Problem 3: Are We Telling People What They Should Do or Inviting Them Into What We Are Doing?

The next hurdle we face in this multi-faceted machine is that with lots of people and lots of things to do, we find ourselves with more and more programs, and the need for more and more programs. In many ways, that alone is problematic enough. Not convinced?

Bob is the senior pastor of a moderately sized but growing church. By real life statistics in America, small churches are typically defined as having less than 100 in average attendance. Yes, you read that correctly. Our churches that hover around three or four hundred who still view themselves as a “small church” needs to hear this loud and clear. For every one of you, there are a dozen other smaller, struggling congregations- many even in your own communities. For purposes of this exercise, we’ll put Bob’s church right at the 100 bubble. Let’s call the church Promise Church- not only because of the message they preach but because of the promise they show for growth (which is really why we’re investigating this fictional entity in the first place, right?)

At this stage in the game, Promise Church mostly functions on the manpower of volunteers. Bob has a part-time secretary that doubles as a receptionist at the facility. The children’s director, worship leader, and youth director are all extremely capable free labor, as none of these jobs are deemed more than a few hours a week responsibility. As Promise begins to live up to its name, Bob and the elders decide it’s time to bring in an official Worship Leader (with a capital L) that can double as a Youth Pastor. Two part-time positions that, combined, give the church its second full-time position. Promise Church is now at a comfortable 150 in attendance and they can handle that in the new budget.

The volunteer worship leader tries to settle in as part of “the band”, but never really fits in with the new style and eventually drops out from leading in any meaningful way. Meanwhile, the husband and wife who used to lead the youth group were told they were perfect fits to continue “helping” with the group. Unfortunately, their investment in the kids and the emotional capital they had built up is making it hard for the new leader to gain much traction. Between that and a much different approach in leadership, the husband and wife decide it’s better to back out gracefully and let the new Youth Pastor have plenty of space to develop the group as he feels led.

Charged into new growth by virtue of a more exciting, dynamic, professional style music presentation at the gatherings and a small surge in middle and high school attendance (along with a handful of their parents), Promise Church sees its best year yet, rising to over 250 in barely 12 months. Along with the increased adults and teens come the younger children in those families and suddenly Bob and the elders recognize the need to make the children’s coordinator a paid position. Since the current leader has been doing such a great job and has developed a rapport with the parents already, they ask her to come on in a part-time role, and she graciously accepts.

Additionally, the part-time secretary/receptionist is now made a full-time employee. With this many new faces, and so many people coming in to the facility during the week, there’s only one person with both the time and knowledge to handle the traffic, so this was a no-brainer in the eyes of the elders.

And so the year begins to progress. But Bob is beginning to feel the weight of all of those faces- how many of them does he know by name? He can’t recall anymore. And so many more are falling through the cracks. There’s not a great way for people to get plugged in and feel like they belong in a tight-knit community anymore. Murmurs creep in from time to time about the church getting “too big”.

Bob meets with the elders and they agree that something needs to be done. And so small groups are introduced. It’s a way to make the big church small, people are told. You can grow together and become more intimate in settings that are not in the church building. And people are all highly encouraged to attend, or even to start one of their own.

This is met with middling success. At 300 people and halfway through the year, the first launch of small groups sees 10 groups started, covering about a third of their Sunday attendance. By the end of the year, now at 350, the groups have dwindled to 7 and there has been little growth in the groups which remain, which means that barely 2 in every 10 people are a part of a small group. Should this be chalked up as a failed experiment?

Bob and the elders say no. With the new year’s budget, they hire an associate pastor to head up the small groups and help Bob cover more ground in his individual ministry with the congregation. The groups, with a more centralized leader, grow in number to 12 and there’s a rise in the every-day congregation attender who gets plugged in, thanks to there now being an official champion for the cause. This is a very good thing, and it’s evidenced by the growth the church experiences, both personally and numerically. By the end of the year, Promise Church has a regular attendance of 500 and 15 small groups (now all larger than they had been previously). 35% of the Sunday attendance is now involved with a group during the week. That’s a big improvement, but not yet up to what Promise’s leadership was hoping for.

Bob and the new associate pastor, Allen, begin to press for more details from the other 65% on why they aren’t a part of a group. The responses vary, but three big trends begin to develop. One, people want a better way to find a group with whom they share the same demographics and likes and dislikes. Jumping in to a new group is too scary otherwise. Two, people are too busy during the week to commit to a consistent schedule. Sundays are the only time they can carve out for something like this. And three, even when they find a group whose schedule fits and the people are marginally tolerable, many are looking for a more defined and consistent curriculum that’s been given for everyone to follow. Not knowing what the groups are going to be studying seems to be a problem for some. And some were even shocked to report that many of the groups they had attended didn’t even do a bible study every week! Instead, they chose to have a cookout on occasion, or invited their neighbors to go bowling after cleaning up the trash along the main thoroughfare. Yes, consistency in curriculum is definitely a must.

Taking all of the responses into account, Promise Church’s leadership team devises the following plan for the coming year. Allen would officially become the Groups Pastor. His new role would involve creating (and leading, if necessary) a new Seniors group, a Singles ministry, and a College and Career group. Allen secretly hoped he could task some of the more assertive members of each of those new ministries to carry the majority of the weight, as the task before him was understandably monumental. He would also be responsible for coming up with an official curriculum to run alongside Bob’s messages every week. The best way to maintain structure in the groups would be to make them as homogenous as possible. That way anyone could plug into any group and fit right in.

The church would hire a new executive pastor to tackle to ongoing task of managing the ever-growing list of things happening at the facility and maintaining the organizational structure of Promise Church. And there would be expansion in the Human Resources and Accounting side of things as well. The new executive pastor would have his hands full with 6 employees in addition to himself and Bob, the senior pastor.

