What Question are you Trying to Answer?
What are the questions that your church is seeking to answer? For several congregations, this might sound like an odd thing to ponder. For others, this question can feel a bit off-putting since “everyone knows that our churches are friendly and welcoming.”
If you haven't considered the question, I don’t think that you’re alone. I wonder if most churches stop long enough to ask this or any other type of inquiring question that doesn’t require a yes or no response.
All of this is for a good reason, or at least it feels that way to most congregations. Many congregations are so busy moving on to the next program/event that's on the calendar. But what about churches who don’t operate at 80 miles per hour with a flurry of activities who struggle to keep their shrinking number of volunteers from burning out?
Answering the above question is a bit more involved. For these congregations, an honest assessment about its insider-focused events versus outsider- focused ones must be examined. Is there a balance between insider and outsider focus, or does one category lead the other? If so, why is the case and what is the congregation willing to shift to more of a balance? Without an assessment, the programming calendar will continue to be full of things that they are always doing.
So what are the questions that people outside the church asking? To answer this question, congregations will have to get outside themselves and into the community to determine. While it's clear that a congregation will not know what's being asked without engagement, one thing is certain: They’re not asking about how to be justified or to have their sins forgiven.
The good news is that people outside the church are asking about life. What it is and how it can be found. We have answers to guide people on this quest! It isn’t that justification and forgiveness of sins aren’t important, but rather its that people are not versed in these issues and are not interested. People outside the church (and yes, quite a few insiders too), feel confused and overwhelmed in a consumer world that’s increasingly noisy, busy, and constantly changing. Yet they long for a story that helps them to feel at home in a world awash in chaos.
Most churches that I’ve worked with questions go something like this:
- How do we get new people in the church (who will honor our traditions)?
- How do we address our shirking congregation that has either plateaued or in decline?
- How will we survive if we don't have the annual fundraiser?
Since these are the real questions people are asking, all of the group’s energy focuses on finding immediate answers. Often, these answers need to be quick so that the congregation can turn itself around and continue to do the things that it has always done.
But what if the exercise of seeking answers to stop the decline and plateauing is misguided? What if decline and stagnation is a symptom and not the problem? What is needed is a story shift that moves from saving the congregation and its traditions towards a refocus on the church’s mission and aligning everything to it.
The church's mission is to make disciples and teach them to obey everything Jesus taught. For most churches, however, the struggle isn't the definition of a disciple. Instead, the challenge is how the church structures itself to help people embody the promise of life change for community impact that transforms the world. To put it another way, the Bible commands us to make disciples but does not give us a "cookie-cutter" approach on how to do it.
To make a disciple, churches must have clarity about the marks or actions of discipleship. For example, a church may determine that a disciple is someone who gives her attention to God's presence. This church needs a process to help people participate in corporate worship and serves inside and outside the church walls. The church also needs to determine how people will grow. Whether through prayer or by investing time, talents, and financial gifts, the church has to determine how it will demonstrate faithful witness to others of what it means to follow Jesus.
As a District Superintendent, I've worked with several churches to help them address the challenges of discipleship as a remedy for church decline and attendance plateau.
Various factors contribute to declining. These factors include the church's life cycle, the economics and demographic shifts of the community, and loss of members due to death and moving. But the most significant one is the lack of a discipleship process. After encouraging several churches to consider a discipleship process, I've noticed that there are five common questions that churches have asked me:
- Isn’t discipleship and membership the same thing?
- What is a disciple culture, and how do we create one?
- Are there classes involved, and how long does it take?
- What do we have to change?
- Will the process fit our church’s context and culture?
For a congregation to change its trajectory from plateauing and declining, it must have a discipleship strategy that moves away from multiple programs to a pathway of next steps for people to become disciples.
The first-century Jewish world of Jesus influences this shift of emphasis from programs to a path. During that time, a disciple followed a rabbi to master the rabbi's teachings and to imitate or practice the way the rabbi lived, prayed, studied, taught, served, gave, and bore witness to an intimate relationship with God. To be a disciple of a rabbi meant to become like the rabbi and follow his steps.
Over the last several months, I’ve engaged with several congregations to help them shift their stories about discipleship. On September 28 at Columbia Drive, I will be leading all-day training on discipleship, and I would love to have you attend. What questions are you seeking to answer? If your congregation is answering the questions that people outside the walls of your church are asking, then you can have an impact in their lives.
If your church is stuck asking questions about declining or plateauing, please contact me. I would love to walk alongside your congregation in the process of asking inquiring questions for revitalization.
On the Journey,