There’s a season for everything
and a time for every matter
under the heavens:
(Ecclesiastes 3:1, CEB)
Everything that is born inevitably dies. But, we don’t live our lives with our own ends in mind. Neither do churches live with the end of their lives in mind. Every church thinks they will be the historic church that continues to thrive for hundreds of years. Those churches are outliers.
Every church faces death, many not until it the wraith stares them square in the face.
A church lifecycle might look something like this.
What of the outliers, though? How have some churches been able to reinvent themselves over and over again to persevere through the generations?
In Disruption: Repurposing the Church to Redeem the Community, Mark DeYmaz posits that churches begin to serve the people of the church in place of the mission of the church. I’ll say that another way. When a church gets so caught up with ministering to the present generation, they lose sight of the next generation and head for decline.
Joseph L. Bower and Clayton M. Christensen, in their article, “Disruptive Technologies: Catching the Wave,” (Harvard Business Review (January-February 1995), cite five factors that lead an organization towards decline. These are the signs that an organization is so focused on their current market base (or a church so is so focused on the generation that built the ministry in the first place) that they cease to innovate processes and products for the coming generation. Bower and Clayton are writing about businesses, but maybe you can see the parallels in your church.
- Bureaucracy. Most churches are multi-generational, but they usually focus their ministry efforts on the generation that built the church or on the generation that makes up the largest segment of the ministry. Bureaucracy is when there is a political battle between levels of authority in the church regarding the direction of the ministry. This is unique to every church based on their polity arrangement and bylaws, but churches tied up in bureaucracy are not going to shake out of it or come to an agreement one day; they are going to die.
- Arrogance. Churches nearing the end of their lifecycle usually have longstanding members of the faith community, who have some amount of official or perceived power in the church. This could be the head of a prominent family who is a heavy giver and uses that as sway to insist on singing from hymnals. Or this could be an elder that was due to resign years prior but sees any sort of restructuring as a threat to his power and position. He refuses to resign so he can fight for the process that worked in the church in the previous generations.
- Tired Executives. The ministry directors carry the vision for their own ministries instead of the lead pastor or another visionary leader with authority to dictate vision. They insist on functioning according to the same tried and true practices of the days of yore, becoming exhausted in their roles. And yet, they refuse to retire under the presumption that no one else could lead the ministry in their absence.
- Poor Planning. Planning is more than a to-do list. Planning requires risk-assessment. When a church fails to listen to the culture and assess the risk/reward of the ministry direction, it won’t matter how detailed the ministry plan is; it is poor planning. For a church, proper planning means looking forward to the next generation and planning accordingly.
- Short-Term Investment Horizons. A mindset of scarcity can keep organizations from making quantum leaps or gains. Rather, we should think with a mindset of abundance and possibilities where the future is concerned. Mark Batterson rightly said: “Don’t let your budget determine your vision. Let your vision determine your budget” (Mark DeYmaz, author of quoting Mark Batterson). This could not be truer for churches. God works in unfathomable ways to reveal the mystery of the Gospel to people in great need of redemption. Churches who operate in the confines of safety will never achieve the goals of those who trust in the unfathomable power of God.
None of these five things seem all that bad, by the way. In fact, they all seem good in some ways. Bureaucracy reflects a healthy balance of power that leads to supposedly healthy conversations about the future. Arrogance could be explained as younger generations that need to learn to honor their elders. Tired executives are faithful servants. Poor planning is focused on tried and true methodologies. And short-term investment horizons are just good stewardship.
So, it’s easy to see how our churches can be blind to the point of death. They aren’t choosing evil practices. They are choosing what seems right in their own eyes. But, ‘right in their own eyes’ will not lead the church away from death and allow them to persevere through further generations.
So what do you do?
DeYmaz prescribes disruption. All practices, processes, and systems are either disruptive or sustaining. Sustaining practices are the ones that meet the needs of the current consumer. Disruptive practices are those that disrupt the status quo. But, this is not disruption for disruption sake; disruptive practices meet the needs of the next generation.
Here are Bower and Christianson’s three steps to disruptive innovation as prescribed by DeYmaz for the church.
- Determine whether the practice is disruptive or sustaining. Sustaining cannot be assumed to reach the next generation. Or can it? Actually, it can. Some practices, say music or preaching during worship, will likely be normative until Christ returns or at least for many generations to come. But, a keen leader needs to make a call on sustaining practices. Is the practice a Golden Calf that needs to go? You may think you are right to compromise with the sustainers in the ministry, but a thriving church needs a culture of innovation. Compromise results in a division of culture that is unhealthy and will stunt the growth of the church.
- Define the strategic significance of the disruptive practice. Before you take the Golden Calf, grind it into a fine powder, pour it into the baptismal, and make your church drink it, you better know where you are taking the church. I guess I’m talking to the visionary leader here. When Moses got rid of the Golden Calf of Israel, he just came down the mountain with Ten Commandment and was ready to take the next step towards the Promised Land. Are you ready to take the next step towards the Promised Land? Do you know where the Promised Land is? Do you know what to expect when you get there? Do you know how to get there in the first place? If you don’t, then your disruption will only be disruptive for disruption sake. It will appear as though your ministry preferences are more important than everyone else’s and will breed division when you need unity.
- Locate the initial market for the disruptive practice. If you minister in a context like mine, it’s nearly impossible to reach everyone at the same time, with a single disruptive process. We minister in a community with 38k people of all sorts of age, ethnic, social, economic, and political strata. Few strategies can reach them all at the same time. Certainly, there have been technologies, like the smartphone, that have reached the masses, but that’s not normal. You have to know who the practice will reach and have a strategy for reaching them before disruption should begin.