Additionally, it was a guarantee now that Promise Church would be expanding to two services as soon as the new year began. As a result, the split-time Youth Pastor and Worship Leader was given the expanded task of managing two gatherings. And the Children’s Coordinator now had two services to handle as well- she’s beginning to wonder if she has the ability to hold this all together, but insists she’ll try her best. The Youth Pastor knew this new information would be a hard sell for the current band, and he certainly would need to begin looking for more musicians. His only hope was that he wouldn’t lose any of the ones he currently had. The Children’s ministry began ramping up requests every week for new children’s volunteers- two services meant twice as many leaders needed. And the front door greeters suddenly needed a lot more time and energy than the currently lay leaders could handle alone. A number of classes or groups would begin meeting on Sundays in the extra classrooms during both services, handling the issue of those who had no time during the week. But Promise Church enjoyed the blessing of more growth, so they looked forward to the challenges this second service presented to them.
Now, I’ll stop there so we can look at what’s been happening. Our entirely fictional Promise Church has experienced 3 years of progress, seeing its total staff expand from 2 to 8, attendance grow from 100 to 500, ministries expand from 3 volunteer positions (children, youth, worship) to 7 paid positions (children, youth, worship, groups, singles, seniors, college and career) staffed by 3 people. It’s gone from no small groups to at least 15, with three specialty groups starting soon. And they are going from only one service each week to two. From the usual perspective of church growth metrics, and to the human eye, Promise Church is doing extremely well for itself. But let’s look at some of the fallout we may have missed at first glance.

Two entirely capable lay leaders were marginalized as a paid professional came to take their place. While this aided in growth, what we didn’t notice was that those leaders never completely plugged into any ministry again at Promise. Perhaps they even eventually left the church. Their avenue for ministry was stripped away from them and they were told they could help in other ways.

Paid staff requires increased budgets, so while giving continued to increase, Promise began to see their budget belts stretching tighter and tighter as the years progressed. It’s the biggest reason why the children’s position wasn’t already a full-time one, why the Youth Pastor was doubling as the Worship Leader, and why poor Allen was doing the job of at least three or four people. There was certainly going to be a lot more messages about giving in the coming months.

And the decision to go to a second service, while perhaps necessary, put a lot of added stress on the “volunteer base” across the board. Twice as many greeters, twice as many children’s workers, every classroom full, extra band members- there were going to be lots of all-calls to the congregation for help in the coming weeks as well.

Finally, the shift to identical curriculum, while simplifying matters immensely, turned the dedicated leaders of each group into glorified facilitators and hosts, which eliminates the opportunity for some with the gift of teaching to properly exercise their giftings, as their new roles would be more administrative and hospitality centered. Additionally, providing a set schedule for groups didn’t allow for the missional and community oriented mindset shown by some groups by not merely holding a bible study each week. Homogenous rarely is healthy, and in this regard, it certainly would not be for Promise Church.

I know that’s an extremely long-winded way of showing the slippery slope present when we dive into the world of programs and expansions. But I thought it was necessary as it also began to illustrate the problem we’re actually addressing- at some point we lose interest in inviting people into what we are doing. Instead, we begin telling them what to do.

Sign up for this program. Join a small group. Work in the children’s ministry. If we aren’t careful, the very things that truly could be beneficial to the congregation turns into a mandate that is accompanied by a guilty conscience if their response is in the negative.

If I were considering building a house, completely of my own accord, I don’t think the most effective way to go about it would be to approach my architect and engineer friends and say, “Design me a house. And make it a good one. I need it in two weeks.” Especially when that news is accompanied by the request that they do it at no charge because “we’re friends”. And I wouldn’t find my general contractor buddy and inform him, “Next month, you’re going to build my new house. I’ve got a handful of other guys I’m going to pull in to help as your workforce. I don’t think you should need anything more than money for materials, right?” And I certainly wouldn’t start group texting my closest friends demanding that they take vacation time to help me build my new place. Not only would all of that be extremely disrespectful and arrogant of me, I’d be extremely surprised if I had any friends at all after that. So, why do we insist on taking this approach within the church?

Why do we try to place heavy loads on people and try to pass it off as their “Christian duty”? Jesus promised that his yoke would be easy and his burden light. But I guess many churches didn’t get that memo. Or perhaps they did. And like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, we’ve decided to add to the burden with weights of our own.

Can we not approach people with the same care and concern that we do outside the church? Is it outside the question for us to know the person we’re talking with well enough to simply tell them, “I’m thinking about starting this new project and I think you would be fantastic to partner with.” Or perhaps, “Hey, I’ve been thinking about your strengths and how God has gifted you, and I think you may be just what our team needs. Have you ever considered jumping in and helping out?” It may even be that the person you’re speaking to has a better perspective on the ministry you’re targeting them for. It could be they’re looking for just that right bit of encouragement and empowerment to simply run in the direction they’re already wired for.

They may still say no. That’s completely allowed. But everyone wants to be a part of something personal. Intimate. Something they’re invited to. Conversely, no one wants to be told what to do. Even if it’s what they’re generally inclined to do. It grates on us. If we’re honest, it’s why many of us get into leadership in the first place- when you lead, less people can tell you what to do, right? So why would we come to others with that very same flawed approach?

“God will do this, for he is faithful to do what he says, and he has invited you into partnership with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. I appeal to you, dear brothers and sisters, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, to live in harmony with each other. Let there be no divisions in the church. Rather, be of one mind, united in thought and purpose.” – 1 Corinthians 1.9-10 (emphasis mine)

Do what you are led to do. Invite. People will come along because they want to be a part of what is going on. And in this, there will be harmony. Unity is a beautiful thing.

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