Although it doesn’t take an advanced degree to determine that the church is in trouble, recent research findings confirm the continued decline of church attendance among Americans. The most recent data is showing that while the population continues to grow, church attendance continues to slow; that is, for the vast majority of churches.
There are however, a few churches that are thriving in this increasingly secular society.
As the pastor of a local church, I’ve made it one of my life pursuits to study and learn from churches that are making progress.
My passion is the gospel, so I’m not really that interested in churches that are simply gathering larger crowds of consumer Christians.
What peaks my interest are churches, regardless of size, that are having a real impact in their community and are seeing measurable advances in the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. Time and again, I’ve noticed some common features of these difference makers.
Here’s five that I’ve seen:
1. Truth that transforms.
I’m assuming we’re on the same page regarding the authority of scripture. That’s not really the problem with most churches. The problem is the disconnect between the average hearer and the typical sermon. I was trained in seminary, along with thousands of other pastors, to preach in a way that accurately communicates information, but often fails to equip people for transformation. We learned how to properly translate a text, but failed to learn how to properly translate the principles into practices.
As our culture grows increasingly biblically illiterate, it becomes increasingly imperative that preachers become skilled at application.
This may sound heretical, but I’m just going to put it out there. Pastors simply do not need skills for translation. We need skills for application. I spent hundreds of hours in seminary learning Greek and Hebrew. To think that I could possibly add anything whatsoever to the efforts of hundreds of brilliant scholars who have dedicated their whole life to provide the very best translation is ludicrous, if not pompous. In today’s world, we have access to software that can provide any preacher anywhere with way more technical knowledge that he can ever process. I’m sorry, but we don’t need more HE-BREW, we need more HOW-TO!
People who come into our churches are not looking for morphology, they’re looking for answers. They want to know how the Bible can be applied to the real problems they are facing in their everyday life.
Churches that are making a difference are focused on teaching the Bible for life change.
2. Healing for hurts.
All churches hold services, but there are usually only two services provided: music and message. The problems people are facing in our culture today are vastly more complex than a song and a sermon can address.
Churches that are making a difference are the ones that have identified the primary issues in their culture and then crafted programs that provide practical help.
Programs such as:
~ Financial coaching
~ Marriage counseling
~ Addictions recovery
~ Poverty alleviation
~ Support groups
The primary reason people have stopped attending church is because they simply do not see it as beneficial to their lives. People vote their value with their feet.
Churches that are making a difference provide practical programs that help people with their persistent problems.
3. A guide for growth.
Most churches operate on the unspoken belief that spiritual growth is a byproduct of attendance. If you go year after year then you’ll become mature. In other words, transformation by accumulation. And yet some of the meanest Christians I’ve ever known were the ones who’d been in church the longest.
Spiritual growth does not occur because of attendance, but attainment. Spiritual maturity is the fruit of integrating God’s principles into my practices. Spiritually mature people are those who are living out the teachings of the Bible. They could be described as people who consistently love God and love others.
That doesn’t happen overnight nor by accident. Growth is intensely intentional and embarrassingly practical.
Churches that are actually developing disciples, not just swelling crowds, are the ones that have carefully crafted a step-by-step growth plan and zealously move their people through the plan year after year.
4. A place for passion.
Many churches are designed for only two types of people – workers and watchers. One or two or maybe a few, doing what they always do while the watchers sit in their respective pew.
The truth is, if consumption is the actual goal for the average attender, then no one needs to go to a church for that anymore. They have instant access to the greatest preaching at their fingertips. Why go to a church building at a designated time for a who-knows-if-it’s-any-good message when I can watch any length of any message at any time on my schedule?
We have only ourselves to blame when we decry consumer Christianity. We created the beast that told them that church is a passive, not participatory activity.
Churches that are making a difference are the ones who are actively teaching, equipping, developing and deploying every member into a ministry both inside and outside of the walls of the church.
5. A chance to change the world.
Now more than ever, the western culture is passionate about changing the world. You can’t even go through a manned register without being solicited to give money for some cause.
What’s spurring that?
Businesses have paid millions of dollars to marketing firms in order to tap into the psyche of consumers today and they have learned what the church forgot – that people are dying to make a difference.
No other organization on earth has been given a greater change directive than the church. Our marching orders are not just to provide shoes, dig wells, teach literacy or stamp out disease. Though our commission includes all these, it goes way beyond.
Our mission changes eternity. The gospel makes the difference between heaven and hell and ultimately plays into the grand plan of history itself!
Churches that are making a difference equip their people to join the greatest world-changing adventure on the planet – the local church! These churches are recapturing the missionary mandate from external organizations and finding ways to mobilize their own people. They are not just sending money, they are sending members.
In a time when it’s easy to become discouraged by the challenges and setbacks in our culture, we must decide what kind of church we will be. Difference making or business as usual?
Ready to make a difference?
Our annual DREAM church conference is designed to equip church leaders to become difference makers in their community. We’re not experts, just fellow sojourners trying to do all we can to make a difference through the local church. Come learn with us!