On Thursday, we looked at the first three shifts to experience transformation in our churches. Today, I’ll share the final three.
Shift 4: The church must make the shift from swapping members to having the primary growth strategy of going after people who do not yet belong
This seems to be where most churches struggle. According to Rick Richardson’s research, only 40 percent of the churches in America are growing. However, only 10 percent of these churches are experience growth through conversion. That means the other 30 percent of churches that grow are doing so by swapping members. [See his book, You Found Me.]
Don’t misunderstand me here. It’s not like I’m against transferring from one church to another. I realize there are many good reasons to transfer church membership. Other church leaders have written some good articles about this.
What I am suggesting here is for churches to stop relying and [even] celebrating “growth” when the growth has been predominantly through transfer. The reality is, transfer growth is inflated growth. It’s not like transfer growth pushes back darkness. True church growth transfers people from the domain of darkness into the glorious light of Christ.
If we were honest, much transfer growth happens with disgruntled members over tertiary or preferential issues. And rather than sit down to talk about the issue, they leave without notice.
If I had to guess, there are a lot of serial transfer memberships, because if you leave one church because of issues, it is only a matter of time before you leave another church. Why? Because all churches have issues! All churches are made up of imperfect people being perfected into the image of Christ. Therefore, it is only a matter of time before church leaders and churches either make a mistake or do something that doesn’t please or cater to everyone.
When churches make it a priority to go primarily after those who have yet to belong—those who are far from Jesus–they will find the joy and freedom that a new believer brings to congregational life because they tend to focus and feast on the gospel rather than focus and give feedback on what they like and don’t like.
Shift 5: Members need to shift the way they see the church from a transactional organization to a familial relationship
It seems that brand loyalty has largely disappeared in today’s culture. Today consumers hunt for the best deals, the most amazing experiences, and the greatest entertainment. It’s a cut-throat world competing for opinionated consumers.
A bad experience, sub-par food, terrible service, or poor-quality can easily influence a customer never to return again. Why? The relationship between customer and institution (or organization) is transactional.
Tim Keller in his book on marriage distinguishes between a contractional (transactional) view of marriage verses a covenant view. In a contractional marriage, we will find it difficult to commit to anything because we will always fear that we are potentially missing out on something better—especially when our current commitments are not meeting our desires and expectations. Keller then remarks, “consumer relationships operate out of a mindset that essentially says, ‘Adjust to me, or I’m out of here’” (The Meaning of Marriage-Study 2).
On the other hand, a covenant view of marriage operates “out of the Biblical mindset that states, ‘I will adjust to you, and I’m not going anywhere.’ In a covenant relationship, my needs are not as important to me as the good of the relationship.” (The Meaning of Marriage-Study 2).
I highlight what Keller says about marriage, because as believers we have been saved by Christ and have entered into a covenant with him. While this covenant with Christ may have a personal nature to it, the covenant that Christ solidified by His death and resurrection is corporate with God’s people—His church. Therefore, the nature of the New Testament covenant is familial.
Joseph Hellerman, in his book When the Church was a Family, stresses the notion that the church should view herself more as a “family.” The Apostle Paul writes in Galatians, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us work for the good of all, especially for those who belong to the household of faith” (Gal .6:10).
To understand such truth, Hellerman unpacks how the ancient Near East understood family. He notes that in the New Testament world:
- The group took priority over the individual.
- A person’s most important group was his blood family.
- the closest family bond was not the bond of marriage. It was the bond between siblings. (p. 50, Kindle Edition)
I share all of this because bodies of believers that want to shift from a country club to a commissioned church must start seeing each other as family. Sure, all families have dysfunction—some more serious than others.
However, God didn’t design His family to have contractional or transactional relationships that center around the individual’s needs or desires, but on the covenantal foundation of Jesus’ blood and life that unites [diverse] individuals together as an agape family.
Therefore, rather than walking out at the first sign of trouble or disappointment—only to go down the street to another “club”—brothers and sisters should be able to come together in Christ’s love and grace and work out differences—especially when most differences in churches are tertiary and preferential.
Shift 6: Church leadership will need to shift from being customer service representatives to becoming shepherds that defend the essence of the church
Complaints (or complainers) aren’t new to God-appointed leaders. In fact, Moses knew them all too well. However, how leaders engage and deal with complainers can either propel or prohibit the mission of God through His people.
In our culture, business and organizations are customer-centric, which means they strive to create a positive experience for the customer by what they offer and how they offer it—just like a country club. And if a customer has a bad experience, good consumer-centered businesses go into damage control mode trying to diffuse the negativity, anger, or hostility of the customer.
One of the problems today in the American church is that many want church done their way, as if church is a Burger King. And what typically happens is that the complaints of members fall onto the ears of church leaders who mean well but want everyone to be happy and content—they want calm and peace.
As a result, there is vision drift from the mission of God because it has been thwarted by the voices of the vocal minority. Peace at the cost of God’s mission isn’t peace, but disobedience. When leaders try and make everyone in church a winner, God becomes the loser.
I want to tread carefully here, so not to make people think I don’t care about church members. I’m a shepherd at heart and by call. I love the church. However, churches are to be sheep-focused, mission-oriented, and Christ-centered.
As a result, the goal of church leaders isn’t to make church people happy, it is to drive them to be more conformed into Christ’s image. And the more conformed one is in the image of Jesus, the more postured for and towards the world they will be.
This doesn’t mean church leaders (and churches) don’t make mistakes or mishandle situations that inflame emotions or tensions. It’s not to dismiss how many church leaders fail to communicate effectively in making decisions—which is something that stirs up negative emotions.
The point is that church leaders who serve more as customer service representatives do the church (and thus the members) a disservice in confusing them as to the essence of the church. They are there to mobilize God’s people to be on mission as they are conformed more into the image of Jesus, not to make sure they have an awesome religious experience.
The most loving (and missional) thing church leaders can do with complainers and naysayers is to help them see the biblical vision of a God-breathed commissioned church compared to a personal preferred vision of a self-absorbed country club church.
In closing, I pray that the church in the West would be a missional vehicle that mobilizes believers to reflect the glory of God by living selfless lives postured for and towards the world as they reflect the already but not yet kingdom.
When churches do this, they live as salt and light in a world that is both in decay and darkness. To enact this missional vision will require many American churches to make the shift from a country club to a commissioned church mindset.
Josh Laxton currently serves as the Assistant Director of the Billy Graham Center, Lausanne North American Coordinator at Wheaton College, and a co-host of the podcast Living in the Land of Oz. He has a Ph.D. in North American Missiology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.