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Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

Dr. James Emery White

Dr. James Emery White's weblog

It’s one of the most pressing questions pastors and church leaders ask themselves:

“Why aren’t we growing?”

To be sure, not every mission’s soil will yield the same fruit. We’re not talking about overall size, but rather the idea that biblically, we can assume that God wants every church that honors His name and proclaims His message in Christ to grow and that He is willing to empower it to that end.

Churches are living things. Living things grow. If you’re not growing – even if just in compensation to what you’ve lost through transition – something is wrong.

Again, it doesn’t have to be by much. Those churches in smaller communities who are growing by five people a year may actually be growing at a higher percentage of the available population than the “mega” churches.

So take heart.

But if you are not growing at all, or declining…well, God isn’t the problem. We are.

Here are ten areas to consider as to “why”:

1.      Leadership

It’s been said that everything rises and falls on leadership. Perhaps a more accurate way of putting it would be that no organization will rise above the level of its leadership.  If, on a scale of 1-10, the current leadership is around a “4,” then it will be difficult for the church to grow beyond that level in terms of vision, effectiveness, strategy and impact.

Solution: Ensure that people with the spiritual gift of leadership are actually leading, and that they are committed to developing that gift by reading about leadership, getting around other leaders for insight, and exercising their leadership gift in challenging settings.

2.      Communication

There are few things more critical to a church’s growth than an effective communicator for weekend teaching. The dilemma is that many who serve as the primary communicators in their church aren’t Spirit-gifted teachers. They like to speak, and the group that gathers around their teaching seems to benefit from it, but the majority of listeners tend to vote with their feet. At the very least, the teaching doesn’t seem to be catalyzing the congregation to invite their friends.

Solution: Make sure that the point communicator has the spiritual gift of teaching and is actively working at developing that gift by listening to other gifted communicators. Don’t be afraid of developing a team-teaching approach to shore up weakness, or to adjust responsibilities so that various roles more accurately reflect gifting. In other words, perhaps someone has been serving as lead communicator when their gifts are better used in another area. This is a difficult maneuver for, as stated above, people who are speaking tend to like to speak and have a (perhaps) distorted view of their effect.

3.      Quality of Worship

The quality of the worship experience is more important even than its style. If the service itself seems slapped together, incoherent or unable to be embraced, then it will not provide the traction needed for ongoing growth. To be sure, worship is not about what we get out of it, but what God gets out of it. But the better that service is at helping people connect with God, the more people it will attract. And lest we forget, the weekend service is the “front door” of the church. So it’s where we “win” or “lose” people. Which means part of the “helping people connect” dynamic will include helping those far from God connect to God through what we offer.

Solution: Review the music, presentation, style and quality of the worship experience of your church in light of its ability to optimally serve and engage people. View the services of larger, faster-growing churches that you feel are biblically and theologically sound for benchmarks. If you are continually plagued by forgotten lyrics, missed notes and awkward transitions, consider planning meetings for your services and run-through rehearsals of critical parts. And by all means, look at your service through the eyes of someone far from God and deeply unchurched.

4.      Atmosphere

Every church has an atmosphere, but not all have an atmosphere of friendliness and acceptance. Let’s put it bluntly: every church thinks it’s friendly. But what that often means is they are friendly to each other, friendly to people they know, friendly to people they like or friendly to people who are like them.

Solution: If you haven’t already, consider developing an entire ministry around first impressions and the creation of a friendly, welcoming atmosphere. At Meck, we call it “Guest Services,” and it oversees parking lot attendants, greeters, ushers, hospitality and so much more – all geared toward the experience of first impressions and friendliness. It’s one of our largest and most strategic efforts. In fact, one of the leading reasons people return to Meck is our friendliness.

5.      Location

The physical location of a church, if you want to grow by inviting people to attend, is decisive. If it is hard to find, hard to get to, too small in size, has insufficient parking, is difficult to enter or exit due to road traffic,

…then you are artificially limiting the size of your church.

In essence, the shoe tells the foot how big it gets.

Solution: Much of solving location problems is logistical in nature. Hire off-duty police to help people enter and exit your services. Increase the number of your services. Develop a capital campaign to help pay for increasing the size of your auditorium or parking. If needed, simply move to a new location. That may seem dramatic, but it’s often critical. Going “multi-site” is also proving to be a helpful strategy for many churches facing location issues.

6.      Structure

Most church structures are not “structured” for growth, much less unity. As an organization, you have to be able to seize opportunities, streamline decision-making and unleash the leadership gift. There is so much that could be said on this, so…

Solution: Read my chapter on “Rethinking Structure” in Rethinking the Church. Do away with committees, across-the-board majority rule and endless policies. Read the chapter and you’ll see why.

7.      Methods

Values and doctrine are timeless; methods and strategies are not. Think of a method as a very time-bound approach to solving a problem or answering a challenge. A vast number of churches are employing methods that simply aren’t viable. They hold on to them out of an unfounded sense of loyalty, or even worse, a sense of orthodoxy. Methods don’t fall into that camp.

Solution: Go to school on other churches and their methods. Further, make a list of all of your methods that haven’t been evaluated in five years. That’s your “to do” list.

