Let’s Start a Campaign…

Whoa3

The first Sunday after Easter Sunday is often called “Low Sunday.”  It wasn’t meant to be a reference to attendance, but it might as well be.  Typically, half the people who were in church the week before come back the week after.

Sometimes it’s less than that.

So, let’s start a campaign, using all the social media at our disposal, to turn “Low Sunday” into “Go! Sunday.”  Let’s invite our Facebook friends to join us in church on April 27, let’s tweet on Saturday night, “Going to church tomorrow!” and then tweet again the next morning, “On my way!”  Let’s use Pinterest, and Tumblr, and blog posts, and cardboard signs stuck in the yard: “Go to church on Sunday, April 27!”

If everybody who came last week came back, we’d have overflow crowds this Sunday.  If half those people came back and brought a friend, we would also have overflow crowds.  Ask yourself, “Did Christ NOT rise from the dead?  Did he NOT conquer sin and death?  Should we NOT celebrate for a full fifty days?!”

Let’s do it.  And let’s tell our friends:

If Jesus Christ
Can rise from the dead,

Surely you
Can get out of bed…

and come to church on Sunday!

 

KOH2RVA: Day 267

PastorShaunKing-133It’s Monday morning, friends, and after a big, exciting, celebratory day in worship yesterday it’s time to get on with the joyful work of bringing heaven to earth, right?

Well, maybe not.

Steve Blanchard forwarded an article recently about a pastor who resigned from his mega-church in Atlanta two years ago because people loved the dynamic Sunday worship experience he had created but didn’t love “caring for people and meeting the needs of the city” on the other days of the week.  Let me warn you: this example is extreme, but I do think there are some lessons here that every church–and every pastor–could learn from.

Take a look at this post from John White’s “Stories of the Revolution” blog.

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Mega church pastor: “We are completely off base with what discipleship means”

Shaun King stepped down on September 1st [2011].

Shaun resigned from the church in Atlanta that he started three years ago. Called “Courageous Church”, it was, in Shaun’s words, a “super cool Sunday worship-service-centered church with 700 people”. A mixed race congregation, it was seen as one of the cutting edge churches in the city. Highly “successful”!

Leonard Sweet, scholar and author, called Shaun, “One of the most dynamic, entrepreneurial, creative and passionate leaders on the American scene today.” How could this guy possibly fail? What would cause him to throw up his hands and give up?

Shaun stepped down not because of any scandal but because he was disillusioned and burned out. He had followed the advice of church planting experts on how to develop an exciting, growing church by focusing on a dynamic Sunday morning “experience”. He writes, “I sold my soul for church attendance in our first week and I could never quite get it back.”

Over time Shaun came to understand that “the overwhelming percentage of our time, energy, skills, budget and creativity were spent preparing for Sunday morning services, getting people to our Sunday services and getting them to volunteer for our Sunday morning services.” Then, Shaun made a big “mistake”. He tried to change all of this. He tried to create a discipleship oriented church where the “time, energy, skills, budget and creativity” went primarily into caring for people and meeting needs in the city. And, since he was the senior leader, he could make this work. Right?

Shaun planned to move the whole congregation into small missional groups with one large meeting each month. He worked with his leaders to develop the new structure. He preached a whole sermon series on the new vision (Preaching changes people. Right?). He reports that, as long as he was preaching about it, the people loved it.

But, once the “shift” took place, in his words, “all hell broke loose”. Three months later, 85% of the congregation wanted to go back to the “super cool worship-service-centered church”. Four months later, Shaun stepped down as the lead pastor. Here’s his evaluation…

“What I am saying is that church attendance, Sunday morning services, sermon-listening (or even sermon preaching), song-singing, hand-clapping, amen-saying and all the other things that “Christ-ians” have lifted up so high look so little like Christ himself that I am utterly convinced that we are completely off base with what discipleship means. Considering all of this, I think I have given up on church as I knew it. Big buildings. Hugh crowds. Few disciples. I’m not with it. It’s inefficient and just doesn’t feel right with my soul. This is not a rejection of big buildings or huge crowds, but an indictment on how few disciples are being made in the process of it all. A better way has to exist.”

