In the last two years, you’ve experienced about a decade’s worth of cultural change. Organizations that were breaking quickly broke. Some startups and skunk works quickly accelerated. Just to give you an example. You probably thought the legalization of gay marriage in 2015 appeared rather quickly. Now with the promotion of non-binary designations and transgenderism, gay marriage seemed simple. Western culture has become very complicated to say the least.
You might have jumped onto the darlings of the pandemic like Peloton, Netflix, and Zoom. But, now that much of Coronavirus has subsided, these online platforms are losing value. Has everyone forsaken digital? Considering that the average adult touches their smartphone 2,600 times per day, I don’t think so.
This is the tip of the iceburg of complex cultural change. Add in inflation, a pending recession, war, and a heavy dose of politics and you have a recipe for much stress and apprehension. Easter wasn’t what you expected. That’s okay. You are not your numbers. Church ministry isn’t working the way that it used to work. But, some things are working. How do you discern what to invest your life and ministry in at this point? Here are some things to consider in navigating cultural changes in ministry.
First, Look at God‘s Word
The Bible has stood the test of time and has been applied in every culture for the last 2000 years. Whether the church was under Roman oppression, living in the Dark Ages, or embracing the Enlightenment, the Bible clearly explains the church’s mission.
I know that you know and understand God’s Word. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be in ministry, right? But, stick with me. This next part is a little more like Vince Lombardi saying, “Gentlemen, this is a football.”
Consider the commands of Jesus (Matthew 28:20). The Great Commission is the same: Go and make disciples…baptizing them…teaching them to obey…” (Matthew 28:19-20). You only have one job: Go and make disciples. Loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself hold true just as Jesus gave in the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:37-40). That’s the summary of the commands we are called to obey. And what about the Great Compassion (Matthew 25:45)? How are you serving the “least of these?” You may think of some other things as part of your mission, but these are the big ones.
If you created three buckets labeled: Great Commission, Great Commandment, and Great Compassion and assigned the various activities of your church to a bucket, where would those activities fit? What wouldn’t fit? What would you need to add?
In planning ministry for a changing culture, start with the church’s mission as articulated by Jesus Himself. The methods have changed, but the message is consistent.
Next, Look at Best Practices
Over the last 18 years, I’ve had the privilege of working with over 1,500 churches across North America in the areas of small groups and disciple-making. While the last two years were vastly different than the previous 16 years, practices in small groups and disciple-making are working very well. What is struggling right now are worship attendance and other centralized events, voluntary serving especially in children’s ministry, and bringing new people through the traditional front door of the church.
Digital ministry is a new frontier, but it’s not the answer for everybody. Don’t write it off. There is much to be explored. The church needs to enlist digital missionaries to this growing culture. Online small groups are the pits compared to in-person small groups, but if your only option is online, then it’s a great option.
Which ministries and methods are still relevant post-pandemic? Which worked better in a pre-Covid, attractional context? Which worked better in a locked down pandemic context? Which will survive going forward? Pay attention to what is bearing fruit in your church and ministry and make the most of that.
Third, Talk to Your Current Regular Attenders
What are they open to? What have they left behind? What are their needs? After all, at this point, you must lead the church you have rather than leading the church you lost. Don’t assume that everyone who has stuck around is still waiting for things to go back to 2019 ministry as usual. Their lives have radically changed as well.
Talk to them about what they are open to. Don’t assume that this group is unwilling to change. They have stuck with you through a very difficult period. They are committed to the church. They want to see the church succeed. Some pastors are wringing their hands afraid to change anything out of fear over losing more people. If you’re people have stuck with you in the last two years, they are with you. Move forward!
What are the Needs of Those who You Want to Reach?
What’s going on in their lives? What are their greatest concerns or fears? What can you offer them that is relevant to them? How can you connect with them? Where are they finding community?
It’s not a new principle, but find a need and fill it. How is your church uniquely equipped to meet the needs of your community? What are you willing to try?How can you reshape your current ministry based on what you’ve discovered?
What methods continue to be valid? What methods are you partial to? You must admit your own bias here. The thing that you love to do may not be the thing that’s the most needed. Or the thing that you love to do may be relevant in new ways.
Think about this
While there is a certain amount of evangelism that happened over the last 30 years, a good part of church growth was merely transfer growth from other churches. Your church might’ve been good at attracting consumers, but was not great at making disciples. Now that ministry has decentralized in a lot of ways, what is your best tact?
The impact of the attractional model was waning prior to COVID. I know that’s tough for some to hear, since so much of their churches were built on the attractional model. But, the acceleration of the attractional model’s decline happened during COVID. Why would people rather stay at home? What’s the benefit of in-person attendance other than making the preacher feel good? I’m not saying there aren’t benefits to meeting in-person, but can you name them for your church? Community comes to mind. So does incarnation.
If you are unwilling to adjust your methods to fulfill your mission in a very different culture, then you owe an apology to the pastors of traditional churches who resisted the methods you adopted in the 1980’s and 1990’s. You are the traditional pastor now.
Change is intimidating. When you change, you experience loss. Reaching new people and meeting needs going forward is very exciting, but leaving behind the familiar is hard. Giving up what you’ve perfected or at least what you’ve worked hard at is difficult. Familiar routines are comfortable. Right now, you either have to learn something new, watch your church decline, get a new job, or retire. But, your calling hasn’t changed. What will that look like in the years ahead? Stay tuned. The best is yet to come!
What new thing (or old thing) is working well in your church right now? Answer in the comments below.
