the shape of leadership

How to Begin Recalibrating Your Church

Any church can move toward greater effectiveness

My mom passed away Feb. 28, 2018, at age 96. A few days later, we met with loved ones in Sour Lake, Texas, to hold a celebration of life service at the first little church Mom and Dad pastored.

When I walked into Praise Chapel that day, the flood of memories was overwhelming. It’s still a very little building, with a sanctuary that seats about 90 people. But the building’s size belies its significance. Within that humble square footage, powerful spiritual markers occurred in my life.

I stood in the sanctuary, feeling a mix of joy and loss as I relived events that continue to shape who I am today. I saw the altar where I received Jesus as my personal Savior at about 6 years of age. I saw the piano. The pastor said it wasn’t the same piano from my childhood, but it sure looked like the one I played growing up.

I was only 8 years old when I became the church pianist. I remember trying to tell Dad I wasn’t qualified since I knew only one song. He assured me I could accompany our congregation on that song, and they would sing the rest of the songs a cappella.

When Pastor Cody Morgan began guiding our remembrances of Mom, he picked up a small potted plant as a prop and started his message by reading 1 Corinthians 3:6-7: “I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase” (KJV).

He talked about Mom and Dad planting seeds for the 22 years they served as pastors in that small town, in that small church. The crowd was sparse, the money scarce, and the accolades few. But my parents never gave up. Because of their faithfulness, the seeds they sowed reaped a great harvest that literally impacted the world.

My sister and I both sensed God’s call into ministry in that little church. Another minister sent a video of appreciation for Mom and Dad and reported that because of their influence on his life and God’s blessings upon his international television ministry, more than 4,000 people a month are coming to Christ.

As people shared testimonies about the ministry in that small town, in that little church, it became apparent the harvest God had given made all my parents’ sacrifices and investments eternally worthwhile.

“Never again,” Pastor Morgan said to our small gathering, “do I want you to see the small things as insignificant. When you place those small things in the hands of a big God, He will do significant things.”

I couldn’t have agreed more. I also understood a basic principle Pastor Morgan did not address that morning: Sometimes we refuse to place those small things in the hands of our big God. And we need to rediscover that dependency.

Recalibration Demands Reevaluation

Smaller churches like Praise Chapel serving communities across our nation are experiencing great Kingdom results. But there are those small churches as well that are struggling.

First, let me remind you that in this entry decade to our Fellowship’s second century, we are still largely built upon the small community church. If you allow your understanding of what God is doing through the Assemblies of God to focus too closely on our largest churches, you will overlook much of that providential panorama.

The following table provided by my colleague, Mike Clarensau, dean of the College of Bible and Church Ministries for Southwestern Assemblies of God University in Waxahachie, Texas, demonstrates the distribution of Sunday attendance according to various size churches and the percentage of total Sunday attendance for each of the size groupings.

In the Assemblies of God USA, 14 percent of our churches are in communities with fewer than 1,000 residents; 33 percent are in towns with populations under 5,000; and nearly half (46 percent) are in towns with populations under 10,000.

How, then, do we move forward to strengthen our existing churches while planting new ones? If we are believing God for a healthy, Spirit-empowered church in every community, we need to begin by assessing our current realities. Miracles are always preceded by struggles and problems. Without a problem, there is no need for a miracle.

First, we need a miracle to reverse a continuing decline in church health. The percentage of plateaued and declining churches has been rising since the early 1990s and is currently at its highest level in nearly four decades. Only 3 in 10 Assemblies of God churches in America are growing, while 70 percent are either plateaued or declining.

Over the last 30-plus years, declining and plateauing trends have most commonly affected small- to mid-sized churches. In AG churches with fewer than 200 attendees, it currently takes nearly seven attendees to produce one reported convert each year (a ratio that has risen steadily over the past two decades).

Second, we need a miracle to reverse a continuing decline in personal discipleship. Larger churches (1,000+) report nearly 50 percent of all conversions in the Fellowship, with megachurches (2,000+) accounting for nearly 38 percent. However, new converts attending churches of fewer than 200 are twice as likely to follow through with water baptism and significantly more likely to seek the baptism in the Holy Spirit.

Why are we experiencing these difficulties? Among other things, we are well aware of the ongoing battle with our adversary who comes to steal, kill and destroy (John 10:10). But spiritual roots express themselves through the mundane and the material.

Our culture presents increasing challenges to faithful church attendance. There are a variety of reasons for declining church participation. But the fact is, showing up for services is no longer a priority for much of America.

For example, there was a time when schools wouldn’t schedule events on Wednesday or Sunday to avoid conflicting with church services. That’s no longer the case. School teams now schedule road trips on weekends, and young families who were once weekly Sunday attenders travel to watch their children play on the Sabbath.

According to a recent report from the Generis Group, a Canadian marketing firm, “research indicates that faithful churchgoers who did attend three or four times per month [10 or 15 years ago] now attend less than two times per month.” This has a radical effect on weekly church attendance figures.