Well, Shaun, welcome to the growing number of traditional church leaders (perhaps 1500 a month by some estimates) who are coming to the same conclusion. That is, that the building-centered, Sunday big worship-service-centered “experience” (one mega church here in Denver calls this “the big magic”) is a great way to entertain people but an inefficient way to make disciples. Not only that, but it takes a terrible toll on the pastors and on their families. (In my next post, I’ll tell you what Shaun’s wife wrote about this whole experience. I’m telling you… this lady shoots straight!)

And, yes, Shaun a better way does exist.

–John White, September 19, 2011

 

KOH2RVA: Day 141

bus-off-cliff-259x300I’m back from Arizona, and a meeting with pastors of other large churches who were interested in this whole “bringing heaven to earth” thing. I got a chance to explain what we were up to in Richmond, and I saw some of them taking notes. But they did want to know a couple of things in particular:

1. Have you seen an increase in attendance?
2. Have you seen an increase in giving?

Because this is how we’ve learned to measure success.

Pastors of large churches are considered successful because their churches are large, and if they want to stay successful they have to think about how to keep them that way. I don’t blame them for asking if our year-long, every-member mission trip has stimulated growth and giving.

But the answer is no.

In the 141 days that we’ve been working to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, I’ve actually noticed a significant drop in attendance. And at the end of last year we were nearly $200,000 behind in our giving. If our KOH2RVA mission bus keeps heading in that direction someone may start screaming, “Abort! Abort! We’re headed over a cliff!”

But we’re only 141 days into this mission.  Anything could happen.  We could begin to see a huge surge in attendance and giving.  I wouldn’t be surprised if we do.  But just in case we don’t I’ve been searching the instruction manual for that place where Jesus says success is measured by how many people come to church on Sunday morning and how much money they give.

I can’t find it anywhere.

I’ll keep looking, but so far I’m finding things like loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength; things like loving our neighbors as ourselves; things like caring for “the least of these”—Jesus’ brothers and sisters. That’s how success is measured in the Kingdom, and it shouldn’t surprise us. Jesus told us a long time ago that in God’s Kingdom the yardstick is turned upside-down—the last are first and the least are great.

As that Kingdom comes closer and closer to Richmond, Virginia, we may have to start measuring success in a whole new way.

KOH2RVA: Day 71

There are so many things in this article that seem relevant to KOH2RVA–our year-long, every-member mission trip. The emphasis on relationships, the return to Jesus, the community focus, the conversational orientation, the rise of the laity…all of these could describe what happens when a church decides to get up off the pews and bring heaven to earth. Thanks to all of you who have joined us on this mission trip. May God’s kingdom come, and God’s will be done, in Richmond as it is in heaven!

Holy Soup

Is the American church fading away? Will the losses in membership and attendance lead to a marginalized church presence such as that in present-day Europe? What will the American church look like in ten years?

Church leaders, denominational executives, and religion researchers gathered in Colorado recently to examine the church’s health and prognosis. The Future of the Church Summit was sponsored by Group Publishing.

After evaluating current trends, Summit members predicted a number of likely scenarios for the American church in the next ten years:

  1. Emphasis on relationships. Whereas the church and congregational worship today are largely spectator-oriented, the new coming trend will prioritize spiritual growth through personal relationships.
  2. Return to Jesus. The current church is preoccupied with the “ABCs”—attendance, buildings and cash. A Summit pastor said, “We need to deal with the idols of the church.” The coming church will highly focus its mission, goals, measurements and message on…

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KOH2RVA: Day 61

Last night I was buying my meal ticket for our weekly Wednesday night supper at church when Mina Tatum asked me, “What was that you said in your sermon a few weeks ago? That only 17 percent of the American population is in church on any given Sunday?”  I nodded.  “And that means everybody?” she asked. “Not just Christians, but everybody?”  I nodded again.  She said, “I looked at the attendance figures on the back of the bulletin when you said that and calculated how many of our own members were in church the Sunday before. I came up with was 22 percent.”

