Recently, I read an article with which I agreed almost entirely, Ed Stetzer’s “Some Churches Should Die and Stay Dead.” But as I read the article I found myself in an odd position. I was reacting negatively, viscerally, to the article – even though I could find no essential disagreement. I felt defensive and couldn’t really understand why. His advice on re-planting churches was helpful and wise. So, what was my problem? As I ruminated on it (with the holidays, I’ve had a little more time to do that), I realized that it was not the article, but a general ecclesiological zeitgeist I discern in denominational life that troubles me.
As someone who serves a smaller church (we’re big by Iowa standards, small by everyone else’s), and a church that is struggling to gain traction, to grow, to understand it’s mission, and to cope with cultural change, I sense a subtle message that is often communicated from denominational entities, from strategists, from those who are in a very different cultural milieu than the one in which I live.
I need to give some background for what I am going to say. Though I referenced Ed Stetzer’s article, this is not meant to be a response to what he said. It was as I read the article that some of the things I was thinking congealed in my mind. This is not about Ed, against Ed or anything to do with Ed or the article he wrote, but about a more general mindset I’ve observed in our denominational life. I am going to take the scenic route as I head towards making a point. I hope this does not become as long as some of Bart Barber’s classics.
The Baptist Good Old Days
There was a time when Southern Baptist churches tended to share a cultural bond. I am convinced that this bond was the cement that held us together more than our theology or our mission. We had our differences, but for the most part, we sang out of the same hymnal (literally and figuratively). Our sermons tended to follow a common pattern. We had the same programs and the same church structures. We had Sunday School, with the BSSB curriculum, morning worship at 11 (10:45 if your church was progressive). You had Training Union at 6 and evening Worship at 7. Wednesday night was Prayer Meeting and RAs and GAs. Baptist churches didn’t do things like AWANAs back then! The church was governed by committees. The song leader waved his arms in a four step pattern that looked a little like genuflecting and said things like, “You can’t sing ‘Standing on the Promises’ while you are sitting on the premises.” The ushers blessed the gift and the giver every service. We sang a couple of verses of the invitation and then were warned that if no one came on the next verse, we would close. That is how things were done – the law of the Medes and the Baptists. There were always some maverick churches and pastors out there, but in the 50s and 60s there was a discernable, identifiable, quantifiable SBC cultural identity that bound us together as a denomination.
In the last 40 or 50 years, that has been completely shattered. We look at the CR as the thing that divided us, but that was minor compare to the cultural fracturing that has taken place among Southern Baptists. The CR hastened that fracturing and opened the door wider, but most of this would have happened anyway.
And Then This Happened
There are several things that have happened that changed everything. Denominational boundaries began to break down. The Promisekeepers movement had a profound impact on Baptist churches (whether it was the chicken or the egg could perhaps be debated). Men went to big arenas and worshiped with praise bands and enjoyed crossing denominational lines and then went back to their churches and suddenly the church down the street didn’t seem like the enemy anymore.
Racial barriers broke down. The Baptist culture of the 50s and 60s that I mentioned – and that some today see as the ecclesiological gold standard and the hope of the SBC – was lily white. Our church in Cedar Rapids had a black member in the 60s. One. And that made us racial trailblazers! As racial barriers in our culture were torn down, the barriers in Baptist churches became less and less defensible.
There are many other issues we could discuss, but there are two trends I want to mention today.
The Rise of the Megachurch
First, we saw the rise of the megachurch. The way megachurches operate and the way my church operates are two completely different animals. Bigger churches and smaller churches in the “good old days” spoke the same language with different accents – British and American English, let’s say. Today, megachurches and churches like mine don’t even speak the same dialect – different worlds, different tongues. The SBC is divided between the vast majority of its churches (which are smaller) and the churches that the vast majority of Southern Baptists attend (which are large). If I understand those statistics properly, my church is on the high end of the “small church” category.
Most of those smaller churches (and more than a few of the bigger ones) in the SBC are either plateaued or declining in numbers. The SBC is focused on and celebrates that minority of churches that are large and rapidly growing – all the conference speakers and leaders come from that small sampling of churches. Churches like mine are generally only represented in the cheap seats (except if lightning strikes and an Iowa pastor gets elected to a largely meaningless office).
My church is squarely in the ranks of the average, struggling churches. If anyone from my church reads this post, I hope they will forgive their pastor for his public bluntness. We are a plateaued church. When I arrived 9.5 years ago, the church was wounded from a terrible split. We’ve managed to put that troubled time behind us, but we’ve never been able to regain our traction and start growing again. We are now about where we were when I arrived. We’ve gone up, we’ve gone down. We’ve added some, we’ve had some leave (many moved, more than a few funerals, and a few got upset); we’ve held our own. The thing I find most troubling is our baptismal numbers. One side of my head is flat from banging it against the wall trying to figure out the problem, but we’ve just not seen the fruit we’d like to.
