5 Ways to Make Your Church Irrelevant

declining churches

And what decisive leaders do instead

Of all the organizations that have been hit hard by the pandemic, the church stands out as being particularly devastated.

The longer this goes, though, the more the struggle appears self-inflicted.

In the early days of COVID, pastors showed incredibly flexibility, agility and even some entrepreneurial drive as they pivoted to online ministry, started showing up on social, and really reached out to people where they found them.

Then, as church buildings reopened, it’s like almost overnight someone turned off the innovation faucet. The chant quickly became, “Everybody back in the building.”

Except, of course, many people (in some cases, most people) didn’t come back to the building.

And the two-decade downward slide in in-person worship attendance not only continued, it accelerated.

If you’re going to reverse the trend, what do you do?

Well, here are five things you shouldn’t do, unless, of course, you want to take the fastest path to irrelevance.

1. Make Sure Your Vision of the Future Looks a Lot Like the Past.

The more successful you’ve been in the past, the harder it is to embrace anything new.

Success makes you conservative. The risk-taking and entrepreneurial spirit that got you results in the past gives way to a fear that you’re going to “wreck it” or mess with the momentum you have.

The question becomes what you do when that momentum crests or stops.

The instinct most of us have (myself included) is to go back to what got us momentum in the first place. In other words, to go back to best practices.

That’s not a bad instinct, except that unless you see almost immediate momentum you quickly get diminishing returns with that approach.

The challenge for a lot of church leaders is that the momentum has been waning for years.

As a result, no matter how sincerely, passionately or intentionally you embrace the approach that earned you past success, the less likely it is that it will bring you future success.

Consequently, your vision for the future isn’t much of a vision. It’s just a repeat of things that used to work/might work/probably won’t work anymore.

When your vision for the future looks a lot like the past, you haven’t got much of a future.

2. Ignore People’s Changing Behavior.

Underneath the lack of innovation and diminishing returns is a deeper problem: People have changed.

There has hardly been a more significant change in people’s attitudes, habits and patterns than what we’ve seen in the opening years of the 2020s.

The question is less “What’s changed?” and more a question of “What hasn’t changed?”

From remote working and the Great Resignation, to the Great Migration (so many people moving) and the explosion of online options, to the polarization, disconnection, and emerging cynicism so many people are experiencing, there is little that hasn’t changed.

The gap between how quickly you change and how quickly things change is called irrelevance. The bigger the gap, the more irrelevant you become.

It’s not that you have to pander to people’s preferences, but you do need to understand them and, to a certain extent, cooperate with them.

For example, for years now people have led a hybrid life, slipping effortlessly between accessing things and relationships online and in real life.

To ignore that as a church is a mistake. To engage that is to ignite the possibility of growth.

3. Disregard Your Numb Heart.

When you go back to an old approach to church that was already sputtering, it’s no surprise that doing it “one more time with feeling” isn’t going to produce much.

Making that even more complicated, many church leaders don’t have a lot of feeling left, having been numbed by the chaos of the last few years.

And if you want to get really honest, a lot of leaders limped into the crisis of 2020 with hearts already in rough shape.

The importance of this can hardly be overstated.

As a general rule, your congregation’s passion for ministry will rarely exceed your personal passion for ministry. And if you no longer have a deep passion because you can’t really feel anything, well, that’s an issue on so many levels.

Having led through a season of ministry with a nearly dead heart, I promise that you can recover.

I outline some of my burnout story in this article, and share the strategy that’s helped thousands of leaders (including me) get their hearts and life back here.

Although 38% pastors are seriously thinking of quitting ministry, that’s not much of a solution for curing a numb or dead heart.

Here’s why: You bring who you are into whatever future you choose.

If you don’t heal your heart, you become like the person who embraces a second marriage but enters with all the unresolved issues from a first marriage, or like someone who carries on with bad spending habits after they’ve been released from bankruptcy. If something underneath doesn’t change, you’re likely going to see the same results. Or worse.

At an even deeper level, though, why would you want to live and lead out of a dead heart?

Fix that (through counseling, prayer, deep heart work), and everything will start to come alive. Ignore it, and you have a host of other problems waiting for you.

4. Keep Trying to Please People.

You might not think of yourself as a people pleaser, but most of us are.

If you think you have no people-pleasing tendencies, just remember how you felt the last time someone criticized you.

Not fun is it?

Even those of us who don’t think we’re people pleasers feel the pressure to want to please people some of the time.

If you really drill down, what’s underneath a lot of people-pleasing is fear.

Fear that people will leave.

Fear that people won’t be happy.

Being more afraid of losing people than reaching people.

The challenge is that the gravitational pull we all feel in leadership to please everybody is almost always counterproductive.

Keep pursuing that path and you even end up being nothing to nobody.

To make matters worse, your most capable volunteers, donors and leaders have a sixth sense that detects people-pleasing behavior.

When you give into multiple voices and the mission is in decline, your best leaders will make a beeline for the door.

They won’t make a lot of noise. They’ll just quietly disappear. And you will be left without great people around you and a bunch of people who still aren’t quite happy yet.

In your attempt to upset no one, you just might become irrelevant to everyone.

5. Focus on Management, Not Leadership.

Great management is essential to any organization that wants to thrive long term.

This is true for everything from managing people, to managing finances and procedures. Bringing at least some order out of chaos is the hallmark of any great organization.

But excellent management is not great leadership.

And when the future is uncertain and your current model is failing you, you don’t need great management, you need leadership.

Here’s the tension: Managers manage what has already been built. Leaders create new things.

Leaders live in tomorrow. Managers live in today. Live in today too long, and you’ll miss tomorrow.

As Les McKeown so capably points out (you can listen to me interview him here), organizations that thrive over the long haul have both great systems and entrepreneurial zeal that push them forward.

It’s easy to think a well-run organization is a sign of great leadership. It is—but only if you keep building into the future.

Otherwise, you simply have an efficient and well-managed ride into the graveyard.

The West is littered with the shells of churches that were well managed but poorly led. Without fresh leadership, that’s where most declining churches are heading.

FIND SOME HOPE

If your church is going to thrive in the next few years, simply do the opposite of what declining churches are doing:

• Find a vision for the future that’s different from your vision in the past.

• Become a student of cultural change and learn how to adapt your methods.

• Revitalize your heart, keeping it open and supple.

• Stop focusing on pleasing people and start focusing on reaching people.

• Lead, don’t just manage.

The church has never been more needed than it is now, and churches that figure out how to make it through the next few years will thrive.

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This article originally appeared on CareyNieuwhof.com and is reposted here by permission.