these changes in his work The Once and Future Church. According to Mead, the environment the church finds itself in has come full circle from the first century. In the first century, the church was attacked by society. Mission was local, right next door. There was little separation between leaders and followers of the Way. Everyone was in mission and ministry as each person used his or her God-given gifts in service to the cause of Jesus Christ. Then the church entered a period in which it dominated the culture (at least in the West), and in that period, clergy dominated the church. Mission was pushed to the edge of the known world, out of the empire, on to the vast "mission fields" of the unconverted. This Christian era was marked by widespread evangelistic efforts, both pre- and post-Reformation.
Can you see the opportunities in front of you? What are they?
Mead and others know that this era is over. We have entered what Mead calls the post-Christian period. Bill Easum calls this new era "pre-Christian." In this era, the society is once again hostile to the Christian church. The mission is local once again with only 43 percent of Americans active in a worshiping congregation.
In thriving congregations, clergy no longer dominate. Instead, empowered lay leaders are called to do the lion's share of the ministry. Until recently, the Christian church in America was a major player in the sociopolitical field. Now the church is a noisy minority cast on the sidelines, used and manipulated by the media as extremist or by politicians to get votes. What churches say is no longer trusted. Clergy are not automatically respected. Congregations are viewed with suspicion.
Some churched people wish we could return to the nottoo-distant past. Many church leaders, particularly those in the mainline churches of America, built agencies and denominational structures for the sole purpose of keeping the church from changing. Some believe they can hold back the flood of change from the culture and the church by vote and committee. If we just vote against change long enough, perhaps we will return to a time like 1959 when church life was peaceful and people flocked to worship.
What a grand year—1959! A three-story, frame house with garage and large yard and that was close to school cost my parents $8,700. Ike was in, and Kennedy was coming. Change was knocking on the door. A new wind was blowing, and singers were singing against war and telling us "we'd better get out of the way for the times they are achangin'."
Change happens. You do not get a vote.
Well, it is not Dorothy's Kansas, and it is not 1959 anymore. The changes have come and are coming, and you and I did not and will not get to vote on them. New times are here, and the post-Christian, postmodern, pre-Christian generations find worship services boring, irrelevant, useless, emotionally flat, or in a word, deadly. These people are moving on. These same generations are more open to spiritual dimensions of life than any generation has been in a long time. What they are not open to is exclusive, narrow, either/or thinking. They also do not have the time to waste on a worship service they do not understand, cannot follow, and that relates little to their lives. Those forms of worship simply do not speak their language. They do not understand what we are doing. Since it does not connect with their hearts, they are not interested in what is offered.
Everything has changed but our ways of thinking, and if these do not change we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.
Think for a moment about some of the major changes you have experienced and witnessed in the last twenty years— changes in the roles of men and women, in the way we travel, and how we live. Technology has invaded our homes. We have three computers running in my house most of the time. There are more homes with television than there are homes with indoor plumbing. My cousin's son and his wife just had a baby, and within a few hours of the baby's birth, we saw the pictures. Nothing so special about that except that they live in japan. The Internet web site they designed for their baby was better than any baby book I've seen. Fresh up-to-the-minute pictures each hour. Technology is changing every part of our lives. We currently heat and cool our home with ground water. That's right, ground water, a geothermal heat pump. No gas, no coal, no wood.
Another area that has experienced rapid change is that of ministry.
Then and Now in Ministry
I often seek out respected pastors who were able to grow congregations to see if they had transformational strategies that enabled them to be effective in their ministries. Stewart was such a pastor in a rural Pennsylvania church beginning in the late 1920s. He was a tall, slightly built man with a broad smile and a fire in his soul and eyes. By comparing Stewart's story with my own, you will have a clearer picture of the drastic differences and changes in pastoral ministry.
I asked Stewart to describe ministry as he experienced it. His story reported most weeks were uneventful. He did sermon preparation and house-to-house visiting, by horse at first and later by car. The congregation bought the car so he could make it to the hospital, some fifty miles away. He officiated many weddings—most without premarital counseling—in the parsonage, at all hours of the day and days of the week. Sometimes he knew they "had" to get married, but that was not very often. He did little counseling in any formal sense. He walked with parents whose children were killed in farming accidents or stood by widows when husbands died of a sudden heart attack. Everyone's children were pretty well behaved, Sunday schools were full, and the church had many families. After World War II, many things changed, mostly for the good—bigger Sunday school classes and many more people in worship. When he retired in 1977, he was tired. He had served the Lord for fifty-seven years, and it was time for him to rest. He continued to be active in pastoral visitation for five years.
