Ed Stetzer on Reversing Our Decline: The Cure — Networking

downward_trend.jpgIn the latest issue of Outreach Magazine, Ed Stetzer makes a point that caught me a little off guard — but I think it’s exactly right: Networking will go a long way toward fixing our churches. It’s not the cure, but it’s surely a part of the cure.

Here’s his article —

Networking for Comeback Change

Turning around a declining church is not easy. Most won’t make the change. And, that should not surprise us. Sick people and sick institutions don’t naturally change by themselves.

In Fast Company Magazine, two studies were compared–one in which “90% of heart patients can’t change their lifestyles” and another in which 77% of patients did. The difference? The latter provided “support groups with other patients, as well as attention from dieticians, psychologists, nurses,” etc. In other words, left alone, most patients choose death over change. When in a setting with relational support, the numbers are almost reversed.

And in Comeback Churches, we saw the same pattern in churches–those who changed often did so with help from others.

The Potential of Learning Community

What if more churches and church leaders decided to get real with each other and challenge each other to make a kingdom difference? What if even 20-25% of the 80-85% of churches that are plateaued and declining in North America decided that they were willing to do whatever it takes to see God turn their church around? What if a group of pastors decided that business as usual wasn’t going to cut it–they were going to join together to impact the lostness in their communities?

For that to happen, pastors and churches are going to have to be willing to enlarge their thinking, network with other church leaders, and begin to establish some intentional learning relationships. Change is possible. Churches can make a comeback, but they are often going to have to look outside of their immediate church context for help. Left alone, we choose death over change, with others help we can make better choices.

Expanding Your Ministry Worldview

Often, one of the reasons that churches get caught in the trap of plateau and decline is that we are only looking at things in their own little fish bowl. We become comfortable in our own little environment, watching each other swim around in circles. As far as activity goes, things look OK. But, no new fish are entering the bowl.

To see a better future, we often need to “jump out of our fish bowl.” If things are stuck or stagnant in your ministry, start looking around at what God is doing in some other churches and ministries in your community that are growing through conversion growth. They don’t have to be churches from your denomination or group (really, you will survive if you build a few friendships with some other gospel-centered, like-minded churches). It would be good to look for some churches that fit fairly close to your theological beliefs and philosophy of ministry. And learn from them.

Create Leading Relationship with Other Pastors/Ministries

Then, here comes the tough part. Admit you need a little help and ask for it. In the book that I co-authored with Mike Dodson called Comeback Churches, we talk about the need for intentional, strategic leadership as a vital key for making a comeback. So, find some other pastors that are demonstrating that kind of leadership in other churches and ask them to give you some pointers.

Maybe part of the problem is that you are not a great leader, BUT that does not mean that you can’t become a better one with some good coaching from a strong leader, or even some peer coaching from others on the same journey. Every pastor can improve leadership behavior and skills and we often do that by observing others farther along than we. I am not a natural born leader, but I am a better leader because I have let others speak into my life.

If you don’t make the effort to step out of your fish bowl, it is not likely that anything will ever change. There is no shame in being plateaued or in decline. The shame would be in knowing that is where you are and doing nothing about it.

Build Accountability Into Your Relationships

No one really likes to hear this verse, but it’s true–“No discipline seems pleasant at the time but painful, later on however, it produces a harvest of peace and righteousness for those who are trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11). If you can, build an intentional, accountable network of pastors who would like to see some things change in their lives and ministries. The only way that will happen is through being more disciplined.

One key to having a group like that make a difference is to have at least one pastor involved who has displayed strong, intentional, strategic leadership. Ask that pastor to guide the process by suggesting what issues to address and what books to read. Get real with these pastors and pray hard for each other. Maybe you need to start encouraging each other and holding each other accountable to be witnesses and share the gospel.

Where from Here?

Doing some of these things probably won’t be easy or pleasant if you choose to do them . . . at first. But, what’s the alternative? Swimming around and around and around in a little fish bowl? Here’s the point–If you are stuck, find someone else who can help you get unstuck. Remember, your best thinking got you where you are.

So, if change is going to happen, it will probably not come from you, or at least you alone. It will come more readily when you and your church learn from others and thrive on the counsel of others. “Plans fail when there is no counsel, but with many advisers they succeed” (Proverbs 15:22, HCSB).

Let’s try this in Church of Christ terms. First, let’s be honest: some of our smaller churches are run by the preacher, even when they have elders. And some of our largers churches are, too. But then, there are plenty of churches where the elders really do run the show. And there are others where the elders and minister work collaboratively.

Therefore, any networking has to include the preacher and the elders. There is no either-or. It has to be both. Even when the elders are clearly in charge, they’ll need the preacher to work with them to effect the plan. Networking has to be both.

Second, there’s no sense in networking with a church that has no interest in working as a peer with the other churches in the group. It just won’t work.

Third, I think churches — as a matter of principle — should network across denominational lines and should mainly network locally — unless there’s a particular church out of town they want to study and learn from.

Let’s consider how this might look in practice.

The elders and preacher from Downtown Church of Church meet with the elders and ministers of three other moderate and progressive Churches of Christ in town. The more conservative Churches were invited but they refuse to meet. There are about 25 men in the room, and elders from each of the churches take turns addressing the group, sharing their successes and frustrations from the last 12 months. They then take turns sharing their congregational visions and plans. They break up into groups of 4 to pray for the other men’s congregations.