8.      Blind Spots

Blind spots are interesting…they are what you do NOT see. Others can, but you can’t. It’s been said that we all have them – actually, many of them. Do you know yours? Do you know where you are weak, outdated, sloppy, understaffed, wrongly staffed, poorly funded…

Solution: Bring in “mystery” worshipers, or outside consultants, to observe you, talk to you, counsel you. Get 20/20 vision on as much as you possibly can.

9.      Not Fueling Growth Engines

Every church has one or more “growth engines.” These are the ministries that fuel whatever growth you have. Most will think of their weekend services; and to be sure, that is a powerful growth engine. But many of your sub-ministries offer the same, if not more, of your overall growth power. For example, at Meck our weekend services may be a powerful engine, but we tend to think that MecKidz is even MORE powerful. So we give it what it needs to grow. Right now, it has the largest staff and the most square-footage of building space of any ministry.

Why?

It grows our church.

Solution: Fund your growth engines. Repeat: FUND YOUR GROWTH ENGINES. And look beyond the weekend. The biggest growth engine of all, in most churches, is the children’s ministry.

10.    Unity

Jesus made it clear that unity would be THE verifying mark on His message. A unified church is a growing church. Period.

Solution: Do the hard leadership work of confronting division, dissension and disunity. See the chapter titled “No Tolerance” in What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary (Baker).

One Last Thought

The most important principle I could pass on is this: think like a lost person.

Really.

Think like someone far from God, divorced from church, coming to your church, would think.

Then…

...change things.

Not the message. Heaven forbid. But do change anything and everything that would be a barrier to this person engaging Christ that does not involve altering the message of Christ.

James Emery White


About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

The idea of a “slippery slope” is important to understand. It refers to a step down a particular path that, whether intentioned or not, could lead to slipping down and falling much further than you could ever imagine.

Usually, a “slippery slope” refers to a way of thinking, or the basis for a decision that, if applied broadly, would carry sweeping ramifications.

For many, this is the concern for the argument behind the embrace of gay marriage. In other words, the arguments used for the acceptance of homoerotic behavior and gay marriage could be just as easily used for polygamy, bestiality and pedophilia. After all, once you redefine family into whatever people want it to mean, make “love” or “attraction” the ultimate ethic in terms of appropriate relationship, then you have very little keeping you from applying that to almost any kind of relationship.

This caused an outrage on the other side, who said in no uncertain terms that this was reprehensible to even consider.

Yet we now know that soon after gay marriage began its victory lap through the courts, cases advocating polygamy – using virtually the same arguments that the courts had accepted for gay marriage – became legion.

And the legal battle being waged over all things transgender is based on gender being a matter of choice – or simply what emotionally they believe themselves to be.

Again, same argument.

If you can demonstrate that people really have an orientation, then the desire must be legitimated. Nightmarish in its application, yet sweeping our culture like a wildfire.

And now comes incest.

I saw the first stirring of this only a handful of years ago.

An article in the London Times titled “I used to have sex with my brother but I don’t feel guilty about it” offered a detailed narrative of a woman’s sexual relationship with her biological brother from the time of 14 to nearly 30, until he met another person and married. 

Their sexual trysts were revealed as part of a tale of sibling intimacy and friendship that ended with the ubiquitous reasoning that they were not hurting anyone, so why make it so wrong? 

Much was made that her brother, only a year older, never pushed himself on her and that she was a willing participant. The author’s lament is that something “so lovely and natural to me would be regarded as abhorrent.”

Now, there are those who are wanting to label incest just one more orientation. In an article in The Telegraph, referring to the story of a woman who entered into a romantic relationship with her child 30 years after giving him up for adoption, incest is being labeled “Genetic Sexual Attraction” (GSA).

GSA describes a powerful sexual attraction that occurs when biological relatives – parent and offspring, siblings or half siblings, or first and second cousins – meet for the first time as adults. It’s termed a “struggle” – something that is so ingrained (natural?) that those involved can’t be considered in control of the situation. 

“As if their feelings are impossible to change.”

The article goes on to note that in normal families, living together “desensitizes” the sexual dynamic between family members. But with the rise of fertility options (e.g., egg and sperm donation), the article suggests GSA will also rise in frequency.

Here’s a telling line:

“Those who succumb to GSA are not sickos, or freaks, but victims who desperately need…understanding. Their feelings are not controllable.”

Does any of this language sound familiar?

Slippery slopes are real.

And we’re on a very, very large one.

James Emery White

 

Sources

“I used to have sex with my brother but I don’t feel guilty about it,” as told to Joan McFadden, times2, The London Times, July 15, 2008, pp. 10-11, read online.

“Disgusted by incest? Genetic Sexual Attraction is real and on the rise,” Charlotte Gill, The Telegraph, April 11, 2016, read online.

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

Church Money Gimmicks

Webster’s dictionary defines “gimmick” as “an attention–getting device or feature, typically superficial, designed to promote the success of a product, campaign…any clever little gadget or ruse.”

Churches use money gimmicks all the time.

I don’t like them. Not simply because they are “gimmicky,” but because they cheapen biblical stewardship.

