Comeback Churches: How 300 Churches Turned Around and Yours Can Too

I finished this book a couple weeks ago.  If you read my last blog post I wrote yesterday, you know how I feel about church growth and numbers.0805445366.01._SX140_SY225_SCLZZZZZZZ_ This book was helpful in my thought process and helped he land where I did.

I think it’s a great book– probably one of the most helpful and insightful books I’ve ever read on the church (I haven’t read that many, I guess).  One of the qualities that I particularly enjoyed was the research.  Ed Stetzer, the president of Lifeway Research, and his team compiled incredibly detailed statistics from over 324 churches that met certain qualifications to be a comeback church.

“We developed the survey based on our knowledge of churches and how they grow.  The lists we requested from other denominations were for only those churches that met the following criteria:

1. The church experienced five years of plateau and/or decline since 1995 (worship attendance grew less than 10% in a five-year period.)

2. That decline or plateau was followed by significant growth over the past two to five years which included:

a. A membership to baptism (conversion) ratio of 35:1 each year and

b. At least a 10% increase in attendance each year.”

These were the qualifications for a comeback church.  The research team then asked questions to decipher what the pastors of these churches felt were the biggest and most important changes they made.  Stetzer and Dodson then interpret and compile the data into coherent ideas and themes, and how the changes affected the church.  The questions range from “What was the biggest factor in your church’s revitalization” to “What books helped you in the turn around process?”

What makes the book so helpful is that it’s not a 7 step process to turning your church around.  It’s just what churches did.  It’s unbiased; simply relaying information.  One the data is on the table, it’s dissected and discussed.  I enjoyed the discussion a lot, and have handed off to the elders of our church for reading (and they’re actually reading it!).

And here’s a question to elicit some comments.  The survey asked “What were the top three factors in your church’s revitalization?”  What do YOU think?

Comment.

3 Elements for a Successful Church

Whenever I come across a book with a flashy cover and a title that has something to do with growing your church I get a little skeptical.  I get especially wary when I see numbers in the title, like “How to Break the 200 Barrier” and the like.  I come from a background that taught me to mistrust numbers- they are misleading and distracting.  But since I’ve been in ministry I’ve struggled with the issue of growth.  Shouldn’t a healthy church grow?  Is something spiritually wrong with the church that is losing its members? What about the church that basically stays the same size forever?

I do not think we can determine success by numbers.  First of all, if we were to use numbers, what would we count?  Conversions?  Membership? Baptism? Un-churched visitors?  Counting conversions is risky– often times it’s incredibly difficult to tell if they’ve had a genuine heart change.  I personally don’t like assuring anyone of their salvation (strange, eh?).  I can’t see the heart.  And I’m terrified of assuring the salvation of a person (especially a student) who actually isn’t saved.  That’s patting them on the back as they walk toward damnation.  If we count our members to determine success then we’ve stopped too short.  It doesn’t matter how many members your church has if they all have hard hearts and don’t follow Jesus.  So counting members isn’t the asnwer.

So where do numbers fit in? Should we even consider numbers?  Or if we’re in a declining church, do we just sit back and watch the congregation dwindle until we realize we can’t afford our building payments anymore, holding fast to our numbers don’t matter policy?

These are the questions that have been bouncing around in my brain for the last few months.  The church has been the object of my obsession– I’ve been reading books, devising strategies, listening to sermons trying to figure out answers.  Here are some of my conclusions.

  1. A successful church is one that has a high view of God, is centered on Christ, and exalts scripture.

A church that says “We have all those things, we’re just not good at outreach” is fooling themselves.  A church that does not outreach does not have a high view of God.  How?  Because lack of evangelistic zeal is the the symptom of a deeper problem: you don’t take Jesus’ command to “go” seriously. You idolize comfort more than obedience.  A church that doesn’t have a biblical understanding of the imminent wrath of God that will consume sinners apart from the grace of God in Jesus Christ doesn’t take the Bible seriously. If they did, they be more desperate.

