Over the past several years I have been in many conversations about the revitalization of plateaued or dying churches. In these discussions, there is usually a lot of lamenting over the decline of particular churches, along with the decline of denominations as a whole. The hand wringing is normally followed by a series of ideas or approaches to remedy the problem. In nearly every case the conversation quickly moves towards the need for a new program that will bring vitality back into the dying church. Over the past couple of years, I have noticed the most frequent “solutions” involve providing resources to equip people in the church to be more committed members, provide better, more creative ways of doing evangelism or help leaders strengthen their preaching ministry.
However, I would argue that none of these “fixes” addresses the root of the problem. Doing more of what we have done is the past is not the answer. In the midst of these meetings, I often hear the words of my friend Alan Hirsch saying; “We are perfectly designed to achieve what we are currently achieving” and “what got us here, will not get us where we need to be.”
The “solution” must begin by recognizing the church’s relationship to the culture in terms of a missionary encounter. In other words, to see that in a post-Christendom context the church once again exists within an alien world. The mission field is no longer located somewhere else; instead, it surrounds us on every side. While there is no one final and perfect solution for shifting a dying church in a healthy direction, if there was one—a silver bullet—it would involve recapturing the missionary nature of the church and the significant implications that has for engaging God’s mission more fully.
God’s people need to be empowered as agents of the king. We need to learn how to think as incarnational missionaries. Furthermore, we need to develop skills that will help us meaningfully engage our contexts. These skills involve learning how to better identify and participate in God’s activity in our neighborhoods, through our vocations and the public spaces we inhabit.
However, beyond equipping people with specific missionary practices, the church must be prepared to freely release people into their missional calling. The church needs to give permission. In other words, it needs to say to its members that it is good to start new initiatives. It is right to take risks for the kingdom. It is okay to miss a church meeting when you are engaged in activities with those uninterested in the church. Missionary formation involves the giving of language and license. We must give people new missionary language, but we must also give them the license to go and do what God has called them to. Which in most cases will not be located in the church but instead will be positioned in the world where God has already placed them in their everyday lives.
In Leadership Without Easy Answers author, Ronald Heifetz makes a distinction between organizational change and cultural change. Attempts at organizational change typically involve restructuring of some type, along with the use of new programs, processes, and techniques. Cultural change, on the other hand, looks at how to create a new culture or environment, which will, in turn, require a completely new set of skills and capacities. The point in this discussion is that we have to stop thinking that the solution is making organizational changes in the way we “do” church and begin creating cultural changes towards making God’s mission the organizing principle of everything else we do. Only then, as we are informed by the missio Dei (God’s mission) will we be able to make the appropriate and necessary organizational changes.