I’m sitting in a tire shop waiting for my car to get four new tires as I write this article. It actually seems a little fitting.  

A few weeks ago we noticed a shaking sensation as we were driving our vehicle so I took it to the shop. It turns our that our tires had something called “diagonal wear” which was causing the shaking feeling we were experiencing.  The service technician explained that diagonal wear happens when the alignment of the wheels actually directs the tires in a slightly different path than the vehicle.  The constant ‘tug-and-pull’ that happens between the tires and the vehicle eventually causes the tires to wear out quicker and unevenly – thus causing vibrations when you drive.  

What is the remedy? 

New tires… that’s why I am sitting in the tire shop writing this article, remember?

I know that your church is not a tire, but I bet you can certainly identify with the feeling of a “tug-and-pull’ between two opposing views.  You have some people who desire to go in one direction with a vision, style of worship, outreach, etc… followed quickly by another group of people who envision a completely different path. Over time, these opposing directions cause enough friction that it begins to cause issues. 

Like my car, if you are observant enough you can see the symptoms of this problem:

  • Church members tend to find themselves more in the role of ‘critics of the church’ than ‘worshippers.’ 
  • They tend to make ‘alliances’ with like-minded church-goers and distance themselves from those who hold an opposing view.
  • Folks may start giving only the ministries that they align with or stop giving altogether. 
  • Discussions about the church shifts from the mission of the church “going and making disciples” to conversations about “too much change” or “not enough change” of the methods of the church. 
  • People stop inviting friends and family to attend church with them. 
  • In general, the congregation becomes apathetic. It becomes increasingly harder to find people to teach, serve, or otherwise be involved. In fact, those who were once involved now may be distant or may have left.
  • The leadership has has very little discussion about how best to reach out to the community and, instead, tends to talk about who is unhappy among their members.   

It is in these times when the leadership, and the church as a whole, can feel the vibrations of an issue. So what do we do?

For some churches, they just keep driving down the road hoping the issues will eventually go away.  The problem is, unresolved issues rarely ever go away. In fact, they generally will lead to larger issues. 

Imagine if I never stopped and took the time to fix my tires. What would have happened if I ignored the vibrations I was feeling while driving and just kept going?  Eventually one of the tires could have malfunctioned and caused me to have an accident.  The issue with my car meant I had to do something, and timely!  

So what are we to do? Keep driving our churches down the road as is?  Hope the issues will eventually resolve themselves?  Wait for an impending blow-up and hope we aren’t around to witness it? Or, will we honestly look at the issues, address the real problem, and get back on the road?

Before I offer a few brief suggestions on ways to look at our issues and help move our churches towards our mission, I need to address a prevalent philosophy that has plagued our churches for quite a long time: “Changes need to happen slowly and naturally over time.”  This philosophy is a falsehood which attempts to lead us to the belief that, at some point in the future, there will be a time when we don’t have to do any real work, or suffer any negative aspects, in order to change. 

Change is never easy. Not now. Not ever.  But just because change is hard, doesn’t mean that it is not right.  

This philosophy not only allows the church to shirk being obedient to the mission because they become slaves to their methods, but also encourages church leadership to shirk their duties in leading the church in the Great Commission because they become slaves to church members. This philosophy is not only dangerous to the growth of the church, but at it’s core it is not even how Jesus led and taught his followers.

Allow me to explain. 

As Jesus began his teaching, he did so with the idea that his followers would follow… immediately. 

When Jesus saw the crowd around him, he gave orders to cross to the other side of the lake. Then a teacher of the law came to him and said, ‘Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.’ Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’ Another disciple said to him, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus told him, ‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead’” (Mt. 8:18-22). 

Jesus makes it clear that following him means being willing to leave everything else behind.  Everything must come second to being obedient to the rule and reign of God.  Even when that something puts us out of our comfort zone. 

Now imagine for a moment that Jesus, in his earthy ministry, took the approach that some churches take when it comes to re-setting their course and implementing change. 

He wouldn’t have flipped over tables in the temple, he would have waited for the group of people to grow old enough that they didn’t care anymore before starting a new practice.

He would have told his disciples to make sure to follow all the law and prophets, because the religious elite might get upset.  

He wouldn’t have healed the man with demons, sat with the woman at the well, forgiven the paralytic of his sins, called out the Pharisees in areas that they were wrong, disrespected the teachers of the law and chief priests, spent time with the tax collectors and sinners, or claimed to be the king of the Jews. Instead, he would have stuck with the status-quo. 

But that wasn’t what he did, was it? Jesus had 3 short years and he wasn’t willing to waste time.  He wasn’t going to get bogged down with the non-essentials. He had a mission and he was going to accomplish that mission.  