The heart of biblical stewardship is not complicated. 

There are three principal truths:

  1. God owns it all;
  2. If God owns it all, He has all of the rights as owner, and I/you operate solely in the realm of managerial responsibility (It’s not “God, what should I do with my money?” but “God, what do You want me to do with Your money?”), which means that –  
  3. Every spending decision is a spiritual decision. God cannot be shut out of any transaction.

When it comes to giving, the Bible teaches about tithes and offerings. A tithe is ten percent of all that we earn, given to God through the local church of which we are a part. Offerings are those gifts that are given “above and beyond” those tithes in relation to special events, projects or memorials. 

The Bible is also full of wisdom on limiting debt, saving for the future, and working hard with time and talents in order to maximize earning.

Beyond these truths are some basic application principles, like the 10-10-80 principle - meaning that the soundest management of our funds would involve giving 10% to God through the local church of which we are a part, 10% to savings, and then living off of the remaining 80%.

Another principle I’ve long taught is to start where you are. If you come to Christ and have financial realities that war against these plans, you should begin with a blend of realism and faith. Start by giving and/or saving 1% (though it will be sacrificial), then 5%, working your way up to the percentages that will both fully honor God and optimally serve your life. 

God cares more about our heart and intent than a legalistic percentage. The amount matters, to be sure, but only as it reflects a true barometer of our life. Which is why, for many of us, giving ten percent is far too little.

(Legalism cuts both ways).

That is the essence of biblical stewardship in regard to finances.

So where do church money “gimmicks” fit in?

They don’t.

But that hasn’t stopped leaders from using them as short-cuts to true discipleship.

Here are four of the most common that cross my path:

Refunding the Tithe

Many churches give in to the gimmick of offering to “refund the tithe” if somehow God doesn’t provide for their needs after they’ve tithed. In other words, the line is, “Tithe, and if God doesn’t supply your needs on the 90% leftover, we’ll return what you gave.” 

I get the point. In Malachi, there is a promise that giving will never outrun supply. So this is a church ponying up and saying they have so much trust in God’s provision, they will “insure” your tithe.

But that isn’t discipleship. You either trust or you do not. Period. Further, the blessing of the tithe is so multifaceted that to reduce it to income alone is a ridiculous truncation of God’s promise.

The value is generosity, not a return on your investment.

Money Giveaways

Some churches plant envelopes of money under the seats of the auditorium. Then, after a talk on giving, they tell those in attendance to reach under their seats and (surprise!) find an envelope of cash – say, from $20 to $500. 

Then, the challenge goes, they are to take that money and invest it for kingdom gain. Use it for a bake sale, or to start a for-profit website. Do something with that money that you think could gain a return. Sure, you can keep it and use it on yourself, but if you will trust God with it, you will find that you will be able to be served – and serve others – at the same time.

I agree with the principle, but the means of teaching it?

You can’t trust God now, but we will give you “free” money to trust with – which takes no trust at all – to see if He’s trustworthy?

Again, that’s not creating disciples.

Entrepreneurs and Kickbacks

If I had a nickel for every time someone wanted to promote their business through the church and, in the process, give the church a kick-back in revenue, I would be retired in Palm Beach. 

Of course, they don’t pitch it that baldly.

It’s spiritualized.

They couch it all in terms of serving the church and its needs. Their profit is inconsequential, if not irrelevant. 

The truth is that many enterprises actually train their people to work church “networks” for gain. They bathe their enterprise in “Christian-ese” in order to gain entry into trusting communities and, hopefully, open wallets.

The church is not a business nor “in” business. God designed it to be funded through the changed hearts of His people and their giving. 

Fund Raisers

This one will ruffle a few feathers because fund raisers are so common in churches. Particularly with youth groups. 

But again, it’s not teaching stewardship. It’s just gimmicky giving.

If you are going to support a student missions trip, fund it through the church’s budget. Or don’t. But don’t make it a side item that has to be handled through a car wash. 

But even further, when you start down this road, you start down the road of “designated” offerings. Meaning, a gift that is given for one and only one thing.

“I want to give this money for…”

…my favorite ministry,

…my favorite staffer,

…my favorite project,

…my favorite mission.

Meck has not accepted a “designated” offering, apart from capital campaigns and Christmas year-end offerings – meaning ones we have imposed on our selves – in our history. We actually turn them down.

It’s just not healthy.

It’s certainly not healthy for the church, which simply can’t run on designated offerings (Anybody want to designate the light bill?). But further, it can be a subtle sign of distrust, refusing to follow leadership, or simply play well with others in the sandbox. 

Trust the church’s leadership, or don’t.

Give to the budget, or don’t.

But picking and choosing where your money is spent is divorced from God calling you to be a part of a church, trusting God with that church, and trusting the leadership that is prayerfully leading that church in light of their ordained role. 

Ask for accountability all day long (Meck’s members vote to approve its annual budget, and then has an outside accounting firm do an annual audit), but using designated offerings to try and direct things, force things, or enable your agenda is not the mark of a healthy church member, much less a healthy church community.

After all, nothing about money and the church should be gimmicky.

Even the giving.

James Emery White

 

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

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