Q1: In the last year, church ministry became more decentralized than ever. As the leader of a parachurch ministry, Living on the Edge, what insights can you give pastors whose flocks have scattered?
Chip: The first thing I would say is, and this may sound so counter-intuitive, the greatest thing a pastor can do is stand guard and make sure your own soul and your own family is in a healthy place. Protect yourself from the pressure, the stress, and the bad decisions that come from trauma. You are not going to please everyone.
Second, I think it’s really important to get your key leaders and go back to what is our mission and what is our vision? What are we really trying to accomplish? Don’t jump to what your tactics should be. Ask yourself if that’s our mission.
Chip: We all get stuck in certain seasons. If you read through the Psalms, David, a man after God’s own heart, at times he’s dancing and praising God, and then there’s a couple of them where he sounds like he’s clinically depressed. Life isn’t even. Sometimes there’s spiritual malnutrition when you don’t take in enough of the truth. Some people over time get caught in moralism, which says the Christian faith is about just being a good person. Or you get stuck in legalism. Somehow you think that it’s all about your performance. Sometimes you get stuck because you have some bad theology that you just think that it really all depends on you. This book is about how life change really occurs.
Q3: You write that “evangelical Christianity has developed a culture in which no one is very surprised when someone prays to receive Christ and continues in a lifestyle of minimal change.” How did the church get to this place? How can we challenge this trend?
Chip: I think the movement to be more seeker sensitive got so seeker sensitive that we didn’t just get close to the culture, we fell in. But the Bible says, it’s the grace of God that teaches us to say no to all ungodliness and worldliness and to live holy lives. We’ve got three major enemies. I still have my flesh. I still have those desires from my old life even when Christ lives in me. I have a world system daily like never before with access with the internet on the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life. So there’s great opportunity. I’m in a spiritual battle where there are actual evil angels seeking to tempt and to trick and to scheme. It’s a real battle. If we don’t renew our mind, if we’re not doing life together in authentic community, man, we are going to get killed. And I think that’s happened a lot, but it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m hopeful.
Q4: In the book, you talk about “passive faith.” What is passive faith and why is it dangerous?
Chip: I think passive faith is this idea that I prayed to receive Christ, and then if God is going to do something really significant, I’m waiting for Him to show me what I’m supposed to do. One guy in my church is a good example. He went to a good school. He was a football player. He became a doctor. He became a specialist. He came to church regularly. He became upwardly mobile. If you asked him, he believed in God, he could articulate the Gospel, but found a few cracks in his marriage. His kids were becoming more and more entitled. I had a major injury, and [went to this doctor]. We got to know each other.
I gave him the book, True Spirituality about what it means to become a Romans 12 Christian. He read that book and asked if we could meet. We got coffee and he said, “I’m not this, (meaning the book). I come to church. I like you. I even give some money to the church. We’re not super involved, but to be surrendered, I never understood. I have never even heard that before.”
We were talking a bit more deeply, and I asked him, “Have you ever told God not just that you believe Him for salvation, but, that you want to follow you wholeheartedly?” This is the Lordship of Christ.
He said, “Yes, I have.” I asked him when he prayed that. He says, “About three days ago when I read your book. I thought I was fine. I thought I was doing great. I’ve been reading. I was so off.” This changed his life, his marriage, his kids, and led him to actually take another job.
I think we have a huge percent of the population of very sincere people with a passive faith. But it’s different than when Christ is the center and the Lord of my life. I’m renewing my mind. I’m in authentic community. I’m a part of God’s radical agenda to bring light and love to the world. I think that people are looking for that.
Q5: We met about six years ago. You were pastoring a church in Silicon Valley and you set a pretty big goal. I think you had about a 100 groups at the time, and you wanted me to help the church get to 400 groups with the Holy Ambition curriculum we created together. How did that go?
Chip: What we knew was there’s a lot of old ways to do small groups. We were looking for a way to accelerate the growth of our groups. We decided with your help that we would try something new. We had good trust. So we literally said, “Hey, if you will just volunteer, we’ll help you. We’ll equip you.. You can invite believers or unbelievers because of the nature of the study.” Everyone wants to find their purpose and it was a tremendous success. “We had people say, okay I’ll do this.” Then they recruited their own groups even. We just had thousands of people go through it, and hundreds of groups launched.
Q5.5: How did all of that effort at creating curriculum and recruiting groups impact your church?
Chip: The neat part was pretty soon stuff started bubbling up. There was a guy who had never been involved very much. He was invited to a group. He saw a homeless person and said, “We should do something about that.” Taking action was built into the small group material. The study focused on what is your group going to do? I don’t mean this critically, but sometimes the group is focused on talking about what the text says and, and sharing your life and all that’s really important, but the missional part often gets neglected. This was a very missional focus. This guy found all his old coats and jackets to help some homeless people. And then he invited others to join him. I can still remember these huge bins with hundreds of coats. We saw people clothed and help and loved. That’s the story from one small group that got missional. So thank you. You did a great job on that, and God worked in the Bay area because of it.
Allen: Thanks, Chip. It was great to work with you and your church.
By Allen White Over the last couple of years, I have worked from a home office. After 20 years of getting up every morning and driving to an office, I have found certain advantages to working from home:
1. Flip flops in Summer and Slippers in Winter.
2. I can travel the country via teleconference at the click of a button.
3. Pants are optional. (Shorts are a minimum requirement).
4. The only clean part of my office is what you see on camera.
5. Unlimited hugs from my kids (we homeschool too).
6. Commute is Zero.
7. Banking by Mobile App
8. USPS delivers and ships from my mailbox every day.