It's no secret: churches are dying. Tragically, thousands of churches in the United States are shrinking, some closing their doors forever. The key to reversing these trends, argues Bill Henard, is for a local church to recognize where it is in the church life cycle. Unless churches intentionally do something about it, many of them will follow the same pattern: from birth, to plateau, and eventually, to death. But if a church learns to identify its place within the life cycle and embraces the necessary processes, it can return to growth. In a day when church membership has decreased, evangelistic zeal has cooled, and budgets are disappearing, ReClaimed Church is the tool that struggling churches need. Having previously written and taught seminary courses on church revitalization, Bill Henard uses his expertise to provide all the practical insights and instructions needed to reclaim your church.
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About the Author
Bill Henard (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; DMin, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) currently serves as Executive Director-Treasurer of the West Virginia Convention of Southern Baptists. Additionally, he is an adjunct professor of evangelism and church revitalization at Southern Seminary. Bill is father to three grown children, and he and his wife Judy are proud grandparents of five.
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The Birth Stage: Vision or Crisis?
Perhaps the most important, yet most ignored, part of a church's existence is its birth stage. Every diagram I have observed of the Life Stage of the church focuses only on one specific way in which a church is birthed. It starts out of the vision, dreams, or goals of a group of people who desire to reach a certain demographic of the population. While many churches begin in this fashion, scores of churches have been founded through much more ominous beginnings. Many churches began because of a split, a splinter, or a bias. Additionally, while a church may have a strong starting point, long before it reaches the plateau after a strong growth and development phase, it can begin to make poor choices in leadership, structure, and strategy. These poor choices set the direction for the church, early in its existence, toward failure. In order for a church to be ReClaimed, it must understand its Life Stage, and specifically how it was founded.
Most church plants hopefully began out of a vision that a pastor, a church, or a group of individuals had to start a new congregation in another part of their city or in another town that was unchurched. That scenario is not always true. Let me share the beginnings of the previous two churches I served as senior pastor.
One church was located in a large city in the Deep South. The story of its origin was shared with me by members who had been a part of the church from the time of its launch. They were attending a fairly prominent church in town but traveled from the "other side of the tracks" to get there. The church leaders were not particularly enthused to have folks of a lower socioeconomic status attending, becoming members, and moving into leadership. Therefore, they decided to plant a church for those who fell within this economic criterion in the neighborhood where most of them lived. The church grew and thrived for a time, but there was always this nagging stigma of being a "poor, blue-collar" church. That mind-set affected outreach, decision-making, and vision. Oftentimes, they were short-sighted, I believe, because of their tainted beginnings. Their history served as a reminder that, in the opinion of some, they did not measure up. Today, although the church has relocated, they are developing plans to dissolve and merge with another congregation. Their problems are obviously not just rooted in the past; how they were birthed certainly set the stage for possible decline.
The other church was birthed intentionally by a local pastor and a group of laypeople. More than a hundred years ago, a group of people began a prayer meeting on their side of town. No evangelical church existed where they lived. They found another group of people nearby who were also praying together regularly. Eventually, they approached their pastor about helping them start a church with these two groups. The pastor agreed and his church provided the assistance and the people necessary to have a successful church launch. The richness of their history offers a heritage upon which they can continue to build. It began with a vision, and that vision allows the church to re-vision itself as change becomes necessary.
The first step to a ReClaimed Church is to examine the history of the church and to ask how those beginnings affect the attitude, behavior, and response of the church leadership, in particular, and the church at large in general. Attitude is one of the keys to church revitalization. If the church has a bad attitude or a defeatist attitude, it may never see the potential it actually has.
The question everyone is going to ask is: How do I fix this problem? Listen to the words of the apostle Paul in Philippians 3:12–16:
Not that I have already reached the goal or am already perfect, but I make every effort to take hold of it because I also have been taken hold of by Christ Jesus. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and reaching forward to what is ahead, I pursue as my goal the prize promised by God's heavenly call in Christ Jesus. Therefore, let all of us who are mature think this way. And if you think differently about anything, God will reveal this also to you. In any case, we should live up to whatever truth we have attained.
The answer is simple and yet complex. The church must accept its past and embrace the past's importance, but it must also move beyond its limitations. Churches and pastors make the mistake of either criticizing the past or trying to ignore it altogether. The past is the past. How the church started is how the church started. Therefore, the church's beginnings should be used as an advantage. Look at what Paul says: Forgetting what is behind and reaching forward to what is ahead. What is Paul suggesting? Here are some thoughts:
1. Do not transfer the past to the future. In whatever way that the church began, good or bad, do not live in the past and do not allow the past to determine the future. Learn from the past, interact with the past, honor the past and those who are/were a part of it, but do not dwell in the past. If necessary, lead the church through a time to honor the past, but make a clear decision to move forward. When the past is mentioned, honor it but do not allow it to be pertinent in decision-making or vision-casting. Lead the church through a time in which they ask God to help them break the hold that the past has on them and then start moving forward. If the past includes some shameful behaviors or attitudes, seek God's healing for those times and find healing for the shame. God's forgiveness and love for the church is clear in Scripture. Remind the church that God has not forgotten them.