And that’s rather shocking, isn’t it?

What Mina was saying is that out of all those people on our membership rolls—many of whom walked down the aisle of the church fighting back tears while the congregation sang “Just as I Am,” and who stood in the baptistry a few weeks later confessing, “Jesus is Lord!”—only about one in five actually came to church on the Sunday before.

Now, I know that some of our members would love to come but can’t: they are physically unable. And I’m sure that some of the people who are usually there couldn’t be there that particular Sunday. But that Sunday is more typical than I would like to admit and it makes me wonder:

Does the church have a future?

If we think of church as a place where people go to hear sermons, sing hymns, and enjoy Christian fellowship, then I’m not sure that it does. Churchgoing, as an activity, seems to be going the way of bowling. Look at this article I found online:

The invention of the automatic pinsetter led to a rapid growth in the number of bowling alleys and lanes in the later 1950s and early 1960s. The heyday of bowling was the mid-1960s, when there were approximately 12,000 bowling centers in the United States. Business predominately was driven by leagues where bowlers signed up to come once or more every week for at least 30 weeks and to participate in tournaments.

Bowling has undergone a major transition over the past several decades. Whereas league bowling used to generate about 70 percent of a bowling center’s business, due to societal and lifestyle changes, it now generates only about 40 percent of overall bowling business, and is continuing to decline.

During the 1997-98 year, the United States Bowling Congress reported 4.1 million members of the ABC, YABC and WIBC league bowling organizations. That membership declined by 36 percent to 2.6 million in the 2006-07 year.

There has been a steady reduction in the number of bowling centers since the 1970s, driven by both the decline of league bowling and the sale of many bowling centers so the land could be used for more profitable ventures. As of December 2007, there were only 5,498 certified 10-pin bowling centers with 113,897 lanes, and just 137 duckpin and candlepin centers with 2,560 lanes. That’s less than half the number certified in the mid-1960s.

The interesting thing about that story is that it parallels the heyday of churchgoing in America, which occurred around the same time.  I can imagine the owners of bowling alleys getting together and commiserating over coffee in the same way pastors do these days. I can almost hear them saying, “Does the bowling alley have a future?” in the same way my colleagues and I say, “Does the church have a future?”

If we think of church as a place, maybe not, but if we think of church as a people the picture changes. Think of those people who used to go bowling. Did they stop getting together with friends? Did they give up their need for recreation? No, they just began to do it in different ways, and maybe in better ways. These days a lot of people meet on the soccer field, where children race around kicking balls into goals while their parents sit on the sidelines and chat. That might be a more family-friendly form of recreation than leaving the kids with a babysitter while the grownups go to the bowling alley.

If church is not a place but a people, and if those people are committed to Christ and his mission, then church could take a hundred different forms. What if there’s a soccer mom living next door to you right now who has no interest in going to church, but if you asked her to come with you on a mission trip to help AIDS orphans in Africa she would start packing her bags? What if that guy hanging out in front of the 7-11 with all the tattoos and piercings wouldn’t come with you to Sunday school, but would come with you to tutor a third-grade boy at a local elementary school? What if the church of the future has less to do with sitting in pews and more to do with pounding the pavement? Would that be a bad thing? No. Not if it’s grounded in relationship to Christ and commitment to his mission. It could be a good thing. It could be a very good thing indeed.

Our year-long, every-member mission trip is giving us an opportunity to explore new ways of being the church, and not just going to church. Maybe we’ll get to that place where we stop counting how many people happen to be in church on any given Sunday, and instead start counting how many times church happens between one Sunday and the next.

“Do Something!”

I’ve been asked to speak at an event called “Prophetic Preaching for Anxious People” in Tampa, Florida, next week.  I’m not sure how I got the job; I don’t know that much about prophetic preaching.  On the other hand, I do know some anxious people.   

I talked with one a few months ago.

It was shortly after our big vote on membership, when we decided that committed Christians from other denominations could join our church without having to be re-baptized.  Although the motion passed decisively it didn’t pass unanimously, and for several weeks afterward there was tension in the air.  The big, happy family at First Baptist had been shaken.  It affected our giving and our attendance. 