2.   A successful church doesn’t “use the Bible to espcape the Bible.”

I heard John Piper use this is a sermon once, saying that we pastors who say we believe so steadfastly the Word of God often use Bible preaching to escape what the Bible has clearly commanded us to do.  We sit back in our offices and behind our pulpits and preach, believing that is where our responsibility ends, believing that if we can preach good enough the church will grow, at the neglect of biblical commands for the pastor other than preaching.

Here’s the text that has been pushing force in my ministry, causing me to question how I do ministry and is obviously demanding more than just teaching and praying:

Timothy 4:5 “As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.”

Let’s not use the Bible to escape the Bible.  Let’s fear God more than men and be evangelists.

3.    It strategizes.

It strives to know the demographics of its city. It learns its culture.  It casts a visions, makes a plan, empowers laypeople.  It makes goals.  It prays strategically and structures strategically.  But it never, ever thinks about compromising the gospel.  It adapts style but never changes content. It doesn’t sacrifice depth believing that will help in breadth of ministry.

I believe that if a church has these three characterstics I mentioned, it’s going to be healthy.  Growth only comes when God wants it to– but this doesn’t mean we are relieved of our mission to seek out and save the lost.

To answer all the proposed questions about whether or not numbers are reliable statistics to determine the health and success of a church.

A healthy church will grow, by God’s grace.  However, a church that is growing isn’t necessarily healthy.

HOWEVER, if you are a dying church that isn’t growing, seriously examine your obedience.  Here are some questions I need to examine in myself every now and again:

  • Do you believe that the Word of God transforms minds? (Display it in your lifestyle to your church as the God-inspired, life-changing, practical truth)
  • Do you fear God enough to do the work of an evangelist? (Don’t just tell your church, model it for your church)
  • Do you depend on God for everything through prayer (Why would God answer our prayers if we ask half-heartedly and inconsistently?  It might only reaffirm the idea that we can accomplish things on our own)
  • Do you love your wife like Christ loves the church? (Model of a Christ-like husband for the church)

I started this blog post as a book review of a book I read by Ed Stetzer called “Comeback Churches: How 300 Churches Turned Around and Yours Can Too.”

I’ll make that my next blog post.

Promise.

Why Did God Give Us Commands?

This is a repost of something I wrote for my other blog back in April.

I just asked a big question, and am grappling to understand it. I first asked “Why did God give us the Great Commission?” And here was my thought process.

My mind first jumped to answer it negatively. Answering the question by figuring out what the answer couldn’t be.

I figured the answer couldn’t be because he doesn’t know who is going to be saved and he wants us to go out and find out who they are. Eph. 1:3-4 clearly says God knows this–he knows everything.

I figured the answer couldn’t be because he needs us to accomplish his global purpose. God doesn’t need anyone or anything. Acts 17:25 says he is “not served by human hands as if he needed anything…”

This assumption was even further backed up by the fact that not only are we not needed in God’s plan of saving souls from every part of the world, we can actually hinder its progress by trying to do it ourselves. Paul tells the Corinthians how he doesn’t want to preach with eloquence “lest the Cross be emptied of its power.” And later on, in 2 Corinthians, how his power is make perfect in weakness.

So it’s not cause God doesn’t know. It’s not because he needs us. It’s not because we are able to do it ourselves–we actually can’t do it at all by our own strength.

So why does he command us to go?

“Why” is a powerful question. It’s simple and childlike, but it reaches straight to the core of the object in question and draws out purpose, motivation, deep-seated affections and desires. Why is the first question children ask their parents. We tell them not to touch a hot stove and they ask “why?” with all innocence. As we grow in the faith we must never stop asking the question “why?”

Why? Why all these commands? Why should we go? Why should be honor our parents? Why should we obey?

Let’s focus in on the Great Commission. I said that we can actually hinder the progress of the gospel by trying to do it our way instead of God’s way. Ultimately, though, we know God is working everything for his plan to succeed and by no means can our shortcomings thwart God’s plan. Acts 1:8 says “You will be my witnesses.” It’s going to happen. Christians will be Christ’s witnesses. Therefore we must realize that God doesn’t lose when we are not obedient. God’s schedule will go as planned, everyone who he has chosen will be saved, and it will work out exactly as he foreordained before he created the universe. God doesn’t miss out when we don’t fulfill the Great Commission. We do. God isn’t thwarted when we fail, but we miss out. When we miss an opportunity to tell someone about the gospel we are deprived of the joy that would have come from faithful obedience!

