My colleague and ministry partner Gordon Penfold’s favorite refrain has one line: “Successful turnaround takes a capable pastor and a willing church.”
Our research and Turnaround Pastors Boot Camp© training address the first requirement. It is doubtful that every pastor will become a turnaround rock star, but all of them can become more effective change leaders with personal development and proper training.
The hang up is most often with the second requirement – a willing church. Our colleague Paul Borden at Growing Healthy Churches is of the opinion that churches typically won’t move toward willingness until someone dumps the bucket of ice cold Gatorade all over them – in the form of a thorough, trenchant and sobering church assessment.
But church assessments are time consuming, expensive, and often painful. So you may have to prepare the ground before recommending that the church retain the services of a skilled assessment team.
What can you do to get them ready for this all-important decision when you know it’s time for change but suspect they don’t see it? A structured presentation, “Are We Doing A Good Job?”, may be just the ticket. A presentation like this puts objective information in front of the decision makers and key influencers, preparing them for your eventual proposal (to retain a good assessment team).
Here are some of the things you should put before them.
This is the best place to start because people will find it hard to argue against the Bible. Sure, the dissenters and troublemakers may try, but if you handle them properly you’ll win this round. The point here is to sketch out a biblical picture of what a “successful” church looks like.
This part of the presentation should focus on the Great Commission (or, if you’re of the persuasion that the Church’s mission is to “live as a witnessing community” then focus on that) to remind them of why we’re here. Remind them of the major texts that address.
- Matthew 28:18-20
- John 15:16
- Acts 1:8
Wrap this portion of the presentation with your own spin, but something along the lines of “churches that prioritize connecting with unbelievers, presenting the gospel in a winsome fashion that they can understand, and encouraging them to believe in Jesus are, in God’s eyes, successful churches.”
I’ve separated evangelism and discipleship because that’s how most conservative and/or evangelical Christians approach the issue.1
This will be a bit more challenging because you’ll be tempted to fall back on “Christianspeak” or to use language that really doesn’t communicate information. We’re so used to talking about discipleship and making disciples that we don’t bother to stop and define our terms.2
Don’t do that because you’ll be thinking about one thing and our audience will be thinking about something else! I’d suggest that you follow Jesus’ outline about the distinguishing characteristics of a disciple.
- Someone who loves Jesus above all else (Matthew 10:37 cf. Luke 14:26)
- Someone who guides their lives by the Bible (John 8:30-33)
- Someone who relies on the Holy Spirit to “deny” their sin nature, who willingly embraces God’s will in all things, and who obeys Jesus’ commands (Luke 9:23)
- Someone who active supports the church’s efforts to lead others to faith in Jesus (John 15:16)
- Someone who loves fellow believers in the way way Jesus loves them (John 13:34-35)
Wrap this section with a statement (again, use your own words that fit your own theological perspectives) along the lines of, “Churches that see these characteristics being developed in their members are, in Jesus’ eyes, successful churches.”
After you’ve helped the audience understand the qualities of healthy, high-functioning church it is time to turn their attention to the actual data that shows that the church is not getting the job done. You could engage the audience in a dialog, led by well considered questions, that lead them to the conclusion that there’s work to the done.
In this portion of the presentation you can simply show them the data:
- The number of conversions and baptisms over the past five years
- The number of members who say that they regularly engage in personal evangelism
- The number of members who pray for friends, neighbors, coworkers and family members to be converted
- The evangelism training opportunities the church offers and how well they are attended
Or you may want to ask questions.
- “How many of people, or what percentage, would you say are regularly involved in personal evangelism?”
- “How often do you pray for unsaved people to be converted to faith in Jesus?”
- “What can we do to offer more effective evangelism training?”
This portion of the presentation may be a little trickier to boil down into metrics. Churches that have a refined process and a good tracking system will find this easier, but chances are you won’t have that. So here you’ll want to use questions that prompt discussion.
- “How would you describe the disciple making pathways that we use at this church?”
- “What are we doing to shepherd people from initial faith in Jesus to full maturity as his disciples?”
- “Tell us about the various ways that this church has helped you grow in Jesus over the years.”
- “How are all of the various ministries and programs of our church organized around the disciple making process?”
In addition to the information about how the church is doing in evangelism and discipleship, there are other data points you should present to show them that it is probably time to change some things.
- 10 years average annual attendance plotted with a 2 year moving average
- 10 years annual number of visitors with a 2 year moving average
- 10 years average membership additions with a 2 year moving average
- 10 years of visitor retention rates (percentage of visitors become members or regular attendees each year)
- Demographic comparison of the congregation with the neighborhood
After leading them through the presentation you may – if you sense that things are moving in the right direction – want to push the closing question. “Is it time for us to change some things up around here?”
If you sense that you’re getting pushback or that they need to let it percolate for a while, wait and meet with the decision makers and key influencers one-on-one. This will allow you to gauge where the support and resistance are. That way you’ll know what additional groundwork needs to be done before you ask them to retain an outside consultant.
I’ve seen this process used effectively in various churches, especially in those cases where the tenured pastor finally realizes that if things continue as they are, the church will eventually fail.
You can’t go from zero to sixty without first going from zero to ten! So while you want to begin a steady push toward this all important decision, be sure to prepare them for it!
What have you learned about how to prepare a church to make a tough decision?
- I see evangelism as one step in the disciple making process and tend to treat them as components on a continuum (from unbeliever to believer to fully conformed to the image of Jesus). I don’t know if my colleagues hold this same perspective or not, so don’t attribute this to Turnaround Pastors Inc. but to me only.
- In my years of consulting with pastors and churches I’ve found that people are notoriously unclear about what characterizes a disciple. What does it really mean – in thought, word and deed – to be a “fully devoted” follower of Jesus?