This past Monday (Oct 6), I went to a Transformational Church conference in Ozark, MO, with a couple of fellow pastors. After a day of listening to Ed Stetzer and Micah Fries discuss what could properly be called issues of church revitalization, we headed home but not before a stop at Lambert’s Café—home of the throwed rolls (if you have never experienced such, you must, you must).
Delicious flying rolls aside, I want to write some about the conference and the book. After all, the idea of church revitalization is near and dear to me. I am closing in on the end of two years in the CR Doctorate of Ministry track at Midwestern Baptist, and a few days from my final seminar before entering the project and dissertation phase. My fellow students and I who have just finished up our CR core of classes were part of a program restart of sorts. It had its ups and downs, but overall the focus has been useful.
Simply put, far too many churches in our culture (including mine) have lived too long in the Land of Plateau and Decline (as opposed to Milk and Honey). Churches intended by God to be world-upending beacons of hope and transformation are struggling to stay afloat. The status quo ain’t working, and something’s gotta give.
I like Transformational Church the conference and books (also: Transformational Discipleship, and Transformational Groups—recently purchased but have not yet read this last one) because they are not alarmist. Rather, they encourage and provide hope for a constructive path forward. More on that in a moment.
Before I really dig in, though, I must say: when at a conference partially headed by Ed Stetzer, be careful what you do. I was going to send a friend a wee bit of a snarky text to let him know where I was at (yes, I’m that friend), so I took a picture of Dr. Stetzer. I thought I had my flash turned off, but…oops. He paused and said, “Another picture? What’s with the pictures?” I replied, “It’s the beard” (see: attached picture, and yes it is a bit fuzzy, I was trying to be discrete. Fail.).
But alas, he did not hear the d. No, Ed, I did not say, “It’s the beer.” Come on, man! Probably a good thing that I don’t tweet on twitter. (Though…that beard!)
The number one lesson I learned from the conference: be sure to annunciate to men with long goatees; the length of hair obviously affects hearing.
Now to the heart: The ideas of TC are hopeful because the research provided by LifeWay’s team cuts through the noise of bad statistics. In other words, church dropout rate is not accelerating and the sky is not falling. Stetzer provided an analysis (slight rounding in the numbers to make it easier to communicate, but he said not by much) of the religious beliefs of our American population past and present and trending towards the future. Basically, using a broad category “Christian” definition: 25% of the population is non-Christian; 25% are cultural Christians (they will use the label but that’s about it); 25% are congregational Christians (they show up on special occasions); and 25% are convictional Christians (their beliefs actually mean something to them). About half of this last quarter are committed evangelicals.
These numbers have been steady for decades according to Stetzer.
He referred to the middle 50% as nominal Christians. His analysis of what we’re seeing in our culture is that a few decades ago these nominal Christians had enough trust in the church establishment to guide their cultural worldview. However, throughout the years they have (1) grown tired of church scandals, (2) grown tired of church infighting, and (3) no longer see the point of holding to views they don’t actually believe. Therefore their worldview is shifting from looking towards the committed 25% to looking towards the religiously unaffiliated (approximately half of that first 25% figure).
This is the direction we see our cultural political views going.
Stetzer also said if you want a view of what the future will hold for our culture, look at the college-aged students: about 32% regularly attend a religious service (with 25%+ being broadly Christian); 28% consider themselves to be secular; and the remaining third-ish consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.” So, trend wise, the committed figure will not change over the next few decades but we will see an increase in those who call themselves secular.
This does not mean that individual churches aren’t in trouble, many many are. This also doesn’t mean that we should be satisfied. We’re to strive to extend the hope of the gospel call to as many people who will listen.
However, to have healthy churches which exist as “a mission force in a vast mission field” we need a greater focus on discipleship. And that is ultimately what Transformational Church is all about.
I’m probably going to slightly butcher the exact quote, but Micah Fries said, “Jesus gave us one main command: go make disciples. When we stand before Christ at judgment our commitment to this will be what matters most.” I believe he’s right.
One of my favorite things about TC, unlike some of the other books I have read concerning church revitalization, centers on leadership. Churches need healthy, committed leadership. Strong character is the number one biblical qualification for a leader; and a leader is to live a life worthy of imitation (so, a Christ-like life). Many leadership books, however, add trait after trait on top of this. If you really want to be a strong leader who leads your church to greater heights and better health, you need to be visionary and exciting and great.
Stetzer and Thom Rainer wrote in Transformational Church, “God is not calling leaders to be great. He is calling leaders to become platforms on which God displays His greatness” (pg. 98). The vision of these leaders isn’t some grand dream they came up with who knows where, but it’s about God’s own definition of mission. It’s about leading people to build relationships with people, sharing the gospel, serving needs, and making disciples.
I’ve grown cross-eyed at way too many books that have said: “Yes, make disciples, but what’s your vision to do that!” Um…go, baptize, and teach. “No, no, no, what’s your vision?” Uh…love God and love others. “No, no, no. Yes, love and make disciples, but what’s your vision?”
Honestly, I have no idea what these books are talking about anymore. My vision is to love God and love others in order to help them love God and love others. My vision is to make disciples.
An old man at a Navigators conference I went to over a decade ago when I was in college said, “When I was younger, people always asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. I didn’t know, but I knew God wanted me to make disciples. Now at 80, I still have no idea what I want to be when I grow up, but I’ve been making disciples the whole way.”
Transformational Church, in my estimation, provides a blissful breath of the fresh air of simplicity. Yes, the brains behind it provide structures and analysis tools and consultation if you want, but it all comes back to this simple focus: make disciples. As a pastor I know I have to define that for and encourage that in God’s people under my charge, but it’s doable without the stress of wondering if my vision is shiny and happy enough to impress whoever exactly it is I’m supposed to be impressing.
 Ed Stetzer and Thom Rainer, Transformational Church (Nashville: B&H, 2010).