And from this I think we can infer an answer to the “why” question. Why does God give us all these commands?

Because God has designed faithful obedience motivated by awesome love to be the most fulfilling and satisfying and joyful activity any human can ever do.

Why “go make disciples?” Because, as Lottie Moon once said, “Surely there can be no greater joy than that of saving souls.” Or listen to J. Campbell White, an early 20th century Secretary of the Laymen’s Missionary Movement:

“Most men are satisfied with the permanent output of their lives. Nothing can wholly satisfy the life of Christ within his followers except the adoption of Christ’s purpose toward the world he came to redeem. Fame, pleasure and riches are but husks and ashes in contrast with the boundless and abiding joy of working with God for the fulfillment of his eternal plans. The men who are putting everything into Christ’s undertaking are getting out of life its sweetest and most priceless rewards.”

Participating with Christ in his global plan of redemption is the greatest privilege we can have here on earth. Praise God for giving us this opportunity.

Any thoughts?

The Story of a Masai Warrior Named Joseph

One of the least likely men to attend the Itinerant Evangelists’ Conference in Amsterdam sponsored by the Billy Graham Association was a Masai Warrior named Joseph. But his story won him a hearing with Dr. Graham himself. The story is told by Michael Card.

One day Joseph, who was walking along one of these hot, dirty African roads, met someone who shared the gospel of Jesus Christ with him. Then and there he accepted Jesus as his Lord and Savior. The power of the Spirit began transforming his life; he was filled with such excitement and joy that the first thing he wanted to do was return to his own village and share that same Good News with the members of his local tribe.

Joseph began going from door-to-door, telling everyone he met about the Cross [suffering!] of Jesus and the salvation it offered, expecting to see their faces light up the way his had. To his amazement the villagers not only didn’t care, they became violent. The men of the village seized him and held him to the ground while the women beat him with strands of barbed wire. He was dragged from the village and left to die alone in the bush.

Joseph somehow managed to crawl to a water hole, and there, after days of passing in and out of consciousness, found the strength to get up. He wondered about the hostile reception he had received from people he had known all his life. He decided he must have left something out or told the story of Jesus incorrectly. After rehearsing the message he had first heard, he decided to go back and share his faith once more.

Joseph limped into the circle of huts and began to proclaim Jesus. “He died for you, so that you might find forgiveness and come to know the living God” he pleaded. Again he was grabbed by the men of the village and held while the women beat him reopening wounds that had just begun to heal. Once more they dragged him unconscious from the village and left him to die.

To have survived the first beating was truly remarkable. To live through the second was a miracle. Again, days later, Joseph awoke in the wilderness, bruised, scarred—and determined to go back.

He returned to the small village and this time, they attacked him before he had a chance to open his mouth. As they flogged him for the third and probably the last time, he again spoke to them of Jesus Christ, the Lord. Before he passed out, the last thing he saw was that the women who were beating him began to weep.

This time he awoke in his own bed. The ones who had so severely beaten him were now trying to save his life and nurse him back to health. The entire village had come to Christ.

This is one vivid example of what Paul meant when he said, “I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body.”

There is something profoundly freeing and stabilizing to know that Christ calls us to sacrifice for the sake of the gospel. It stabilizes us from being thrown off guard when it comes. And it frees us to choose it when love beckons us. And it begins to free us from the incredible seduction of American prosperity.

***this excerpt is taken from John Piper’s sermon called Called to Suffer and Rejoice: To Finish the Aim of Christ’s Afflictions, found here.

Yes, Even You.

“It may seem incredible to us now, but during the sixties and seventies, missions was commonly presented as an all-or-nothing issue for evangelicals. The mission decision seemed simple: either God was calling me to a high calling of being a missionary overseas, or God was calling me merely to support missionaries by giving and praying. The Perspectives course introduced the amazing notion that God was calling every Christian to live with the same level of commitment, fulfilling diverse but nonetheless critically significant roles in pursuit of one great global church.”

–Steve Hawthorne, found of Waymakers, co-creator of the Perspectives course