*This article first appeared in the Fall 2018 edition of Enrich Magazine
Success inebriates. the best of the pack is more susceptible to delusion than everyone behind. As a result, blue-chip churches can deliriously stop doing exactly what they should and start doing exactly what they shouldn’t. The particularity of it all is that it overtakes like odourless gas. Our first response is denial that it has happened to us, and then we feel utterly stumped as to how on earth this came about.
I learned this from my good friend, Ross Allen of Broadway Church, who is part of our PAOC Vitalization Cohort. Churches and other organizations that have had a great run can begin to think they are and forever will be prevailing. Of course, that’s not true. What we should be thinking while we’re successful is that we have a shelf life, a best-before date. If we don’t restock and renew, we will be surpassed, lose our place, and become largely irrelevant.
DISCOVERING CHURCH ENTROPY
Creationists and physicists posit that it’s obvious that the universe had a period of expansion and development and that, at some point, a law of entropy became the norm, with energy locking into a trend toward lower and lower levels of utility. It’s called running down.
Every church that exists obviously had a founding. Then there were cycles of expansion where the gains for the gospel overwhelmed the losses. Every church that has protracted plateau or decline has obviously come into a season of entropy that if unabated, will result in the demise of that church. Lyle Schaller, dubbed “the dean of church consultants” by Christianity Today1, noted that the average lifespan of a North American church is 30 years—from inception to closure. Think about it: where are the seven churches profiled at the beginning of the Book of Revelation? Where are they? Why did they close? Do you think we’re immune?
REPAIR BEFORE BREAKDOWN
In order to cheat the law of church life cycle, a church must biblically “recatalyze” when it encounters or is about to encounter plateau. Then it can overcome the impending inertia and press forward with another chapter of growth. That’s pretty simple. Yet it’s not simple. And it really isn’t easy. Enacting it will consume the budget, exhaust the workers, and press on every side the pastors and board leadership of the church. It will take everything you’ve got and all the grace that God apportions to the willing and obedient who choose to bind themselves to the mast of the gospel ship.
THREE RENEWAL CONCEPTS
The church must be renewed in every generation. It has long been postulated that the perpetuation of the church is in jeopardy with every new generation. I personally don’t think the church is in jeopardy because Jesus asserted that He would build it, and He doesn’t fail. However, I don’t want Him to have to circumvent my church and use someone else to off set where we’ve lost the impetus. Our movement has been plateaued for at least 15 years.
There are three great categories of renewal that must be cultured by each generation of the church in order to perpetuate their usefulness:
• Revival – return to right relationship with God
• Reformation – return to right doctrine
• Revitalization – return to right engagement with the Great Commission.
In travelling the nation from coast to coast with the leadership of the PAOC and in comprehensively engaging the District of Alberta and Northwest Territories where I serve as superintendent, it appears to me that we need to keep our eye on the first two, but we’re in free fall on the third. That is our lowest slat in the barrel. In basic triage, that is where the hemorrhage is.
LOSING THE GO
When a church or a denomination loses the “go” of the Great Commission, it is automatic that the preoccupation of the church is with Christians. The ethos of church community becomes all about me—my time, my genre of music, my worship style, my topics of teaching, my comfortable building. Meet the preference-driven church.
My hunch is that the PAOC became a master at this during the last 30 years of the previous century, continuing up to the present day.
Because of their very nature, preference-driven churches will eventually be overtaken by plateau and morph into the backwater of Christian history. Why? Because the real seminal concept of responding to the truth in Jesus is “Fall into the ground and die to produce fruit,” not “Find the church of your preferential dreams.”
The antidote to preference-driven church is a sustained weekly dosage of “outbound church.”
Yes, the antidote to preference-driven church is a return to prioritized preoccupation with fulfilling the Great Commission, reaching people with the gospel of Jesus. R. J. White (dean of students at Northwest Bible College in the early 1970s) once related a vignette of history from the early days of one of our Bible colleges. He said that a prayer meeting had bubbled up into a frenzy of oddities. People were prophesying who among them should marry whom and plying an entertaining overextension of what spiritual gifts are intended to be about. D. N. Buntain happened into the prayer meeting. He didn’t individually correct the excesses; he just began to walk back and forth in the room with booming voice, hands raised, crying “Let’s pray for souls. Oh God, save souls.” It took over the ambience and ended the little tangent.
Whatever else is preoccupying our church budgets, buildings and boardrooms needs to be overtaken with an intercessory lament, “Oh God, save souls … (and as much as possible, use us to do it).”
We’ve undertaken a comprehensive engagement with the churches of our region. When we began, 82 per cent of the churches in our district were either plateaued or declining. But we’re beginning to see turnarounds. Here are the growth needs we most commonly find:
1. A CORRUPTED DEFINITION OF SUCCESS: We need to relearn what a “healthy church” really is. Somehow we came to equate success with faithfulness. Perhaps it was a misapplication of the Lord’s final review words, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21). Then the definition of faithfulness needs to be clarified. Success isn’t just hanging in till the end of the race. Success is fruitfulness. The Gospels show incontrovertibly that the Lord of the harvest is not pleased with empty nets, fig trees that don’t bear fruit, ground that doesn’t produce a harvest, or talents that return unmultiplied.
