Your church wants to survive. Very few churches actually desire to close. They have rich, narrative histories, stories about baptisms, funerals and times of great renewal. There are families whose stories have been changed by the life of the church. If you have a cemetery, there are relatives of your current church members buried just outside. Their children have been married in the sanctuary. The people in your church want these stories to continue but they are uncertain how to move into the future. It is your job to help them determine the best path forward. While it is true that some small churches have been reduced to cemetery maintenance organizations, many still have a heart to reach their community and share the gospel. It’s time to revive their heart…
Small churches have a tenacious spirit of survival. Most have survived the Depression, hurricanes, fires, floods and even ineffective pastors (the most devastating disease to the heart of the church). The key in renewing your struggling church is to harness its most valuable asset, its desire to survive.
The first step to harnessing their spirit of survival is the help them make the active and direct determination to survive. This sounds obvious but more often than not people feel that the small church is dying and despite their best efforts it is only a matter of time before it is a thing of the past. Helping your people make the decision to embrace renewal and change is tough, but that is the job of leading and renewing the heart of these churches. If you are a leader of the church, clergy or laity, then you must embrace and fuel the hope that a brighter day is coming. There are people in your area, no matter how remote, that have disengaged from their spiritual life or never had one to begin with. Its time for you to get ready. It is time for you to prepare. Do not wait for the next “pastor,” our hope is not found in who pastors the church but in who founded the Church. “My hope is built on nothing less, than Jesus blood and righteousness.” There are people who want to discover your church and the hope it can give, regardless of size.
People say they prefer small churches. They enjoy the intimacy and closeness of a small worshipping community. Your church has served the community it is in for decades, it is a vital part of that community and there are many people, believe it or not, who want your church to survive. Do not let size be an excuse for not preparing to become a vital congregation of Christ followers again. Additionally, do not let location or facilities be an excuse. There are churches in some very unlikely places making a significant difference in their community. The first step for helping your congregation return to vitality is yours, you have to decide right not that you are going to prepare for action.
It seems obvious, but the often-neglected truth of renewing struggling churches is that it takes preparation. It does not happen by magic. There is no secret formula. For a church to experience renewal it takes prayer, desire, and most of all, hard work. The first step toward church renewal is personal preparation. You have to get ready. The challenges you face will be spiritual and personal. Like Paul said, “the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but they are mighty.”
Before you can get the church ready, you have to get ready. Your inner life will determine your ability to persevere through the difficulty of helping a church in transition.
The gospel is full of stories about Jesus taking time alone to pray. Your preparation has three parts: your inner work, what you do to prepare spiritually; your outer work, what you do to prepare relationally; and your personal work, getting ready physically, emotionally, and intellectually for the challenges that lie ahead.
Now from the outset it seems like this isn’t really what you signed on for. It seems like this is just busy work and you want to skip ahead and get to the action steps for your congregation. You want the five easy steps to helping your congregation become a mega-church. All transformation begins with personal transformation. It all begins with baby steps. Most of all, positive, sustainable change is 95% preparation and 10% execution. So, its time to get prepared.
The first step to helping your struggling church is your inner work. Your personal spiritual development must become a priority in your schedule. Your inner work is often the easiest to forget in attempting to assist a struggling church.
Setting aside time daily for your personal spiritual development time is essential. Some people prefer morning to focus their day, others seize mid-day to center their spiritual life, and still others prefer it to be the capstone of a busy day and do it just before bed. Whatever you choose the key is to be:
- Consistent. Try to perform your spiritual focus disciplines the same time every day.
- Constant. Make the practice a habit; strive not to miss a day, but if you do, just get right back at it the next day.
- Creative. Find the practice that suits you best. Perhaps you keep a journal, use a breviary, or an online resource. Do whatever works for you.
If you need some suggestions for how to begin I might suggest using Richard Foster’s Celebrate Discipline as a great start. No matter what time or resource you chose, begin today. Put the time on your calendar as an appointment; don’t assume it will just happen. Block it out on your schedule, this is a divine appointment.