2. Allow the church to embrace its past but not hold onto it. If the church tries to ignore its beginnings, the church is only denying reality. Paul wrote, Not that I have already reached the goal or am already perfect. Instead of being embarrassed by how the church started or why the church started in the way that it did, embrace it. Lead the church to learn from its past and to be thankful for its founding and founders, but do not stay there. Those of us who are pro-life believe that even a child conceived in rape is still valuable in the eyes of God. While that child's conception is by no means a desired nor encouraged beginning, what a testimony that child and mother will have to a world that extols death and disregards life. Likewise, a church with the most problematic of beginnings is loved by God and is valuable in God's eyes.
3. Pursue God's future for the church with every ounce of energy. Paul declared, I pursue as my goal the prize promised by God's heavenly call in Christ Jesus. The church must reach the point of being dissatisfied with where it is presently. It cannot go back to the past or allow the past to keep the church defeated. God has a much grander plan than ominous beginnings. Richard Melick offers this explanation:
Since the Greek athletic games captured the imagination of all of the peninsula, Macedonia included, it spoke vividly to the readers. The manner of attainment is explained by two participles. First, "forgetting what is behind" comprehensively expresses Paul's future orientation. What was done was done! Both the nostalgia of the former life and the "good ole days" of his Christian life would paralyze him in terms of what God wanted in the future. Every day was a new adventure. Second, he was "straining toward what is ahead." This word continues the athletic metaphor. It is particularly graphic, bringing to mind the straining muscles, clear focus, and complete dedication of the runner in his race to the prize. Both mental and physical discipline were necessary.
While Paul obviously is dealing with living a victorious Christian life, his words certainly apply to the victorious church. Know the past and understand the past, but find God's future for the church and pursue it with deep discipline and absolute commitment.
It is critical to understand a church's history and to lead the church to deal with its past, because the past may be why the church is struggling, fighting, and in decline. A church that was birthed out of a split oftentimes carries that same anger into the new start. Its only vision is to get away from the old church. Issues of bitterness, power struggles, and a lack of respect for the pastor and staff permeate the congregation. Sometimes the new pastor tries to lead the church into vision-casting and strategy, only to find that the leaders of the church thwart every effort. The reason is because they have not properly dealt with their past anger and perhaps personal sin and fault in the split. They may have an identity crisis because they know that their church was started out of bias, prejudice, or a sense of being unwanted. I do not want to overanalyze the issue, but in the same way the people personally struggle with identity, self-esteem, personal worth, and acceptance, so does the church. Know a church's past, and it will be advantageous in understanding its present and in planning for its future.CHAPTER 2
Infant Stage: Strategy or Status Quo?
When a church begins in the right way, with a clear vision as to its purpose and future, it can then begin to develop its strategy. Strategy is crucial. It is the how to the who of our vision. The vision is who we are and aspire to be. It is the picture of the desired future. George Bullard identifies vision as the "current understanding of God's spiritual strategic direction ... cast by leadership and owned by membership." While many churches will develop both a vision statement (the dreaming stage) and a mission statement (the doing stage), the strategy phase takes the mission and puts it into specific details. Vision asks: What will the future look like as we fulfill our mission? Mission answers the question: What do we do succinctly? Strategy, then, is the chosen method or plan for bringing about the stated vision through the mission. The mission statement is a short, one-sentence synopsis of what the church does. The vision statement is a lengthy outline of a clear, yet challenging picture of the church's future. Aubrey Malphurs makes these two of many distinctions:
1. The mission is used for planning where the church is going; the vision is used for communicating where the church is going.
2. A mission statement must be short enough to fit on a T-shirt. The vision statement, however, goes into detail and can range from a single paragraph to several pages in length.
Thus, a church births and develops out of a clear vision that unfolds through its mission statement. Momentum is built as people adopt the vision as theirs and begin to live out the mission. Most church plants become successful because they can implant a vision DNA into the life of their members. The membership reflects the vision and fulfills the mission.
As the church moves into infancy, a more specific strategy must be in place in order for the vision and mission to come to fruition. The vision tells us who we are and are going to be, the mission clarifies the action of our vision, and now the strategy offers the specifics of how the church will accomplish these things. For churches that started with a vision, this next step is a natural part of their maturation. If only church work was that easy ...
If the church can move naturally to the strategy phase, it most probably will continue on a growth phase. Enter in, however, the status quo. The status quo can hit any church at any time. It is the point of satisfaction for where the church is at its present state. While it may still embrace its vision, it loses focus on a strategy that will be most effective in getting the church to fulfill its mission and reach its vision.
A church in Birmingham launched an additional campus as a part of its vision to impact the city with the gospel. Initially, the second campus met in a school, requiring members to load and unload equipment weekly. Sunday started early and ended into the afternoon for volunteers. At first, those involved were excited. Showing up at 7:00 a.m. was new and invigorating. After about a year, that excitement turned into drudgery. While the congregation saw growth and baptisms, the core group desired a more permanent location. The vision became cloudy, and the willingness to compromise set in. A building was secured, and once the congregation got settled, the worship center was full. At the school, it was quite evident that growth was possible and necessary, but at the new building, the 80 percent rule was in effect. The vision to impact the city was still believed but not quite impassioned. Instead of developing new strategies for moving forward with their mission, the status quo set in. They became satisfied. The building became the mission, and the original mission all but died.
