Yesterday, we began looking at the seeds of decline in churches sown over the last thirty years. Not all churches, mind you. Many have bucked the trends around them to maintain cultural relevance without cultural accommodation. I would suggested that there are five important keys that naturally assume prayerfulness, biblical foundations, and faithful commitment to a church family, but they are perhaps the intangible essentials that will future-proof any ‘centred’ church that is seeking to maintain or reclaim its edge.
1. A Priority on Tailored Discipleship
Many churches are quite reasonably maintaining an online presence in this year of reopening. While the ideal is perhaps a made-for-the-internet version, rather than a webcast of the live service, the latter is often necessary due to a lack of available personnel. A service host can still engage and, even better, will follow viewers up personally. People need individual attention if they are to grow spiritually.
Whether online or live participants, whether minimal or regular attendees, the weekly church service offers an important context for the church but is not to be the sole expression its life. Being the church, rather than just attending church, needs a personal following of Christ, responsive obedience to his guidance, and engagement in a unique contribution to mission.
What is more, this is suggestive of fruitfulness. Faithfulness is commendable but insufficient. Many sincere Christians committed to their churches demonstrate little real growth, perhaps as experienced Christians rather than mature ones.
The need for proactivity in discipleship that is targeted is not new, but it often wasn’t working pre-COVID. We often unwittingly prided ourselves on evaluating sermons as if they were more effective discipleship tools than they really were. We often celebrated metrics attached to Sundays and then assessed wellbeing, commitments and involvements in light of the big weekly event. As important as this all was (and still is), it has told us only of a small part of our story.
For those churches in perpetual decline, the weekend service has become the epitome of local church life, but without touching the lives of others. If the local churched ceased to exist and would be missed by few outside the front doors, then it’s time to consider the implications of failing to honour the Great Commission and choose to deploy its human and other resources elsewhere.
How do you engage in a discipleship priority that invests in the development of others beyond weekends, one that also maintains accountability for your own obedience to Christ and your own missional effectiveness? Consider the personal touch needed and just who it is that will provide it if you don’t.
2. A Commitment to Systems Thinking
Systematising the connection of passionate Christians with people who can be influenced to follow Christ both relationally and missionally surely offers the accountability, prayerfulness and sustainability in churches that continue to transform lives, whatever the model or size.
Most people’s growth is not self-sustaining, so what does this need require of you?
Unless someone can intentionally drill down into the one-on-one connection of a person’s world, their hang-ups, their opportunities, their successes, and their failures, it is hard to fathom how genuinely optimal followership of Christ could really occur. People seldom grown in isolation and need safe and trusting relationships for healthy progress.
Disorganised or reactive pastoral care in churches is not ‘organic’ as much as it is a planned discipleship failure. This is especially true when pastoral care becomes the main game! Harsh? Care of people is important, but it is only one component of discipleship. It has rightly been said that armies have hospitals, but hospitals don’t have armies. An army motivated by love for others still needs to function systematically and with focus.
Consider, too, that growth is always incremental and stepwise and non-growth is not an option. The original word for ‘disciple’ is the root of the word ‘mathematics,’ a discipline mastered in bite-sized, achievable, and ‘taught’ steps. Followership needs discipleship and there is no ‘plan B’ faith.
People don’t go from A to Z, either, until they are first shown how to get from A to B. This needs individual attention and therefore a plan to achieve the sort of progress that is unique to the individual. What are the next steps needed by the people in your world and how will you motivate them to get there?
Systems don’t always seem like ‘fun’ so leaders shift the goalposts and redefine success. I’ve found, though, that people always look back in appreciation of the times when leaders pushed them to be better, not when they backed off.
Let’s define success according to what matters most in this short life. Let’s get serious about getting there and let’s stop relegating that plan to the level of optional extra business when it ought to be core to all that passionate followers of Jesus do.
Growth engines such as small group systems actually drive discipleship effectiveness. Defining markers of that growth and how it is that people will move forward needs our intentionality and hard work. People matter and without such systems, it’s hard to justify the claim that pastoral care truly does care for what people do with, or make of, their lives.
Define what is important at every level and develop sustainable practices that use your best energy to get your best results.
What do you need to stop doing in your typical week to make this work?
3. An Urgency around the Development of Leaders
This crucial ingredient to success is a natural extension of discipleship growth. Disciples make disciples, and they are therefore leaders whether they like it or not. And for those ambivalent about growth, discipleship influence adds new people and doesn’t substitute them!
Any disobedience to Christ’s command to make disciples, or any difficulty in successfully inspiring people in this regard, will result in a shortage of the leaders a church needs, anyway!
Much has been made of new models for operating churches. Greater post-COVID effectiveness is supposedly about doing church differently. This possibility sometimes misses the vital fact that a church’s effectiveness at any size is crucially dependent upon its leadership.
Good leaders have the right conversations. Good leaders make the right things happen. Good leaders mobilise people. Good leaders activate the call with personalised intent.
Does that describe you, given that every Christian needs to lead someone somewhere in their life?
Any small groups of people will need these good leaders, whether these groups are found in small or large churches. If good leaders are not leading small groups, why on earth would a church presume to be optimally successful as a small group-styled church?
Small churches are therefore not a problem, though perhaps small-minded ones are! If an emotive defence of small churches becomes a cover for a lack of leadership drive, the good news is that leadership skill can be learned.
The need for good leadership is not a new one, but leaders are needed in an age of greater detachment than ever before. Of course, the ideal of ‘good governance’ will protect and steer a church to healthy growth with much-needed administrative and compliance support, but only if it also facilitates good leadership. Leadership is perhaps a more important priority than governance or management because it drives mission!
Churches need leaders to develop leaders. It is the urgent need of the hour and growth is too often stifled by churches who reach their leadership saturation point.