What a different story from my experience. In 1977, my first year of ministry in a local congregation, I encountered situations Stewart rarely saw in fifty-seven years of ministry. In my part-time position (twenty hours a week), I spent five to seven hours a week in counseling with youth and adults who were stressed out, inappropriately sexually active, going through parents' divorce, thinking about suicide, and overdosing on drugs, with youth hating their parents and parents at the end of their ropes with their children. Three years later, in my first appointment as a fulltime pastor in rural Pennsylvania, as I sat in the parsonage reading, someone knocked on the door. I had been at this new appointment about two months. Standing at my door was a young woman—a daughter of a member of the congregation—who had to talk. She entered the house, sat on the couch, and told me that her father sexually abused her night after night. She had to protect her younger sister whom she knew would be her father's next victim. Divorce and separating couples were common. No one was home anymore. With both parents working, the children had to care for themselves. This was just the beginning.
It is sad that many in today's churches still think that Stewart's days are the norm. How mistaken they are. Seminaries have struggled to keep up. Much of what worked in the late 1950s and early 1960s is irrelevant today. Therefore much of what was being taught in the 1970s and 1980s does not prepare men and women for pastoral ministry in this new postmodern, pre-Christian age. The world around us is lost, seeking spiritual direction; and we think bake sales, rummage sales, turkey suppers, and eighteenth-century ritual will make a difference. There are more people in Wal-Mart or Lowe's on a Sunday morning than in churches. Is that because our services are so exciting? Is that because people just are not interested in spiritual things? I do not think so.
What language does your worship speak?
People stay away from worship because it no longer speaks their language, no longer relates to their needs, and is no longer seen as helpful in their journey through life. If something is not helpful to the journey or life of the individuals in this age, it is very easy for them to sidestep that portion of life and move on to something else that may be more helpful. Again, you may not like this, but you do not get to vote on this change.
Many around us do not know about our Christian traditions or the most basic events in our Christian heritage. The basics of the Christian life are now completely foreign to the vast majority of people.
In 1999, a United Methodist church in Pennsylvania held a regular Friday night dinner for the many people in the city who were homeless or poor. One particular night, the pastor suggested serving the Lord's Supper (Communion) to the people. Holding up the loaf of bread, the pastor said, "This is the body of Christ." As the pastor held up the cup and poured grape juice into the cup, he said, "This is the blood of Christ, which was poured out for you." At that time, many people got up to leave. Those serving the meal intercepted them and asked, "Why are you leaving?" One of the people answered for the group, "We aren't eating anyone's body or drinking anyone's blood." This congregation and pastor made the mistake of thinking that everyone knows and understands what Christians believe. In a pre-Christian world, we must start from the opposite presupposition.
What many pre-Christian people believe about Christianity is that it (and we who follow this Way) are well behind the times. We are viewed as irrelevant, boring, or worse, dangerous. Some portions of this pre-Christian society are openly hostile to the foundational beliefs of the Christian community, especially when our views are contrary to their opinions, preferences, and narcissistic needs and desires.
In a pre-Christian society, we can no longer rely on clergy alone for leadership. Lay believers—those not ordained but gifted by the Spirit—must gain their own sense of leadership and find ways to use their gifts. In a pre-Christian society, the mission of the local congregation is not in some distant land, but usually right next door, around the corner, up the street.
What year are you preparing for? 1959? 1999? 2009?
Consultants working with mainline churches lamentably note that most churches are gearing up for 1959. The leadership of many congregations, now in their sixties and beyond, are looking back, remembering what was and how the "glory days" looked. This nostalgic return, which is quite common for all ages when they begin hitting retirement years, is deadly to the church, which presently finds itself in a society that is openly hostile to its mission and purpose. The resistance to change, coupled with nostalgic longings for the past, stalls the forward progress of the church. In place of authentically transformed lives is showy and powerless religion. Instead of fulfilling the great commission and living the great commandment, congregations specialize in questionable fund-raisers and fight over the color they are going to paint the bathroom or the color of the sanctuary carpeting or who will cook Thanksgiving turkeys for the poor or who will clean the parsonage windows after the pastor gets sick of this and leaves. As congregations resist change, refusing to embrace proven growth principles, they continue to decline in energy, numbers, and options. Instead of lighting a candle in this darkness, congregations (and their leaders) complain about the lack of light. They fight each progressive step of learning the language of this culture that we might speak the timeless truth of God's love to a generation unfamiliar with God and our beliefs.
One form the "resistance to change movement" has taken in our churches is found in the insistence that we use classical music. One percent of the population listens to classical music; yet on Sundays, it is the music of choice. The tempos, keys, and sounds of that style of music are beautiful to the trained ear. They are irrelevant to the vast population of pre-Christian people who live near our houses of worship. Over 80 percent of the U.S. population listen to other kinds of music.
If we are to be effective in the twenty-first century, there are at least five basic changes to American Protestantism that we better understand and prepare to address. If we do not, we will find that the "unparalleled catastrophe" Einstein spoke about will be upon the church. Most churches will not survive it.
First, we no longer live in a Christian world. We are surrounded by those who do not know what we believe, and if they do know, they do not think what we believe makes any difference or sense.
Second, we are in the middle of a technological revolution. The amount of information now available to us is mind numbing. The quantity of information used to double about every fifty years; now information doubles in three years and soon will be down to eighteen months.
Excerpted from If It Could Happen Here ... by Jeff Patton. Copyright © 2002 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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