Status quo sets in for several reasons:
1. Church growth is difficult. Evangelism in the twenty-first century is more challenging than it has ever been in most parts of the world. Back in 2003, Thom Rainer wrote a book entitled The Unchurched Next Door. I have quoted from that book extensively in sermons and on seminary campuses. He says that, overall, the unchurched are not antichurch and are not strongly antagonistic to the gospel, citing that 5 percent of American adults are highly resistant to the gospel and another 21 percent are somewhat resistant. Jump ahead less than fifteen years, and those numbers have most probably increased, at least in the highly resistant group. Anecdotally, one need only to watch a few news broadcasts or peruse the Internet to discover that, worldwide, there is an increased disdain for Christianity. Certainly, much of the visibility is due to the easy access that most people have with the Internet and social media. It also appears that the world has become much angrier and is willing to vocalize that anger. In most cities, initiative/cold-call evangelism is far less effective and even a negative in many cases. Most churches do not have week-long evangelistic meetings or revivals anymore. Evangelism has moved more personal and relational, and many Christians are not spiritually prepared to initiate gospel conversations. For established churches, they are ingrained in a particular methodology, and learning and implementing a new methodology is extremely difficult. Thus, the status quo sets in. It is easier to stay as we are than to risk rejection, even if our vision says that we are risk takers.
2. Church growth creates the appearance of an impersonal church. Once a church starts growing, it can reach a certain size so that members do not know everyone who is attending. Growth may require multiple services or overflow areas. It may demand moving away from a single Bible study hour to multiple Bible study groups that meet at various times during the week. Many people lack adaptability, and these growth-induced changes can make them feel uncomfortable. Even new churches can reach a level of comfort that causes them to resist additional growth. Unfortunately, the motive for some church planting is not to reach an unreached segment of the population, but to keep the sponsor church from growing any more.
3. Church growth is messy. One church with which I was consulting had fallen into the status quo. In one of the first meetings I had with their leadership and other church members, I was touring the church facilities on a Wednesday evening. As we walked into the worship area, a lady carried with her a thirty-two-ounce soda cup. One of the primary leaders turned to her and scolded her for such a heinous act. I immediately thought to myself, No wonder they are declining. The status quo was more about personal preference than reaching people. If new people came and had children who did not know how to behave or if a non-Christian had too many questions or a single girl arrived with tattoos and purple hair, it would create a mess! Status quo is much easier than messiness, especially if the church has reached its initial goals.
Sam Rainer gives an excellent synopsis of why churches fall into the status quo and the resulting consequences of that action. He writes: Here's why the status quo is so tempting ... and dangerous.
The status quo opposes more. Every church should seek to reach more people and go to more places. The temptation of the status quo is that you can be satisfied with the current mission footprint of a church. The danger is that people do not hear the gospel because you were supposed to go and reach them. Most people that push for the status quo are wanting to stay put, and I'm not aware of the biblical mandate "just stay put."
The status quo is highly contagious. Have you ever been part of a meeting in which a lot of effort was exerted for nothing? Then someone speaks up and says, "Let's wrap this up and reconvene later." And everyone quickly agrees. It's easy to convince people to stay the same. It's harder to get them to change. And that's why too many church meetings end with few, if any, action items.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "ReClaimed Church"
Copyright © 2018 William D. Henard, III.
Excerpted by permission of B&H Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Section 1 The Life Stages of the Church
Chapter 1 The Birth Stage Vision, or Crisis? 7
Chapter 2 Infant Stage: Strategy or Status Quo? 13
Chapter 3 The Adolescent: Stage Ministry or Survival? 19
Chapter 4 The Adult Stage: Structure or Conflict/Control? 27
Section 2 The Stages of Decline
Chapter 5 Plateau 53
Chapter 6 The Death Spiral 67
Section 3 Determining Factors for Growth or Decline
Chapter 7 The Three Primary Phases of the Church Life Stage 81
Chapter 8 Distinctive Characteristics of the Life Stages 93
Section 4 Steps toward Revitalization
Chapter 9 Determine a Revitalization Strategy 107
Chapter 10 Pastoring a Reclaimed Church 127
Chapter 11 Reacquire Buy-In 137
Chapter 12 Reassess Identity 143
Chapter 13 Rethink Vision 151
Chapter 14 Realign Strategy 159
Chapter 15 Revise Structure 163
Chapter 16 Reaffirm Buy-In 169
Appendix A Church and Community Assessment 175
Appendix B Church Revitalization Plan 185
Appendix C Revitalization Steps 187
Appendix D Stages of Life 189
Appendix E Stages of Death 191
Appendix F Life Stage Chart 193
Appendix G Strengthening and Sending Church Replanters/Revitalizers through the Development of 12 Core Competencies 195
Appendix H Church Restart Covenant Agreement 209