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3 Things That Are Sabotaging the Church’s Future

3 Things That Are Sabotaging the Church’s Future
  • Name
    Carey Nieuwhof
Without a doubt, you’ve already realized it’s more complex to be a church leader today than it was even a few decades ago. With the vast majority of churches struggling in some way, it’s time to rethink our future mission. Attendance at most churches is stagnant or dropping and even whole denominations are being redefined, because, as I outlined in this blog series, even Christians who are attending church are attending less often. Add to this the reality that the culture is changing faster than ever, and our response becomes even more critical and the change we need to make becomes more urgent. (Two issues I address in my new book, Lasting Impact: 7 Powerful Conversations That Will Help Your Church Grow.) In many ways, what the church is going through is reflected in other industries like what’s been happening in the newspaper and photography businesses. Some companies have sabotaged their own future by confusing the issues they were facing. Others have adopted and thrived. As always in leadership, just a few key perspective shifts can be the difference between thriving and surviving, or between thriving and surviving at all.

Kodak, Newspapers and the Church

Four years ago, the company that was synonymous with photography declared bankruptcy as Kodak went under, having failed to effectively respond to digital photography. In many ways, Kodak sabotaged its future by refusing to respond to the massive changes in culture (this Forbes article gives a decent account of how it happened). Kodak bet too much of its future on the past (film photography). It lost. Newspapers are also facing epic struggles, with papers shutting down regularly and even iconic newspapers like the Toronto Star struggling to stay afloat. While the jury is still out on how the news industry will look in five years, the issues are not that different from what the photography industry faced or what the church is facing. In each case, the risk of self-sabotage by established organizations is huge and the church is not exempt. What I see happening in Kodak and in some newspapers is something I also see among church leaders. Here’s are three ways church leaders end up sabotaging the future mission of the church. By identifying the issues and tackling three key issues now, church leaders can position their churches for a much better future.

1. Confusing the method with the mission

Too many leaders mix up method and mission. That’s one of the things that happened to Kodak and that’s happening in journalism. It’s also an epidemic in the church world. This mistake is so easy to make in leadership. A method is a current approach that helps you accomplish the mission. It’s how you do what you do. The mission is why you exist. The problem in most churches is people (including leaders) get very fond of their methods. You get rewarded for great methods … like the kind of church service you offer, or the programming your church does or whatever else you’ve become good at. You get rewarded by results and sometimes by becoming known for how well you do things. Nobody was better at film photography for almost a century than Kodak. No one has a more prestigious paper than the New York Times. Chances are the people you lead love your methods. Otherwise they wouldn’t be there. Which is also why it's so difficult to change them. Change the music you’re known for and prepare to be unpopular for a long time. Maybe even prepare to get fired. Change the programming people love and get ready for the backlash. That’s because when people confuse the method with the mission, they see the methods as sacred. Not the mission. And sometimes, because your methods have made you successful, you come to see them as sacred and are reluctant to change. But methods are never sacred. Particularly in church.   The only reason your church claims to have ‘biblical’ worship is because you probably don’t know what biblical worship actually is.  If you were actually transported back to the first century, you wouldn’t recognize how the church worshipped. Our worship and our programming has always been an adaptation of the mission for the current generation and time. Are there more-faithful and less-faithful expressions of the mission? Of course. But often those who protest change the most have confused the mission with the method.  And when you refuse to change the method, you eventually kill the mission. Just ask Kodak. This post that outlines nine things that used to work in the church a decade ago, but don’t today provides some examples of what happens when church leaders confuse method and mission.

2. Failure to clarify what the real mission is

Imagine what might have happened if someone at Kodak had asked: Are we in the film business, or the photography business? If Kodak was in the film business, the future would be dim. But if Kodak has decided it was in the photography business, the future could have been very different. Instead, Facebook decided it was in the photography business when it bought Instagram. And Apple decided it was in the photography business when it developed the iPhone. If you were in the newspaper business today, a great question to ask is this: Are we in the newspaper business, or the news business? Again, the future changes when you start asking questions that clarify the real mission.  So as a church leader, what question are you asking? At Connexus Church, where I serve, we’ve decided that we’re in the business of leading people into a growing relationship with Jesus. That’s our mission. Our mission isn’t holding services. It’s not music. It’s not even preaching. Nor is it programming. It’s not launching an online campus or doing social media well. Or having an awesome kids ministry. (Even though we’re invested in ALL of these.) We can change because we’re committed to doing whatever it takes to lead people into a growing relationship with Jesus. Our methods—the way we facilitate our services, our kids ministry, our programming, the way we do groups, how we serve—are all designed to support our mission. If you don’t know what your true mission is, you’ll never find the right method to accomplish it. 

3. Unwillingness to change methods to support the real mission

Far too many church leaders are afraid to change their methods. But once you clarify your real mission, change becomes so much easier. Think about it. If you have a clear sense of what you are called to do, then: When you see potential gain ahead, you’ll change your methods to advance your mission. When you see a chance to reach more people, you’ll change your services and programming to advance your mission. And of course, when you fail at your mission, you won’t stubbornly cling to ineffective methods.  You’ll gladly embrace new methods to advance your mission. Clarifying your mission can also mean your whole attitude toward change is transformed. You’ll embrace social media and church online because you’re not nearly as worried about who might stay home as you are who you might reach. You’ll study change and culture and be anxious to try new things to reach people. Why? Because leaders who understand their real mission see opportunities where others see only obstacles.  Imagine a day when your team thinks this way.

The Future Is at Stake

So can you just ignore all of this and hope it goes away? Well, that’s kind of what Kodak did. And just realize … when you become more wedded to the methods than the mission, the good leaders leave. That’s what’s happening in dying industries. People who work for Instagram would not want to work for Kodak. And reporters for Mashable may never be comfortable at a print daily. The church has a better mission than any other organization on the planet. The challenge for this generation of church leaders is to keep the methods fluid and the mission sacred.  The more we do that, the more effective we’ll be.

Want More?

If you want more on the future church, I outlined 10 predictions about the future church and attendance patterns in this post.