I think we can lose sight of this. In Matthew 28, Jesus gives an instruction to his follower to “go and make disciples.”  As the church, our mission has been set, but you and I both know that there are difficult obstacles in the way, things we need to address, conversations we need to have, things we need to let go of or change completely in order to most effectively pursue our mission.  Unfortunately, instead of doing the hard work, addressing the problems, or re-correcting our path, we are tempted to just let go of the mission.  I think there is a great reason for this: 

We tend to idolize our methods long after they have failed to help us accomplish our mission. 

Read that sentence again and allow it to sink in. Seriously, do it… I’ll wait for you.

A great question to ask ourselves is: “Is my method of going and making disciples actually working in the culture around me?”  If you haven’t asked that, you should.  If what you are currently doing is not replicating disciples, then it is time to take your church in to “the shop” to see what the problem is and address the issues.  

I mentioned earlier that I would offer a few brief suggestions on how to look at our issues while helping our churches move closer in-line with our mission. So, without further ado, here are a few things we, as the church, need to take to heart.

  • How and when do you critically evaluate your effectiveness: If we are honest with ourselves, we tend to like the things we do so much that it blinds us to whether or not what we are doing is effective.  Are you, and your church, building a space where you can honestly and openly talk about your effectiveness in all areas on a yearly basis? If not, how can you begin to make this happen? Are there any methods that have become idols? Can you call them what they are? If they have become an idol, it is time to remove it.
  • Address the problems, not just the symptoms:  It’s easy to address symptoms. “People won’t volunteer,” or “Folks are just not committed anymore” or “Our society just doesn’t value church.”  These are just symptoms of a problem.  The problem is that you have lost connectivity with people.  Most of the time, it’s because you are speaking a different “language” than the world around you. If people are not showing up to your Wednesday evening service, it may be because your Wednesday evening service is not helpful to their life situations. Folks don’t just want information, they are craving transformation. Can you change what you are doing to help them transform?  If people are not volunteering, it might be because you have not given them a powerful enough vision to get on board with you.  If outsiders are not joining you, it might be because they don’t think you really care about them. 
  • Change for the mission, not for the sake of change: There are a lot of great churches doing a lot of great things.  And, if your church is in decline, it might be tempting to start grabbing at straws and start changing things just so they are different. Or, maybe you are the rare-breed that enjoys change.  Regardless, changing things for the sake of change will never get you closer the the mission of God.  Your mission is to reach out to your community and the only way to know how to do that best is by knowing how to communicate the gospel to the needs of your community.  You have to be willing to know your communities needs, their language and their obstacles. Therefore, change what needs to be changed in order to best fulfill the mission that Christ has called you to. 
  • Changing at a snails pace may make you feel better, but it doesn’t make you more godly: In the book of James, Jesus’ brother has a strong warning about the short span of our life. In fact, he compares our existence to “mist that appears for a little while and them vanishes.” James’ point is that we are not guaranteed tomorrow, so why boast about it? He concludes his thoughts here by saying, “As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them” (Js 4:16-17).  My guess is that you probably already feel the areas of your church that are not riding smoothly.  My guess is that you probably know that you are not effectively ‘going and making disciples.” The question is, what are you going to do about it?  If you are hoping that your church’s issues will eventually work themselves out if you ignore it long enough, I want to challenge you that you are avoiding the right thing to do! The right thing is to put the mission of following Jesus first! It comes before the traditions, the long-standing ministries, and the awkward and difficult situations.  If you know the good you ought to do, and don’t do it – you are leading in sin. I know – it’s tough… but Jesus never promised following him would be easy, right? In fact, he said it would feel a lot like a taking up a cross.
  • Knowledge rarely equals action, but it is still valuable: We know a lot of good things to do, but if we are honest we rarely ever do them.  Think about it: you know that eating fast food is bad for you and exercising regularly is good for you, but for most of us, the knowledge of these things rarely equals action. This often applies to the church-world as well.  It is likely that you will want to teach/ communicate with your church body about changes you need to make (and you should, we will talk about that soon), but don’t expect that the knowledge of a need to change will actually make some people want to change. It’s likely that people may know they need to change something, but still not desire to do it.  Regardless on whether or not everyone will desire to change, you must spend the time with people educating them, teaching them, and communicating with them why the mission of “going and making disciples” is larger than any method your church currently employs.  They need the reminder! You need the reminder! In fact, the more you teach and preach about this, the easier you may find it to be to place the mission of God first in your life and first in the church. 

Thanks for joining me on this journey! We have one more “Leadership-Lesson” to walk through together as we take a look at how our society has shifted away from the “brand loyalty” that we once use to embrace and how that is effecting the Churches of Christ.