Keeping Your Church Young and Vibrant

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Use with permission from Outreach magazine

“They will be full of sap and very green.” —Psalm 92:14

The December 2014 issue of “The Progressive Farmer” asked whether to “Keep or Cull?” Subtitle of the article: “High prices have changed the rules about when to cut one loose from the herd.”

Farmers who want to keep their herds young and viable know the importance of culling certain animals that get too old, consume too much resources, are no longer producing or are a detriment in other ways.

Pastors cannot cull.

More’s the pity, we say with a wink.

There is a reason certain businesses are dying before our eyes. Kmart and Shoney’s come to mind. The discount store and the restaurant were once all the rage. Today they are fighting to stay alive. We think of names like Montgomery-Ward, Spiegel, Western Auto and Rexall—in most cases only dim memories now. National Shirt Shop. Woolworth. Maison Blanche.

To stay healthy and maintain its mission, any entity must be constantly reinventing itself, tweaking its systems, sloughing off the old and dead, birthing the new. Renewing, renovating, refining, rediscovering. Choose your term.

In most cases, the dying businesses did not get the memo. Some stores and hotels look like they’ve not had a paint job in years. The hand dryer in the bathroom does not work, and the personnel all wish they were working somewhere else.

You the customer take your business elsewhere.

Some churches with glorious histories are dying right before our eyes. What happened? Short answer: They grew satisfied with what they had and shut down the renewing process.

Dying churches often share numerous things in common. They reach a point where they like their membership the way it is now and resent newcomers. Their present ministries and worship services become set in concrete, and they resist change. Their mantra becomes “We never did it that way before.” (My friend Ralph Neighbor penned a best-seller a generation ago titled “The 7 Last Words of the Church.” Yes, those are the seven words.)

The complacent church—one that resists changes, resents newcomers, and reacts against innovation—has voted to die. Churches that thrive for the long haul—effectively ministering for decades and beyond—all have these things in common:

  1. They welcome newcomers and appreciate great ideas.
  2. They are constantly tweaking the program and adapting the ministries to ever-changing conditions.
  3. They drop programs that have outlived their usefulness and look for better ways to accomplish the same goals.
  4. They put newcomers to work in the church. Members are not required to belong to the church for five years before they are given responsibilities.
  5. They honor their ministerial leadership and keep them a long time. (Dying churches tend to have quick turnovers.) At the same time, they’re not afraid to retire a staffer who is no longer pulling his/her weight or whose ministry has become unnecessary.
  6. The trust level is high between pastors and congregation. When difficult decisions must be made, mature leaders act wisely with the support of the church.
  7. They sometimes make radical changes and do so successfully.

In a sentence, successful churches look to the Lord Jesus Christ to show them what he wants done.

Two churches come to mind. Both were diminishing due to the changing makeup of their communities. Church A decided to relocate to a suburb where their members had moved. They sold their facility to a minority congregation and bought 100 acres at the edge of the metro area, and started from scratch. Today, Church A is twice the size of its glory days and has become a great missionary-sending congregation.

Church B, however, decided to stay with their changing neighborhood, but to make whatever changes were necessary to minister there. They brought in a minority pastor and developed innovative outreaches toward their neighbors, many of whom barely spoke English. Today, Church B is multiracial and its numerous services throughout the weekend are overflowing.

There is no one way to do this. No one pattern is right for everyone. Some churches need to relocate and some should stay put. But every congregation must learn the basic lesson of our own bodies: To stay alive and healthy, we must always be sloughing off dead cells and growing new ones.

A healthy body must not run from new challenges but learn from each one and grow from the experience. The hand must trust the leg and the feet must trust the eye. And all must trust the Head.

Trust the Head.

He knows the plans he has for you and for your church. “I will build my church,” he promised (Matt. 16:18).

We do well to ask the question of the newly humbled Saul of Tarsus as he stared into the brightest light he’d ever seen. “What will you have me to do, Lord?” (Acts 22:10)

Then, just do it.

Joe McKeever spent 42 years pastoring six Southern Baptist churches and has been writing and cartooning for religious publications for more than 40 years.

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Joe McKeever

Joe McKeever