My home church in Columbus, Ohio, is now closed. Just 30 years ago, that church thrived as one of the largest in the city. Their mistake? Believing the theory, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” With community changes all around them, they didn’t change.
I visited the church nine months before it closed the doors on December 14,1997. (My parents stayed with the church until its final service.) While there, I made several observations. For example:
They continued in the same nonessential traditions without giving thought to what the rest of the world was doing. They opened Sunday School as they did in the ’60s— singing the same birthday song, handing out the same pencils for birthdays, and allowing pencil recipients to put pennies for missions in the same plastic birthday cake they used when I was a teen.
Nothing was innately wrong with any of their dated traditions—except they were competing with the “church down the street” that had fine-tuned its outreach to specifically target contemporary needs.
It is important to note that my home church never changed its belief in the Word of God, the ordinances of the church, or the essentials of the faith, and they should not have! We must have an anchor in time of change. But neither did that church change its presentation of that “anchor.” Staying the same became their downfall.
Robert Kreigel wrote a book in 1992 titled, If It Ain’t Broke, Break It! The target audience was corporate America. The book explored the concept of working smarter and the idea of unleashing creative thought in the workforce. Certainly, the church can learn from the marketplace about cultural relevance. There are times when we need to break our nonessential traditions.
When I was trained to witness, we were told to confront the culture. Confrontational evangelism was the norm! Today, most people do not respond to that style as readily as they do to relational evangelism. As we face the 21st century, we must build a relationship bridge if our churches are going to survive. It is our job as church leaders to keep up with what works now. Methods change, but the message never changes.
When some things need “breaking”. Five specific characteristics denote whether some things need breaking in a church. First, the church is focused on itself, rather than the needs of the world around it. Sadly, in many churches, “meism” can surface in the form of church members complaining about the mud the unruly neighborhood children tracked in during Sunday School. Instead of praising God for all those muddy little feet, the meism crowd might gripe about having to pay the custodian overtime to clean the new carpet.
A second sign that some things need breaking comes in the form of perpetual conflict with church members standing opposite of one another. When the pastor has to suspend his service to God in order to play referee between church factions, the congregation will not win souls.
The third sign that some things need breaking surfaces when the church has no vision for the future. This lack of vision can be translated in two ways: no vision for the future of the church, and no spiritual vision, also known as spiritual blindness. Focusing on self and perpetual conflict are definite signs that there is a lack of spiritual vision.
Further, a lack of vision leads to the fourth sign that change must occur: membership has reached a plateau or declined. In other words, there is a downward spiral both in numbers and in spiritual growth.
The fifth “something needs breaking” warning signal—unkempt facilities—is actually easy to remedy. Regardless of the church’s age, a fresh coat of paint, updated color schemes, and flowers on the church property denote life to visitors and increase the enthusiasm level of members.
When I accepted the pastorate of Trinity Church in Oklahoma City, I inherited a church with an excellent 63-year history, good pastors, and a track record of ministry success in the community. At the same time, the church had remained almost the same in attendance for the last 25 years.
During the past year, I have led the congregation in some definite steps toward establishing a new vision plan. As a result, God has blessed us greatly with an 18 percent increase in worship attendance, 13 percent gain in Sunday School, and 12 percent growth in finances.
Steps toward “breaking” and “fixing”. The following steps detail what our Ministry Vision Team did to respond to the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” crowd:
1. Every Sunday evening for four weeks, we conducted “church town meetings” in lieu of the Sunday evening service. Eleven team leaders were trained in small group assessment and evaluation methods, asked to read Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Church, and given specific discussion quotas for each meeting. Surprisingly, evening attendance shot up instead of down as was predicted by some of the “don’t fix it” crowd.
Additionally, the team leaders met each Wednesday evening and discussed what went on in their small group meetings. Based on congregational feedback, we were prepared to move forward in ministry for the 21st century.
2. The Ministry Vision Team refined the mission statement of the church. Concern was given to the inclusion of wording that reflected the Great Commission and the Great Commandment. Here is what we came up with:
3. A vision plan was written to reflect our plans to reach out through “Building on Relationships.”
Focus on relationships: church, neighborhood, community, school, business, clubs.