That’s where disruption begins, but I’d like to look back to Bower and Clayton’s five factors that lead an organization towards decline. So many churches are so tied up in bureaucracy that they lack the infrastructure to deal with arrogance, tired executives, poor planning, and short-term Investment Horizons.
In his article, “3 By-Law Changes Needed To Break 100, 200, 400 and 600,” Brian Jones makes some similar connections to DeYmaz, although he comes from a very different direction. Jones is simply talking about church growth, although, for the Great Commission.
Jones says that churches under 200 look like this:
Notice, the Senior Pastor is in charge of pastoral things, where the ministries themselves are led fairly independently by other ministry leaders. In many smaller churches, the Lead Pastor is expected to carry out the vision of the church but reports to the ministry leaders as ‘the elders’ of the church. In other churches, the Lead Pastor is expected to provide some amount of oversight to the ministry leaders and reports to the congregation as a whole.
The problem with the former is that Jim, Bill, Larry, Jack, Will, and the other Jim, are all so consumed with their own responsibilities that they cannot carry out their duties to lead the church as elders. That leaves the pastor so burnt out on carrying the leadership of the church that he can’t properly lead the ministry leaders. Now we have tired executives and poor planning, at the very least. And heaven forbid he try to replace a ministry leader to move the ministry in a new direction; he will be confronted with the arrogant leader.
On the other hand, when a pastor reports to the congregation (democratic church constitution), all ministry inevitably gets tied up in bureaucracy and short-term investment horizons. This happens for two reasons. The first is that the congregation doesn’t have the training or experience in ministry to be able to make appropriate decisions for the church. There’s just plain and simple an ignorance factor. And most will be unlikely to deal with their own ignorance by doing a book study or something of that sort. (If they will, maybe they should be ministry leaders!)
The second reason is that the congregation doesn’t have time. Let’s be brutally honest here. Your congregation does not have the time even if they want to give it to learn the ropes of ministry, exegete the culture of your community, and prayerfully create a strategy to reach them. As inspiring as books like Crazy Love (Francis Chan), Not a Fan (Kyle Idleman), and Radical (David Platt), are, most people are called to live Ordinary (Michael Horton), yet God-honoring lives.
So, what would Jones have us to do?
He says that churches over 200 look more like this:
(If you’re considering a change like this, you need to read this whole article.)
In this model, the Senior Pastor serves with a Board of Overseers. All the ministry directors report to the Lead Pastors. Ministry leaders are appointed and managed by the Lead Pastor and can focus all their efforts on their ministry of oversight.
The Senior Pastor has complete visionary control over the ministry.
Do you see why this is important if your church needs disruption?
If your church is headed for decline, then your Senior Pastor, Lead Pastor, Executive Pastor—whoever it is that is your visionary leader—must have complete control over the direction and ministries of the church. He can shut down ministries and start new ones. He manages staff. He approves budget changes. Everything gets filtered through the vision of the church without the entire congregation having to attain complete understanding and agreement with the vision.
This is a zero-bureaucracy environment where arrogant leaders have no power, ministry leaders are empowered, planning is quality, and the pastor can lead the congregation in God’s direction—if he’s the right guy for the job, anyway.
Wait, wait, wait!
We’ve all heard of pastors who have taken advantage of their position and fallen prey to egregious sins. The pastor, you say, needs to have some accountability. As a Lead Pastor myself, I wholly agree. And my response is this. My ministry leaders provide very little accountability to me. And the congregation, although they may complain in private about decisions I’ve made, they don’t hold me accountable either. In other words, I’m already serving in a zero-accountability environment.
And that’s the strength of the model presented by Jones. Jones identifies a board that holds the pastor accountable in three ways.
- The governing board is in charge of oversight, not operations. The governing board is charged with the hiring/firing of the Senior Pastor and handles financial decisions regarding the Pastor’s salary and benefits. Further, they are a care group for the Pastor in all areas including accountability to sin, and commitments made to the church.
- The governing board keeps the pastor accountable to the ‘ends’ of the church. They don’t determine the means, but they question the Pastor as to the decisions he makes and the fruit they produce. And they gauge that information based on the overall purpose, vision, and mission laid out for the church.
- They keep the Senior Pastor accountable to leadership responsibilities. It is a temptation for many pastors to get overwhelmed or tied up with endless shepherding needs and neglect leadership, resulting in Bower and Claytons five factors that lead an organization towards decline. The Pastor is Leader first and Chaplain second.
“The governing board serves five functions: (1) Be the Senior Pastor’s main support system (2) Be the Senior Pastor’s sounding board (3) Hold the Senior Pastor accountable for the results of the organization (4) Approve the budget and (5) Hire/fire the Senior Pastor.”
The most important difference Jones identifies between the model used by small churches and the model used by thriving churches is this: In a thriving church when the governing board meets, the Pastor leaves with a to-do list, not the overseers. In a small church, when the governing board meets, the ministry leaders leave with a to-do list given to them by the pastor and rarely if ever have the opportunity to hold the Pastor accountable to anything.
“There’s a season for everything and a time for every matter under the heavens” (Ecclesiastes 3:1, CEB). But in the church, “we don’t focus on the things that can be seen but on the things that can’t be seen. The things that can be seen don’t last, but the things that can’t be seen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18, CEB).
The church is eternal, serving eternal purposes and need not die like the things of this world if they don’t lose sight of the goal. Maybe your church needs to be disrupted, to set their minds back on eternal things, and to reach the lost for the glory of God and the good of mankind.