Let’s just say that when I sit down with a group of preachers and everyone starts bragging about their numerical successes, I am likely to bring up sports to change the subject.
The Culture Wars
The other issue, perhaps the bigger issue, is the complete cultural shift in the church that has taken place since the 1960s. The church I described above, the traditional SBC church, is now on the endangered species list. That may be a good thing. As the world changes, church culture needs to change. But older people who get used to a certain culture can find it unsettling and upsetting when the church world around them changes so drastically. In the name of being “missional” many churches have jettisoned everything that was familiar and comfortable to my generation, and especially to those who were older. Often we’ve tagged this “The Worship Wars” because the flashpoint has been musical style. But I’m convinced music is the symptom of a deeper issue – the clash of the traditions of a day gone by and the new ways of the modern world.
One older man, a pastor who has devoted 60 years to serving churches in our convention, told me, “I don’t understand church anymore. I don’t understand the songs they sing. I don’t understand the sermons they preach. It all feels foreign. There’s no place for me to go to church anymore.”
I suspect, sometimes, that we’ve not rejected tradition but replaced one set of traditions with another. Have you ever noticed that “worship leaders” all tend to talk with the same voice inflection? The suit and tie of my day has been replaced with the torn jeans and tats. Instead of waving his arms, the worship leader raises his hands. Different traditions, but traditions nonetheless. But that is not germane.
Our church is in a unique position today. We have made some small attempts to be more appealing to a more contemporary audience, but we have a lot of older folks who love God, love the Word, love the church, and also love the way things used to be. One church in our city (not Baptist) told the older folks that they could embrace the contemporary ways or hit the streets. Mostly, they walked. That church is now the closest thing to a megachurch Sioux City has (though I’m not a fan of some of their theological stands). Strategically, that might be the best route for Southern Hills – look toward the future and tell the folks that are tied to the past to get with it or get out of the way.
But I’ve not been willing to do that. I find traditionalism infuriating and frustrating at times, but these people love Jesus and serve him. They aren’t enemies of the gospel because they can’t see the value of the new ways of today. They genuinely believe that God is more honored by the way church was done “back in the day.” Most aren’t mean-spirited about it, but they are convictional. Ought I steamroll their convictions to “grow the church?”
So, that’s where I live. I pastor a church that is caught right in the middle of the great cultural divide of our day. We are a traditional church (even our “contemporary” service is pretty traditional) in a world that increasingly views traditional as antithetical to missional. We are plateaued in a Baptist world that honors numerical growth and statistical success.
As I attempt to wander this winding trail toward actually making my point, let me quote something Ed said early in his article.
“Don’t misread me here. Not every struggling church needs to die. Some churches go through rough spots and come out stronger on the other side. Many that appear to be in their winter years can be revitalized and become effective again through leadership changes or, more likely, through a powerful move of God that stirs their affections and motivates them to love and good deeds. Revitalization happens and should happen more.”
Amen. Who can disagree with that?
There are undoubtedly churches that need to simply admit it isn’t working and it isn’t going to work. Give up the ghost and see what God might do in the future.
So, an article I agree with gave me the heebie-jeebies. Why? I finally realized it was three words in that quote.
“Become effective again.”
What makes a church effective?
Again, I’ve got no quarrel with the Goatee, or his use of the term here. If you are talking about whether or not to close a church, the effectiveness ship has sailed. The churches he speaks of long ago lost their ministry effectiveness and need to get it back, whether through renewal or rebirth. But it was those words that were at the root of my angst. There is a general mindset that I have seen too often, that equates traditional with ineffective. It is this general mindset I’d like to challenge.
As a blogger, I relate almost exclusively to people who are younger than I am – generally much younger; the age of my two oldest sons. Many of you are in youth-oriented churches where these issues never come up. The church I described above, the traditional SBC church, sounds as foreign to you as the modern church sounds to the older pastor I mentioned a few paragraphs above.
I sense, and perhaps it is just my defensiveness talking here, that in the modern church mindset, traditional is synonymous with ineffective and antonymous to missional. There is a subtle message that goes out to those of us who pastor smaller churches, churches that aren’t growing rapidly, baptizing dozens or hundreds, expanding exponentially, that we are ineffective, outmoded and failing to grasp the mission of God.