Three months later they meet to update their reports and share answered prayers and prayer needs. They appoint committees to discuss cooperation in evangelistic outreach, teen programs, campus ministries, singles ministries, and benevolence. They soon realize that they are wasting vast resources in competition and begin exploring ways to cooperate.

Three months later they meet to update the work from the previous meeting, celebrate victories, and brainstorm. Ideas fly around the room, resulting in a decision to merge two of the churches, they plan joint teen, campus, and singles activities, and they plan a joint communion service of all the churches.

At each meeting, committees are formed to coordinate particular activities and make plans. Sometimes deacons, age-group ministers, and ministry leaders from some of the churches are brought in, and much of the work is thereby delegated away from the elders once permission is given and the cooperative ministry is created. Over time, a number of Churches of Christ from nearby communities join the group.

Some doctrinal issues come up, but they are largely set aside as irrelevant to cooperation. The churches begin to share their support for missionaries and cooperate in several other ministries. The largest church offers to allow the teens from two small churches to participate in their activities — with a pledge not to steal the families. The two campus ministries unite for all work other than Sunday morning worship, with one minister focusing almost exclusively on outreach efforts while the other ministers mainly to the students.

As plans are made and goals set, the churches hold each other accountable for their promises and plans. Soon they are inviting experts in from other cities to speak to them about personal evangelism, inner city ministry, and missions oversight. The largest churches pay all the costs, because the smallest churches are struggling to make payroll.

One congregation shares that they plan to add an instrumental service, and they ask the other churches not to use the occasion to steal their discontented members. The leaders spend months in prayer and study together, and while many leaders continue to disagree with instrumental music, they decide that this will not be the occasion for a split. They have too much invested in cooperation and in friendship with each other to let a guitar tear them apart. When the newly instrumental church makes the announcement, the elders and preachers in the other churches quietly encourage their members to remain in full fellowship and cooperation. No split comes, and no ad is run in the local paper.

Some months later, the churches decide to plant a church and find the leadership and members needed to do this among their congregations. They send the planters out in a special joint worship service.

As the leaders labor and study together, they decide to invite the leadership of the independent Christian Churches into their group. And after a few years, they reach out to a couple of community churches in town, and then they reach out to the Baptist Churches. Each step requires careful planning and coordination as the dynamics of the group change, with a much larger size and very different church cultures. But they learn how to do it, learn from doing it, and the process continues.

The result of their hard work is to greatly increase baptisms and service to the needy and hurting in town. The newspaper and politicians begin to notice, because the churches are involved in the local network of social services organization, providing volunteers, meeting space, and donations. Once the group includes 12 or so congregations, most of the other churches in town ask to be involved in the joint work.

Soon, the founders of the effort are being asked to speak at seminars across the country about how it’s done.

Okay. I know it’s crazy. It would require us to change a lot. We’d have to cooperate and get over the idea that Baptists are icky and that the other Churches of Christ in town are the competition. In some towns, a Church of Christ starting the effort would get no help from the other Churches of Christ at all — and they may have to start with those congregations that are most similar to them — community churches and Baptist Churches, by and large.

That’s fine. The goal isn’t to fix the Restoration Movement. It’s to fix a lost, hurting, and needy world.

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4 Responses

  1. This makes way too much sense for anyone to actually do it.

    Too bad

  2. The first half of this post described the cofC in Flint, MI perfectly in the late seventies. I learned a lot as a college student. I was very impressed with the level of cooperation among the 10+ congregations in town. They had the routine meetings among preachers and elders as described above. There were usually one or more multi-congregational planned events to which I looked forward. They coordinated a city wide bus ministry with which I spent many hours. Later, it was cool to see one of the five year olds I picked up from the poorer section of town eventually marry another member and raise a Christian family. I truly learned much about being a working Christian.

    Unfortunately, the progressives moved in and now there is little trust among the congregations.

    I really don’t like sounding so negative, but I honestly believe the progressive attack killed the spirituality in that town. I moved back twenty years after college and seeing the mistrust was saddening. I had followed the changes while away.

  3. That is great story Jay. I wish it would come true in most our communitites. It is a hope and idea of what things could be like. Maybe in the next decade after enough decline and turmoil we will be able to swallow our pride and do such a thing.

  4. “Progressive attack”? Did the conservatives drive the progressives out of their fellowship or did the progressives drive the conservatives out? Around here, it’s the conservatives who refuse to associate with the progressives. In these parts, there are conservatives who teach that any form of cooperation with the progressives damns.

    Therefore, when we — a progressive church — invite a conservative preacher to speak to our members, our call isn’t even returned. When we had a young minister at a local conservative church speak to us, he was branded a heretic by the other conservative churches in town. So who killed the spirituality? I just don’t see that kind of behavior as remotely spiritual.

    And so I see the attitudes that come out when a church goes “progressive” as pre-existing, sinful attitudes that aren’t evident until a church refuses to toe the line of traditionalism. When a church breaks ranks, then the below-the-surface judgmentalism and divisiveness come to the front — while the conservatives blame the progressives for a division the conservatives are insisting on. But it’s not the progressives who draw narrow lines of division and who damn their brothers contrary to scripture.

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