Thursday, April 20, 2017

Change or die. . . but keep doing the things you do well?

Thom Rainer, the change or die guru of church growth, recently wrote about the five things that traditional churches (those that don't change) do well.  He vows never to stop saying "change or die" but he does acknowledge that traditional churches do certain things well.
  1. The members have a deep love and concern for one another. Go into many traditional churches and you will see members caring for one another, taking meals to each other, and praying consistently for one another.
  2. They are loyal to the institution. I have argued in other articles that institutional loyalty taken to an extreme is unhealthy. But the inverse is true as well. Members with no institutional loyalty will move from one church to another with little concern. Traditional church members tend to be fiercely loyal to the churches where they are members.
  3. They are passionate about giving to missions. It seems to be in the congregational DNA of many traditional churches. If there is a mission cause put before the church, these members often give abundantly.
  4. They offer stability to the congregation. Because of their loyalty and devotion to their church, traditional church members offer stability and steadiness to local congregations. They will continue to give, to serve, and to care for others even in challenging times in the church.
  5. The members have a historical perspective that can be healthy for the church. Many of them have seen the best of times and the worst of times. The traditional church member has a healthy perspective that realizes God is above the crisis or the situation of the moment. Sometimes just hearing from these members about how the church survived a crisis in the past can be encouragement for the congregation to move to the future.
What he lauds should have been obvious, but it is not as obvious to Rainer or to those quick to write off the traditional church.  Traditional congregations are better at their love and support for one another but this is also not something automatic to traditional vs contemporary and this is something fostered by the shape of these congregations but also perhaps encouraged by their smaller size. 

I would suggest that institutional loyalty needs to be unpacked.  Yes, these congregations are more identified with the larger denomination and they are very loyal to their local church.  This is not something blind but an informed loyalty.  They identify with their church's confessions and they are generally more convinced of their doctrinal stance than those who are attracted to contemporary churches (mega, large, or small).  It is a loyalty not simply to the building or the people but to the faith.

Strange how often I have found that small, generally rural congregations have produced many pastors, missionaries and church workers -- well beyond their proportionate size.  My own congregation has never had an a regular attendance over a hundred and now is about half that size and yet they have produced  dozens of pastors, teachers, and other church workers.  In addition, they are passionate about the support of those preparing for the Lord's service.  They supported me every year of college and seminary and paid for the material costs of a full set of eucharistic vestments (all colors) when I was ordained.  They take their mission support seriously and the proportion of their budget sent to the work of the kingdom beyond their locale is generally much higher than larger churches.

The last two go together.  These churches are stable but it is because they have a perspective on history and themselves that seems designed to avoid the quick and easy judgements that characterize other churches.  Folks in the pew have learned to quickly lose interest or enthusiasm of contemporary churches that take a back seat to whatever cutting edge trend moves through evangelical Christianity.  In the same way, church leaders there tend to be less wedded to tradition, to doctrine, and to stability in the pursuit of what is new, relevant, and attractive.  It does not help that a significant number of those who do not attend traditional congregations move rather freely from one big box church to another and these have a bigger segment of revolving door attenders than traditionals do.  But underneath all of this is the fact that traditional congregations and churches do talk about membership and commitment while larger and contemporary churches tend to talk about attenders.  Membership and commitment fosters stability in the pew and in the pulpit and reminds both that the church was there before they were and, if they have not screwed it up, it will probably be there long after they leave.  Roots are important for us as people and for our faith.  Traditional churches foster this sense of rootedness both in the denominational history and in the congregation itself.

Although generalizations can be dangerous, the kind of churches that listen to Thom Rainer tend to be those who value spirituality over doctrine, relevance above truth, and people getting what they want over faithfulness in confession and practice.  They also tend to be quick to adopt whatever somebody else is doing that appears to work and re-invent themselves regularly.  In contrast, the traditional church says the dreaded words "this is the way we have always done it" -- words that cause some to shudder and others to rejoice that we do not have to invent the wheel every time we want to drive the car.  Creed, confession, catechism, hymnal, and history all are important to traditional churches while they are not even found in the other kind.  Finally, I wonder if it might also be fair to say that traditional churches tend to focus on the kingdom while the non-trads seem to focus more on the individual.  At least that has been my experience.  All in all, change or die may not be the mantra found in traditional churches and this is not a bad thing.


John Joseph Flanagan said...

Excellent points. In my experience, I have been in both small and large congregations and found vibrant churches and very dull ones regardless of size. I think the energy and optimism of the pastor and the church leaders will make a huge difference in the participation of the congregation, because enthusiasm is contagious. Love for Christ and one another, joy in worship and dedication to missions and sharing the Gospel are truly, as the article noted, very real characteristics of a faithful church.

Anonymous said...

All in all, change or die may not be the mantra found in traditional churches and this is not a bad thing.

Too often true doctrine suffers in the 'change' churches. It is not popular to hold to the truth that has been passed down through the ages. It takes a very steadfast and faithful Pastor to not give in to change for change sake. And a congregation that is very wise in the ways of what is really important as you have illustrated here. It is better to build on rock than on sand. Jesus was not concerned at all with what His ministry 'looked like.'

"I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them." Rom. 16


Anonymous said...

It is extremely difficult to be loyal to the LCMS when all I keep reading about is bad news. As an LCMS Lutheran, how do you distinguish loyalty to Christianity from loyalty to the (politically-charged and dysfunctional) LCMS? Such negative news about the LCMS church body is making me want to walk away from church......

Below are two websites that features occasional articles regarding the ongoing problems in the LCMS:

I don't subscribe to Christian News, but if I did, then there would be three sources of constant negative news.

What will allow the LCMS to grow and thrive again?

Carl Vehse said...


Have you asked that question on Steadfastlutherans or Luther Quest?

Also, would you, as a LCMS Lutheran, clarify? First you stated that these two websites feature "occasional articles regarding the ongoing problems in the LCMS." Then you state that those websites (along with Christian News) are three source of "constant negative news." Which is it?