Consider a hypothetical church with 1,000 “active attendees,” that is, people who attend at least once monthly. Scenario 1 depicts that church’s attendance 15 years ago, when 80 percent of adherents attended at least three times monthly.

Scenario 2 depicts the same church 15 years later, when 75 percent of adherents attend two times monthly or fewer.

Over 15 years, the number of active attendees has plateaued at 1,000, but weekly attendance has declined by 37 percent! All because the average churchgoer attends two times monthly or fewer rather than three times monthly or more!

We need to be aware of how these changing patterns of church attendance affect our bottom line, but I don’t believe we need to accept them as normative.

Recalibration Follows Recommitment

Any church can move toward greater effectiveness. But doing so calls for a rejection of the status quo. If you’re perfectly happy where you are, you won’t go anywhere else.

A church desperately seeking to move from plateau and decline to revival and expansion must change its thinking, particularly in regard to several false assumptions about recalibration. If the prevailing focus of recalibration is on human effort, any resulting changes will be short-lived and ineffective. God-directed recalibration must include five things: spiritual renewal; godly leadership; fresh vision; team ministry; and a consistent process.

The first-century Church began with spiritual renewal, the encounter of Pentecost. According to Acts 2:4, “all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.”

Those who witnessed the tremendous display of God’s power began to ask, “What does this mean?” Godly leadership provided the answer. In response to their question, Peter explained what was happening: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel” (Acts 2:14-16).

After Peter finished his powerful discourse, the question changed from, “What does this mean?” to, “What shall we do?” God had brought fresh vision to those present. At the conclusion of the message, 3,000 were saved and baptized in water.

If your church exploded from 120 to 3,120 in one day, and then to 5,000 shortly thereafter, what would you do? You would need a team approach to ministry and a consistent process to disciple the new converts and assimilate them into Christian service.

Luke notes the apostolic team and describes the process: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42-47, ESV).

If you’re perfectly happy where you are, you won’t go anywhere else.

That passage reveals five functions of the Church: fellowship, discipleship, gift-oriented ministry, evangelism and worship. We refer to these functions as connect, grow, serve, go and worship.

As I explain in A Spirit-Empowered Church, a healthy congregation engages and maintains loving relationships (connects). It develops and mobilizes the people (grows). It acts with clear direction and outward focus (serves). It reproduces and multiplies Christ’s mission in other peoples and places (goes). And it pursues and obeys God passionately (worships).

The Day of Pentecost brought a supernatural explosion of growth, with 3,000 people coming to Christ in one day. And the Spirit-inspired process in Acts 2:47 resulted in an incremental increase, with salvations and additions to the Church “day by day.”

Fundamental Questions

If you are ready to begin your church’s recalibration, gather a multigenerational team of influencers, begin asking strategic questions, and then prayerfully develop specific action steps. Recalibration answers five fundamental questions.

1. Why do we exist as a church? The Great Commission — to reach our lost world with the gospel — rests upon the great commandment — to love God with our entire being — and this combination creates a universal mission for every church. Your church’s specific mission statement should provide long-term direction for how your congregation will reach lost humanity, acting out of passionate love for God.

2. Where are we going? No church has a future if its memories are bigger than its dreams. To realize your full Kingdom potential, your church must identify and develop God’s preferred purposes and plan. Proverbs 19:21 says, “Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.”

Vision answers the questions, “Where are we going?” and, “Why are we moving in that direction?” The best vision statements combine the passion of the leaders, the abilities of the people, and the needs of the community. Proverbs 29:18 says, “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (KJV).

3. How will we behave? Paul told the Thessalonians, “Our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake” (1 Thessalonians 1:5).

Core values are the DNA of the church. Values inform how leaders prioritize ministries, select personnel and prepare budgets. More than mission or vision, core values tell those inside and outside the congregation what is distinctive and important.

4. How will we get there? The only way for a church to grow is to add more people. That may sound simplistic, but outside of God’s direct intervention to add believers, intentionality on the part of leadership and the recalibration team is paramount. A strategic plan is a necessity. Vision fails because of poor communication, the lack of a clear plan, and failure to implement that plan.

Some erroneously insist ministry under the Spirit’s leading always requires spontaneity. God planned the redemption of humanity before He created the world. It is possible to be strategic and Spirit-led simultaneously. Having a plan doesn’t replace passion for God; it shapes that passion into a focused plan and then executes it. Proverbs 16:3 says, “Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and he will establish your plans.”

5. How will we engage new people? After a church has determined its mission, formed its vision, settled upon its values and created its strategic plan, it is time to engage in the functions of the Church we see in Acts 2:42-47 — fellowship, discipleship, gift-oriented ministry, evangelism and worship.

Have you ever been to a conference and felt like you were getting so much information there was no way to accomplish everything you heard? I know I have. It felt like I was drinking from a fire hose. I often think, If I could just get one good idea I could implement, it would be worth the entire conference.

