Turnaround Churches Revisited

Regular posting will return tomorrow, as I'm participating in the NVC staff retreat. So today, I have reposted an oldie on diagnosis and humility from the Turnaround Churches series:

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Step one to a turnaround is to acknowledge there’s a problem…and diagnose it accurately. At one level, all churches have problems. At another, some have more acute problems than others which lead to big-time trouble over time if the issues aren’t addressed…accurately.

Some time ago I was at a gathering of ministers. Many of us were in churches that were in decline—some that had been so for some time. Others of us were in more stable or growing congregations. We were discussing the difficulty churches were having reaching younger people. The problems (abridged for brevity’s sake), ranked in order of agreement, were put forth as following:

  • Culture has changed, and today, people are less willing to listen to the truth.
  • Young people just want to be entertained and are not interested in substance.
  •   Young people aren’t parented as well as they used to be. So, they just aren’t interested in spiritual things.

True, culture has changed. Some (but not all) young people are more concerned with entertainment than substance (the same could be said of adults). One could certainly argue that parenting ain’t what it used to be. Also, to be fair, there was a bit of locker-room camaraderie among preachers that may facilitated the discussion heading the way it did. However, as I listened, I thought two things,

1)    “No one here seems to like the community very much…or think very highly of them.” This, it seemed to me, was part of the problem. It’s difficult to do what it necessary and healthy to reach people when you think they are the problem. If a church can’t understand that at least some of the problem lies with them, turnaround is nearly impossible—because the church will lack both the humility and pain threshold necessary to change.

2)    No one thought the church needed to change in any way. It was all someone else’s fault. Thus, they weren’t open to altering course…in their eyes, nothing needed altering.

The beginning of turning around is acknowledging that everything isn’t going the way the Lord might want it to, and understanding why it’s so–accurately. Some churches are being held back by ungodly attitudes—but they think it’s the facility. For others, it’s division—they think it’s location. For others, it’s pride. For others, it’s the inability to deal with viral people within the Body—but they think they are in decline because they don’t use instruments. It may be that many of the church’s ministries indeed need a freshening up—but they see the “liberalism” of the small changes they’ve already made as the problem.

Whatever it is, turnaround churches look themselves in the mirror and acknowledge that, indeed, figuratively speaking, they have added a second chin since they last noticed…and they then determine to do something about it. Missing the extra chin and thinking it’s the clothes you’re wearing will keep a church chasing its tail for years.

Turnarounds begin with the Spirit-induced recognition that you are in fact going in the wrong direction. From there, it’s a matter of figuring out where you got off-course, and which direction you need to go. If you are a minister interviewing for a position at a church that’s in troubled waters, look for humility. Look for some recognition that everything isn’t perfect. People often think that humility and decline go together. That is often not the case at all. Some of the most humble churches and humble leaders I know are wildly “successful.” And, some of the most arrogant churches and leaders around have no earthly reason to be so. Until the congregation is willing to humble themselves before the Lord, turnaround will be long in coming—if coming at all. Why? First, because God won’t bless it. Second, what’s to change when you already think everything’s fantastic or completely not your fault?

Through prayer, spiritual discernment, searching the Scriptures, learning opportunities, congregational input and the counsel of others, diagnosis is possible and desirable. Sometimes fresh eyes are needed to diagnose the problem. Do not fear outside help. Embrace it as a possible source of insight. If you need to, get a second opinion. But, get the problem diagnosed correctly. Then, we must humble ourselves by admitting the problem(s) exist—and admitting that we have been a part of the problem. When His people are humble before Him, God’s ready to heal. God has a incurable bias toward growing the Church to be vibrant, healthy, and a force against which the gates of hell cannot prevail. This is good news for those of us in what feels like ministerial quicksand. Fear not, the Lord is with you.

A more upbeat post is coming in the next installment, I promise 🙂

Dr. Tim Spivey is Lead Planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, California. He is the author of numerous articles and one book, "Jesus: The Powerful Servant." A sought after speaker for events, Tim also serves as Adjunct Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. Tim serves as a church consultant, and his writings are featured on ChurchLeaders.com, Church Executive magazine, Faith Village, Sermon Central, and Giving Rocket.

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