It’s not just paranoia. In my last church we hosted a group from Tennessee, from a very large church there. The pastor flew in separately from the rest of his group, which came by bus. I drove to the airport to pick him up, and as we were driving home, he told me this, “There are two kinds of churches: big churches that are doing God’s work and little churches that are doing nothing.” It was an interesting thing to say to an Iowa pastor.
He said it. But that message is implied at other times. If you aren’t big, if you aren’t growing, if your church isn’t expanding, then your ministry is not effective, not missional, and you need to get with the program.
Here’s my conflict. I don’t completely disagree. If I were willing to force changes at Southern Hills, we might be better positioned for growth and for the future. But what about the people we’d have to push out, or at least push to the side, to get there? What is effective pastoring, effective ministry, an effective church?
Is the way we measure effectiveness today the right way? We measure it almost exclusively in numbers, in growth, in trends. Well, that and hype – using social media to trumpet how wonderful our ministries are seems to have replaced the divinely ordained method – bragging at the associational pastors’ meetings!
How can we measure effectiveness? Are there ways to measure ministry effectiveness that aren’t reflected numerically?
Can we measure it in pastoral faithfulness?
I talked to a pastor last week who is frustrated in his small and struggling church. In fact, my conversation with him, at about the same time as I read this article, caused my thinking to gel. I’m not sure how big his church is, but my impression is that it is very small and not rapidly growing. But he is a faithful pastor. He’s there when those people need him. He visits and visits and visits – a ministry skill often disdained in modern circles. Is that effective? He’ll never be asked to speak at a pastor’s conference, but I wonder what Heaven thinks.
Can it be measured in fruit over time?
Our baptism numbers aren’t going to impress anyone. In fact, they embarrass and trouble me, as I said.
But I’ll tell you this. Our children’s and youth ministries have produced some solid young believers who are sticking with the faith even when they are grown, married and on their own. Some have moved on to more contemporary churches, but they serve Jesus. Some of our young church leaders came up through our youth ministry. They are the fruit of our ministry. Is that effective?
Can we measure community service?
My friend Ken pastors a little Baptist church about 20 miles from here in the town he grew up in. He started attending the church years ago when our church planted it. He went to Midwestern and when the former pastor left, he hired on. Ken is nobody’s firebrand. But he has a good a heart as anyone I know. He is the pastor everyone goes to in the town when something bad happens, even those who attend other churches. His church is never going to lead the convention in much of anything. But it is a faithful lighthouse in that little town. Is that effective?
Is it possible that God judges effectiveness differently than we do? Is it possible that the cookie-cutter approach we take isn’t always the best way? Is it possible that in certain settings, smaller, struggling, traditional churches, even those whose numbers are read as part of the problem in the SBC – that these churches in their own ways can have effective ministries?
Putting a Bow on It
I realize two things here: 1) My complaint is visceral and therefore nebulous. I wish I could be more specific. But I feel this pressure in denominational circles to conform to a certain pattern that, for the foreseeable future at least, Southern Hills Baptist in Sioux City cannot do. 2) Some are going to think I’m criticizing contemporary churches. I’m not.
If I was starting a church today, it would:
- Have a simple structure, based around small groups.
- Use a contemporary worship model.
- Focus on community ministry, not church programs.
But that is not where I live. I pastor a deeply traditional church in a conservative community. Maybe the next pastor at Southern Hills will come in, blow things up, and take SHBC into the megachurch mode. Maybe. But that’s not me. It’s not my personality and it’s not my conviction.
But I think we can do some effective ministry even if we don’t match the “missional” model that is all the rage today. Just because we don’t conform to the popular pattern doesn’t mean we can’t do some real, effective and eternal ministry in the name of Christ.
What is my conclusion? I think every church ought to seek to grow, ought to do what it can to be numerically and statistically effective. It boggles my mind when I hear pastors who seem to think that NOT growing and NOT reaching people is somehow something to be proud of in ministry. It’s not. My church’s statistical struggles trouble me. We try to figure out ways to correct them. I preach. We pray. We seek renewal.
But on the other hand, don’t be too quick to throw a plateaued church into the denominational dustbin. Our church reaches some people, teaches some people, disciples some people, supports missions and contributes to the kingdom. It is unlikely that the denominational press will be writing articles about us anytime soon. If they do, it will be a true movement of God. But small, struggling churches can do some significant, eternal ministry in spite of all our struggles.
There are some that need to die and be reborn. No question. But a lot of traditional, small, struggling, plateaued, dyed-in-the-wool, won’t-change-for-nuttin’ churches are doing some good work for the kingdom in their own small way.
Don’t write us off too soon.
- (Oh, boy, just went OVER 3000 words and into Bart Barber territory).