Reverse the Decline of the Local Church

by Matthew Raley As we've seen over several weeks (starting here), three trends contribute to churches' loss of mission:

1. Politicization: the alliance between evangelicals and the religious right has confused the purpose of church life. Many now view churches as centers of political activism to "redeem the culture."

2. Media dependence: Many churches are vendors for conferences, videos, and books from parachurch organizations. Such churches do not have a mission developed locally, but purchase a mission from Focus on the Family or Rick Warren. This trend has degraded relationships, as media-focused living always does.

3. Weakened gospel: Many evangelicals are hocking the messages of political change and personal fulfillment, which, while salable, are not the message of the New Testament. The Gospel of the apostles is about the resurrection of human beings from the dead in the righteousness of Jesus Christ. This message can only be communicated effectively by a church with profound and stubborn focus. No focus, no Gospel.

A business plan for local churches has emerged from these trends. Attract a lot of new people. Give them activities that are fun and broadly Christian. Try to motivate them toward believing in Jesus.

Like any business plan, this one says that investment will yield a return. The investments required for attracting masses of people -- in snap-crackle-and-pop media, high-energy staff, well-designed activities that people want to join -- will yield maturity in Christ over time. That return on investment will then power the church into more growth.

Three problems.

This business plan is expensive in both time and money. Furthermore, this expensive plan has been designed to serve a confused mission. Finally, it does not deliver the promised Christian maturity. The failure to deliver a return is now a documented fact, published by, among other sources, the eminence grise of church growth, Willow Creek.

In business terms, investment plus unprofitability equals closure. Churches are closing because they operate on poor business plans designed to support a confused mission.

The issues are both spiritual and practical. The goal of the New Testament has to be restored in its brilliant clarity: move people toward completeness in Christ (e.g. Colossians 1.24-29). The spiritual requirement for this restoration is depth of experience in relationship with Jesus Christ and his teaching. Leaders must have this depth, and they must bring congregations along.

But the practical requirement is just as important. If there is no business plan to advance the New Testament mandate, then church life deteriorates to mere words. How is your church going to move people toward completeness in Christ? What resources of money, personnel, and time are you going to devote to the task corporately? And how are you going to measure the return on that investment?

I believe that no business plan to direct the investment of church resources will yield a return today unless it produces the following outcomes:

1. Submission of heart-and-mind to the Bible.

Churches need to devote money and time to the exposition of Scripture from original languages at weekly worship. This teaching must be effective enough to spur one-on-one discussion of the Scriptures among the congregation. The scholarship must be fresh, the applications specific, and the presentation excellent. The financial cost is the salary of a preaching pastor. The time involved is also costly: few educators have to produce brand-new material every single week.

Return on investment: the deepening and stimulation of the congregation's intellectual and spiritual life. (Don't underestimate how important this is: a community needs a clear agenda.)

2. An individual, daily practice of worship.

Individuals need to be apprenticed in the spiritual disciplines. This requires a financial investment in staff and in lay leadership training so that the intensive mentoring is being done by lots of people. Here, too, the time invested is costly: apprenticeship is about face-time with individuals and small groups.

Return on investment: intensifying the vitality of people's relationship with God and experience of the Gospel. This refreshes a person's motivation to serve God, which in church life is the first thing to dry up.

3. Obedience to the fifth commandment.

This requires the programmatic decision to mix generations intentionally rather than segregate them. If there is no reverence cultivated in younger people for elders, church life is mere words. This should not cost a lot of money that a church wouldn't otherwise spend. It need not cost any. But it does cost time in focused planning.

Return on investment: Reverence for your elders refreshes motivations again with love and regard for prized relationships, and it establishes a natural form of ethical accountability.

There are several more crucial outcomes I'll outline next week, along with specific methods we have found useful in Orland toward these ends.

But I'll sign off with this: criticizing the religious right, media-driven culture, or the church growth movement is not enough to reverse the local church's decline. Dippy stewardship is not overcome by preaching or prayer alone, but by stark realism. And that means taking a hard look at business plans.


by Matthew Raley A church is not a business. A church is a town.

Many kinds of people live in a town, and they stay because, in their diverse ways, they are connected to the town's life. A doctor can live in the same town as a carpenter because both contribute to its vitality. A town has different sections in which people congregate at different times for different reasons. The variety of resources available -- available in an organic and free way -- is what makes the town feel lively.

A town doesn't have a mission, in the business sense. It has a culture. It doesn't  tell residents where to go, or what their priorities should be, or what skills they should have. Such a town would be oppressive. A town is attractive if the way of life it offers is strong, meaning there's energy and laughter and productivity. Businesses contribute mightily to that life, but ultimately they are nurtured by the town.

So with a church. It is a congregation of differences united in a life.

Churches often become oppressive because they drive out diversity, as if they were businesses working a plan. Seeking to be purposeful, such churches instead become destructive.

I think one of the toughest challenges of pastoral leadership is nurturing oneness in diversity.

David Brooks of the New York Times wrote a column this week that caught the problem.

He describes the traits that make a good business executive.  Three studies of strong executives, he says, have shown that "warm, flexible, team-oriented and empathetic people are less likely to thrive as C.E.O.’s. Organized, dogged, anal-retentive and slightly boring people are more likely to thrive."

Such findings swim upstream. Many leadership books emphasize that the CEO should be out relating to people, showing his or her human side. There is a glut of writing on team dynamics, on inspirational leadership, and on "vision," as if business people are temperamentally unsuited for their jobs.

There is also a deep-rooted aversion to business culture among professionals in literature, education, and the arts, who use business as a cuss word, and think the marketplace is inherently crass.

Brooks is onto the cultural animosity that makes the critique empty.

The personality types that make great business people are not strong on being reflective or expressive. "For this reason, people in the literary, academic and media worlds rarely understand business. It is nearly impossible to think of a novel that accurately portrays business success. That’s because the virtues that writers tend to admire — those involving self-expression and self-exploration — are not the ones that lead to corporate excellence."

What we have here, Brooks says, is one culture sniping at another. It's just, They should be more like us.

"Fortunately," he writes, "America is a big place. Literary culture has thrived in Boston, New York and on campuses. Political culture has thrived in Washington. Until recently, corporate culture has been free to thrive in such unlikely places as Bentonville, Omaha and Redmond." He wonders what a drive for control from Washington will do to the nation's life.

Churches should be big places -- even the numerically small churches. They should have little districts where the arts, social action, scholarship, and enterprise all thrive, and those districts should be open to traffic, so that people congregate at different times and for different reasons.

Like a town.

We all read 1 Corinthians 12 about the body and its diversity, and we all agree with it. But we tend to say, "Yeah, those people really need me," in blunt rejection of the text's point.

These days, churches seem to cater to specific interest groups. They gather a demographic -- Mosaics, say -- and they base their oneness on their shared cultural perspective, implicitly or explicitly criticizing all the others. This is an illusory oneness, and the illusion is ugly.

Actual oneness in Christ comes when people of diverse races, professions, and ages form a way of life together founded on his atoning death and resurrection. They form a culture based on love. They live together in a little town. I have seen that this oneness is attractive.

And, as a pastor, I have learned that I cannot nurture it by remaining a small man.