The Great Commission isn’t fulfilled if we haven’t gone, if we haven’t relentlessly proclaimed Jesus, resulting in converts who are subsequently taught and commissioned back into reaping the harvest. Plateaued and declining churches aren’t healthy. Name it: healthy churches consistently see people coming to faith in Jesus Christ.
2. DISTRICT ROLE REDISCOVERED: Eighty percent of pastors need partnering support to be effective. A small percentage of pastors can and will access the support they need to lead prevailing churches, but the majority need teamwork from the middle category of our denominational governance. Districts need to take responsibility to set vision for collective fruitfulness and become the resource centre for prevailing churches. Districts add value by moulding a cohesive team of prevailing churches. The genius of “Better Together” is where no one helps pastors lead and grow churches more than their districts. Districts need to partner with districts to get this done.
3. PASTORS WANT TO: They want to lead fruitful churches, but … In protracted difficulty some give up, then hide and isolate themselves from resources that emphasize fruitfulness. Accommodations of thinking develop such as “Canadian culture is impervious to the gospel” or “My community is unilaterally unresponsive to evangelistic efforts.” They finally conclude that their context is an anomaly to the Great Commission, and they become closed to suggestions that this can change.
They need their districts to help them doubt their doubts, switch modes, and then develop a prescription on the next right things pursuant to re-engaging a Great Commission vision.
The franchise habit stifles effectiveness. “We’re PAOC. They will come.” Franchises rely on brand and follow conventional forms of organizing and doing church. The forms become wooden, disengaged from the realities of congregation and community. Too few are looking for different approaches to reaching the people in their region.
A missionary mentality is needed; namely, “What approach needs to be taken for our church to engage our town and to make Jesus known here?”
4. THEOLOGICAL RABBIT HOLES COMMON: Districts need to front-load their vision and communications to preclude ill-applied theologies.
“We just need a move of God.” Reminds me of the student who handed in an exam to the Bible college professor saying, “God will write this for me.” It’s true that Christians don’t result apart from a series of sovereign miracles—answered prayer, empowered witnesses, illumination, conviction, rebirth, and installation of the mind of Christ. But accounting the demise of churches to the need for a move of God infers that God sent us but is withholding something. On the contrary, Jesus portrayed the grace era as one of a ready harvest with the critical link being workers, willing and sent (Luke 10:2).
“Not with words of wisdom” (1 Corinthians 2:4). There is some prevalence of interpretation that Spirit manifestation will, without our thought or effort, spontaneously reach our communities. This application foments belief that planning, structure and strategy are opposed to Spirit-empowered ministry.
The early church prayed and planned. They thrived on the miracle of Pentecost plus Paul’s intentional missionary journeys, and the like.
5. BOARD & CONGREGATIONAL FOCUS: Boards need to validate, not lead. The onus needs to be on the pastor to lead the Great Commission vision. Boards can help make good ideas better, critique and improve strategy. Boards need to ensure realistic measurement (keep score) in areas of fruitfulness, discipleship outcomes, and financial viability. Boards need consistent, regular communication with the pastor. Boards need training on being successful in their role.
Boards need to be the insightful glue of congregational life.
Congregations are entirely in control of Pillar #4 of a Prevailing Church, which is “Receiving and incorporating new people.” While being the folk you admire and love most in the world, most members of our congregations are greatly in need of help to keep an eye out for newcomers. Almost every church we visit claims to be the friendliest in town, but our coaches find it is common to be able to get in and out without personal contact. Most congregations are not invitational, largely because their churches aren’t great destinations to invite people to (study the Five Pillars of Prevailing Churches2); secondly, because they aren’t encouraged and trained to be inviters. Note, there are Canadians who are completely resistant to invitation (they require special bridge-building), but they are a statistical minority of around 30 to 40 per cent nationally. Sixty to 70 per cent of Canadians are invitable if the inviter has a credible relationship with them.
Invitational culture is the greatest tool of evangelism in Canada, not because it’s the best but because it’s the easiest (it presumes healthy destination churches).
BETTER TOGETHER: A CALL TO CONVENE AROUND “ONE BIG THING”
We aren’t Pentecostals; we’re Christians. We don’t have a Statement of Fundamental and Essential Truths; we have a Great Commission.
We could let vitalizing churches come by osmosis—“one church at a time” stumbling onto it—or we could have exponential impact, realizing this in a “Better Together” magnitude.
Could we as a Fellowship recover the power to witness the momentum we believe Pentecost is about and do it in a remarkably short time, finding ourselves re-engaged in explosive proclamation of the gospel of Jesus across all of our preaching points and mission stations in the world?
I believe God is giving us a choice between:
• A long 40-year way to the goal that is protracted and easier.
• A shorter months-long way with life-threatening exertion, tension, danger and sacrifice—but it will place us at the epicentre of God’s fruitful will and purpose.
I really think we get to make a choice about this.
1. David Neff, “CTI’s Modest Dynamic Duo,” Christianity Today, March 14, 2007, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/april/8.96.html.
2. Gary Taitinger, “Vitalizing Churches,” Healthy Churches ABNWT, Alberta and NWT District of the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, February 12, 2018, https://abnwt.com/vitalizing-churches-with-gary-taitinger