Gone are the days when you can put up a sign, build a building, open the doors and expect people to show up to your church. The health and vitality of the local church is grounded upon healthy relationships. Once you have developed the spiritual discipline of engaging the voice of God daily, you then must begin building relational bridges in your community. Listen to the stories about the community and your local church. Become a master of the local lore, learn the narratives and formative events in the community. We all know the old axiom, “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” In this day of instant communication but little real contact, taking the time to develop a real relationship is crucial, especially in the areas where many small churches are located. The key challenge to “outer work” is to challenge to spend as much time in the community as you do at the church. Get out there and discover what God is saying to you.
I hate personal work. I hate exercise and eating right, but I do it because I like the results. I like the extra energy it gives me, I like the improvement in my attitude it provides, but I still don’t like to do it. Personal work has some of those elements to it. Everyone knows they should do the personal work necessary but few people actually take on the challenge to execute. Spend some serious time in reflection about the areas that God is leading you to work on first.
Make a daily plan to do what’s important…
What is the most important result of your effort to bring about renewal in your struggling congregation? At the end of the day, week, month or year, if you have accomplished X then you will know that all of the time and effort has been worth the sacrifice. Is it a positive number at the bottom of your membership role? Is that the most important thing? Is it the lives that have been improved by your church or ministry? Is it the building of a building or the care of the poor? What is the most important result of your work?
You don’t know do you? Most of us don’t. We are seldom given clear direction and information about what we should consider vital and essential to our daily tasks. That is highly frustrating; especially for those of us Type A personalities that like clear objectives and goals. We spend nearly 2,000 hours a year (more for us work-a-holics) at our vocation without clear institutional priorities. Our supervisors and superintendents try to give us “pep talks” and motivate us but their objectives are ambiguous. Yes growth is important, but so is quality and service. Make disciples and balance the budget, yeah, that’s your objective. We have carefully crafted mission statements, purpose statements, and value statements. We then have statements about our statements. Definitions about the words in our statements, reformatted vision statements. Most of these statements in placed carefully on the cover of a three ring binder or hanging on the wall over the entrance or water fountain and promptly forgotten. Then we go back to work and try to please everyone never quite sure who is the most important master because it changes by the day.
Didn’t Jesus say something about not being able to serve two masters? Don’t I recall something about you will love the one and hate the other? He didn’t define which was the “right one” and which was the “wrong one,” just that one will resonate with your heart song and the other will annoy you and cause you heartburn.
So what is the answer? If we aren’t going to get a divine pronouncement from above about what is vital and essential, what do we do? There are a few things we can do to help us keep the main thing, the main thing.
- Focus on your passionate strengths: Marcus Buckingham does a great job teaching people to play to their strengths. He advises us that we should spend 50-80% of our day doing things that “strengthen us.” We should do things that we love, that resonate with our heart song, that are the reason you took the job in the first place. Now very few people can spend all of their time playing to their strengths, as he says, that’s why they call it work. But if we can spend some significant time each day doing things, activities, tasks and building relationships that we enjoy and are passionate about, it makes the other stuff bearable.
- Define what is important to you: This is key. If nothing you do during your daily existence really seems important and vital to you, then you either need to reformat your vocation or change it. You can starve your soul to death by simply doing things that drain it and empty it day after day. If it doesn’t matter then why is it being done? The days I feel best when I return home are the days when I feel like I have accomplished something important. It might just be one thing, one phone call, one contact, one task, but that one thing was important to me and it puts the rest of the day in perspective. On the contrary, on the days when I go home without feeling like anything I did mattered, like I just went through the motions and filled the seat behind my desk, then I feel worthless.
- Plan your day: You need to know your rhythms. Are you a morning person? Then do what you love at the time you are best, save the email and mundane tasks for your least productive time of the day. I am freshest and most productive in the morning. That is when I need to do things that require my utmost attention. I go into a slump around 2 pm. That is when I should answer mundane email, go through the mail and do things I dread. Why waste my optimal time doing the most dreaded tasks. But that is exactly what we do isn’t it? We go into work, if we are morning people, full of caffeine and energy for the day and then get bogged down with email and busy work, forgetting to utilize our best hours of our most enjoyed tasks. Master your day, make a plan.