With that in mind, I will summarize the recalibration process with three basic goals I call three “I’s” of recalibration: Improve the visitor’s experience; intentionally assimilate; and invest in children.

Improve the Visitor’s Experience

Small Church Essentials by Karl Vaters points out that most people subconsciously decide whether to come back to a church within the first 10 minutes of pulling onto the parking lot. But very few churches take that reality into account when they conduct their weekend services. Remember, the worship experience your church creates doesn’t begin when the music starts.

If you haven’t taken a tour of your building, take someone with you and build a checklist of all the things that need painting, repair, removal or replacement. Unkept buildings and grounds signal a lack of excellence. You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

Make sure there is proper signage. As a guest speaker, I recently drove around a large church several times trying to determine where to enter the building.

When Johanna and I first became pastors, we stepped into a challenging situation. Our immediate predecessor stayed only 12 months as pastor, and his predecessor stayed 36 months. In addition to how we structured our services, Johanna and I looked for high-visibility projects that were noncontroversial.

Johanna immediately began a church cleaning project with two helpers, Amos and Sam. They didn’t remodel; they just cleaned, discarded stuff and improved the looks of our older building. I raised funds for a sound system, a new vehicle for the youth, and other resources. Visible results helped the atmosphere of the services and accelerated our transition into our new roles as pastors.

The smaller your church is, the more strategic you must be in how you use volunteers. If you can have a parking lot greeter, that’s great. If not, at least assign a smiling, outgoing, servant-hearted team at the doors.

Be a welcoming church. Too often, fellowship time involves people who already know one another catching up while ignoring guests. When you shake the hands of guests, always tell them your name and ask for theirs. Most churches could increase their attendance just by taking intentional steps to become friendlier.

A few practical changes can improve the visitor’s experience. I frequently tell ministers who are transitioning into a new pastorate that remodeling the women’s restroom is always a quick win. Communication is also vital. Don’t use insider language that guests would not understand. And don’t say or do anything that detracts from the message you want to convey.

Intentionally Assimilate

Assimilation is much more than having front-door greeters. Again, friendliness matters. Of course, most church leaders think they have the friendliest church in town. But being friendly to the familiar faces around you is not sufficient. How quickly can someone coming in from the outside make friends in your church? Assimilation begins with the first impression.

Teach everyone to practice the “five-foot rule.” If a guest gets within five feet of a regular attendee, the regular attendee is responsible for taking care of that person. Encourage congregants to act friendly, introduce themselves, answer questions and guide guests to their destinations.

Assimilation should lead to ministry involvement. How quickly can someone become involved? There was a time when you needed to become before you could belong. My dad used to say it this way: “We like to clean our fish before we catch them.”

I never want to diminish the importance of salvation, discipleship or righteous living. But the sooner someone becomes involved in the church, the faster he or she will assimilate into the life of the church. This doesn’t mean you should lower the bar by giving people roles their character won’t support. However, it doesn’t take the same level of anointing to clean the floors as it does to sing on the worship team.

Invest in Children

It’s a given — parents are concerned for their children’s well-being. The benefits a parent perceives your church can bring to a child’s life are often the make-or-break points for the decision to continue attending. Gender-specific kids’ ministries are attractive to many parents. I know my family has appreciated them. I often hear parents of smaller children say the decision about where to attend church comes down to what is best for their children.

I talked about this with my brother-in-law, Sam Rijfkogel, pastor of Grand Rapids First (Assemblies of God) in Michigan. Recognizing the importance of children’s ministries, they interviewed several couples with small children — only half of whom were sending their kids to the nursery and children’s area. The parents said their top three concerns were security, safety and cleanliness. Interestingly, curriculum didn’t make the top three.

In response to these parental concerns, church leadership made some strategic changes. To address security, they put cameras in classrooms and hallways. They set up a single entry and exit for the children’s area and posted security personnel there. They established double background checks for workers. They implemented strict policies regarding bathrooms, pick-up procedures, and who is allowed in the kids’ areas (approved workers and verified parents only).

To address safety, they made sure all equipment is in good shape and up to code (including cribs, changing tables, strollers, toys, walkers, etc.). All workers receive training in emergency weather, fire and lock-down procedures. There is a communication system in each room. They also post a wellness policy and receive no children who are sick, as a protection for all other children.

To address cleanliness and appearance, workers sanitize toys for each service. The clean look and fresh smell communicate a message of excellence.

Recalibrate, Then Celebrate

To this day, wherever I minister, regardless of the size and community footprint of the church, I still carry with me part of Praise Chapel in Sour Lake, Texas. My life has been forever shaped and blessed by that little church in that little town.

And that is the real purpose of recalibration — to maximize the mission and message of your church and see wonderful life transformation as a result.

You can start that process today. It will take all of eternity to reveal the harvest that ensues.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 edition of Influence magazine and is also available in Spanish.

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