Renew our commitment: to prayer, to encouragement, to soul-winning, to discipleship, to ministry.
Invite to participate: worship, special events, small groups, pastor’s brunch, baptism/communion, membership, baby dedication, salvation.
Equip to minister: prayer training, encouragement/care training, evangelism training, discipleship training, Lay Institute To Equip (L.I.T.E.), Strategic Advanced Leadership Training (S.A.L.T.).
Network the body: Sunday School, music/drama, children/youth, care circles, women’s ministry, men’s ministry, senior adult ministry.
Demonstrate God’s love: hospitals, shutins, widowed/bereaved, Angel Tree ministry, First Fruits ministry.
Serve with gladness: Lay Ministry Partnership, prisons, mobile meals, Love Link ministry, service projects.
4. We designed a values statement to hold us steady in a time of change. We included seven core values:
• We value the souls of the lost (Luke 19:10).
• We value personal integrity (Prov. 10:9).
• We value corporate worship (Heb. 10:25).
• We value the Word of God (Deut. 6:6-9).
• We value the gifts of God’s people (Eph. 4:11-13).
• We value wholesome fellowship (1 John 1:7).
• We value God’s family (Ps. 133:1).
5. The committee system was changed to ministry action teams. The newly organized teams were empowered to act and to spend funds according to a preset budget. They were released to do ministry based on our new vision plan.
6. A welcome center was designed and built to meet the needs of our guests. Information packets were designed to share with our special visitors each Sunday.
7. A pastor’s welcome class was started for the purpose of sharing our vision for reaching our community for Christ.
8. Our friendship ministry team began a pastor’s brunch that follows the Sunday worship service every 60 days. All guests who attended during the previous two months are invited to have lunch with the pastoral staff and key lay leaders.
9. The Sunday School underwent some innovative changes. A “Generation Xcellence Class” was added and special electives were offered.
10. Cultural and leadership training opportunities were offered in the form of Lay Institute To Equip (L.I.T.E.) and Strategic Advanced Leadership Training (S.A.L.T.). These opportunities began to move us toward becoming a learning organization.
11. The traditional worship service received a “facelift” and became a blended service, incorporating hymns and praise choruses into our worship. Future plans include another worship service with the GenX crowd as our target audience.
Key questions. During these important steps, I kept four key questions before the leaders of the ministry teams:
• Who are we and what do we value?
• What are our demographic possibilities for outreach?
• Does our church belong to God or to an internal controlling faction?
• If we believe we are living in the end times, are we willing to work like it?
With the winds of change, there will always be those who resist every forward step, even a history-altering program like
Sunday School. Sometimes the members who resist the most in the beginning will surprise everyone and later be the greatest proponents of change. But there will always be those who dig in their heels and refuse to cast aside their wellworn methods. These folk must be handled with care. They are valuable, too! Sometimes, all they need is to feel that they are a part of what is going on. Include them and love them through the process! Often God will work miracles in the attitudes of the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” crowd.
Frequently, in my work with John C. Maxwell and the INJOY Model Church Seminars, I remind pastors and church leaders about the importance of focusing on the positive aspect of unity with those who resist change. Really, sometimes all these dear old saints need is to experience some of God’s pure joy through their pastor’s love and appreciation, and they will make the change!
In short, methods change from one generation to the next, and the church must adjust in order to reach out and grow. More of the same does not bring growth, as attested to by the many churches that have relocated only to maintain a more fashionable status quo.
When I was a child, the flannel graph was a popular way to teach children. In fact, my mother would reward me with a cookie and a pat on the head if my Sunday School teacher selected me to place the little figure of Joseph on the felt board.
Today, in the midst of computers, technology, television, and Veggie Tales videos, flannel graph holds less appeal for children. (Me, too, for that matter!) We must seek new methods for next-century ministry and, at the same time, anchor to the Word of God and what we value more than ever!
Share the eleven steps that we took at Trinity Church with your key leaders. Discuss them thoroughly and then see if God is leading you to do new and innovative ministry in the days ahead.