On one of those Sundays a member of the church knocked on the door of my study, holding a worship bulletin in his hand.  He showed me the attendance figures from the week before—a number so low I was sure there had been a mistake. 

“Look at this!” he said, waving the bulletin in front of me.  “What are you going to do about this?”  He wasn’t angry; he was anxious.  He loved his church and didn’t want to see it go into decline.  “What am I going to do?” I asked, smiling.  “I’m going to get a recount!”  He didn’t know what to say to that.  He stood there for a minute in silence, fumbling with the bulletin, and then he looked up at me with pleading eyes and said, “Do something!”

Do something.

As in, “Do something about attendance.  Do something to get our numbers up.  Do something that will get people to come to church.”

I think that’s the anxiety a lot of churches have been feeling in the last few decades.  The churchgoing boom of the fifties and early sixties was followed by a mass exodus in the late sixties and seventies.  The church’s response was to panic, and to do anything it could to get people back into the pews.  One of the strategies was to turn Sunday morning worship into a kind of youth rally in an attempt to win back those Baby Boomers who had been active in church youth groups, but dropped out of church when they went off to college. Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago practically invented something called “Contemporary Worship,” where you didn’t have to dress up, the preaching was relevant and edgy, and the music was more like what you listened to in your car.  And Willow Creek was successful.  Soon more than 15,000 people per weekend were coming to that church and soon after that almost every church in America wanted to be like Willow Creek.  

But I can still remember the day I went to a meeting in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and one of my colleagues—the successful pastor of a large Baptist church—came into the room complaining that he had spent three years trying to develop a contemporary worship service and he’d just heard on the radio that what people wanted these days was “liturgical worship.”   In that moment I thought, “Yes, and that’s how it will always be if you try to chase the latest fad.”

If we ask, “What do people want?” then we begin to design our programs and worship services around that, and we measure our success by how many people come and how much they give.  But if we ask (and keep on asking), “What does God want?” then we begin to structure everything around that, and measure our success in a different way.

People are fickle.  What they wanted last year is not what they wanted this year.  But here’s the good news: God is not fickle.  God wants what he has always wanted.  He wants us to make disciples of every nation.  He wants us to love him and love our neighbors.  In short, God wants the world he made to know him and love him, to do his will and love one another. 

He wants heaven on earth.

So, maybe what we need to ask is not, “How do we increase church attendance,” but “How do we bring heaven to earth?”  Regardless of what it does to our numbers—whether they go up or down—I think the church of Jesus Christ was called into existence precisely to answer that question.

What do you think?

Why Not Here?

For the past few weeks I’ve been telling the congregation that the church in America is in trouble.  It is.  Church attendance in America has been on the decline for decades, and if things keep going the way they are a time will come when nobody goes to church. 

But I’m not worried. 

I’m not worried about the church of Jesus Christ in the world, that is.  This mission is too important to him, and he will not let it fail.  If it dies out in one place it will surely spring up in another.  If it falters in this country it will flourish in Asia, or Africa, or Latin America.  In fact, it is.  28,000 people a day are coming to Christ in China.  A dozen new churches are started each week in Cuba.  In some parts of India the church is growing at an almost unbelievable rate. 

So, the question I’ve been asking the congregation for the past few weeks is this: if the church is going to thrive somewhere, why not here?  I’ve been talking about the things those thriving churches have in common, how people come, and give, and pray, and serve, and telling them that while only the Holy Spirit can bring about genuine revival, all of these are things we can do to help. 

But on Sunday, after the early service, I saw Maron El-Khouri, who told me how his daughter Emma respoded.  Emma is four years old, and after three weeks of hearing this same pitch she asked her dad, “Why does Pastor Jim keep saying the church in America is in trouble?”  “Because people in America aren’t coming to church like they once did,” he said.  To which she replied, “I’ll come!  I’ll come every Sunday!”

Now…that’s the spirit.  I’ll bet she would give, and pray, and serve as well.  And if we can raise up a whole generation of Emmas, I think the church in America will be just fine.