21 Steps to a 21st Century Church – Part 1


Shining the light on darknessToday I begin a new series called “21 Steps to a 21st Century Church.” During this five-part series we’ll be examining the ways that today’s Church in the West can rise above mediocrity and get back to being all it can be. We’ll count down to what I feel are the most important issues we need to address by order of importance.

I want to thank all those who contributed ideas. Many of those are included in this countdown, so you have been heard. I pray that the results are satisfying and that all who read this are not only blessed, but begin thinking about how they can implement these ideas in their own churches.

And now on to the first five:

21. Two-way sermons can increase biblical understanding
Given the appalling level of scholarship and biblical knowledge in the Western Church today, few people have enough grounding in the Scriptures and Church history to teach anyone anything. Churches that jettisoned their primary teachings on Sunday in order to present watered-down seeker-sensitive messages that bored the faithful to tears usually have an adult teaching model that pushes all the real meaty Scripture study down to small group leaders, many of them barely biblically literate. With adult Sunday School programs vanishing faster than you can say “ignorance,” fewer and fewer people are equipped to teach, more of that role falling on the pastoral staff.The problem then becomes one of understanding. What good is a sermon or teaching that people can’t grasp? I’ve been around enough churches to know that plenty of people leave on a Sunday scratching their heads, even if we can’t see it. Worse yet, most can’t remember the message a week later; often this retention issue revolves around failing to draw the necessary connections to put the teaching/preaching into practical focus.

Opening up the message to questions is one way that folks can grapple with meaning in the environment primed for delivering meaning. A two-way sermon allows the pulpit to connect with the pew and vice versa. I know that if I were a pastor, I’d like to know when my people were comprehending or not. Too often I think that pastors assume the message got through and take it at that. I would offer that the intractability of discipleship failures in our churches only points out the fallacy of that belief.

Preachers/teachers/pastors—take questions! Open the message up so that folks can truly understand. Don’t make assumptions about comprehension. Welcome the opportunity to let the Spirit guide your responses. You may find your people ask smart questions when prompted!

How can this be facilitated? Have an elder gather written questions that can be answered by the message-giver at the end of the message. If the congregation is small, consider fielding questions as they come to people. If the church is huge, give the message-giver a room in the church to field questions immediately after the service.

Some Emerging churches are doing this very thing and I believe it’s a great idea. Rarely do we give people the freedom to ask questions, so most don’t. But if we create an atmosphere of learning and expectation on Sunday, I suspect everyone in the church will benefit.

20. Leaders should seek out the gifted
We might think we know ourselves, but time and again parents and spouses have keener insights into how we operate than we do. Despite the fact that we live in a self-help culture, most of us are blind to at least a few of our own traits.The same is true of spiritual gifts. Few things are more useless than a self-administered gifts inventory that reaffirms what we already know about ourselves, yet this is how countless people judge their own gifts. It’s amazing how many times our results look exactly how we desire ourselves to be, though.

I personally believe that one of the great failures of the Western Church is that church leaders are not looking for gifted people within their ranks. They’re waiting for those people to self-identify. This is one reason why we have vast swarms of people in leadership roles in churches who are ill-equipped to do the very thing they believe they are qualified to do. How many of us have encountered teachers in our churches who shouldn’t be allowed to teach a preschool class much less adults? I’ve personally lost track.

If we truly believed the Holy Spirit guides into all truth, then we should be able to trust Him to point out gifted people. A pastoral staff that is not going before the Lord daily asking Him to give them eyes to see the truly gifted in their congregations is wasting God’s resources. The tendency is to respond to the boldest extroverts who say they have this gift or that and miss the quieter folks who may truly be the needle in the church haystack.

Not to give pastors one more task, but picking out the folks upon whom the Holy Spirit is resting in power is a critical responsibility. Start taking it seriously!

19. Leaders should primarily come from within a congregation, not from the outside
Want to know if a church’s discipleship and education programs are effective?The surest way to take the pulse of a church’s effectiveness is how many of the pastoral staff came from within the congregation from one generation to the next. Hiring all your pastors and leaders from outside? Then the answer is clear: your programs stink.

The chilling truth is that too many churches have to hire from the outside. Any church that does so is a failure from a discipleship standpoint. If Church A has to go to Church B to get staff, then maybe everyone in Church A should be at Church B.

The surest mark of a church’s health is an unbroken generation-to-generation line of leadership succession. Not nepotism, but genuinely earned positions based on maturity developed within that same congregation. That so many of our churches today can’t do this is appalling. Time to get tougher on how we educate people.

Going hand-in-hand with #20 above, we should be recognizing which young people coming up are gifted for church leadership and we should be encouraging them in that regard. Even more, a church should ensure that the next generation of gifted young people gets the additional training they need to make best use of their gifts, even if that means that the congregation pays for that training! How’s that for a radical idea? If we value leadership and gifting as much as the lips service we give to it, then we should be willing to open up our wallets and put our money where our lip service is.

18. Christian intellectuals must be honored
One of the most insidious trends within Evangelical and charismatic circles in the last thirty years is the absolute scorn with which most Christian intellectuals are held. The wholesale mental slaughter inflicted on thinkers in your average megachurch is contemptible.Everyone loves the people who will let you cry on their shoulder, crying along with you. But how much value do we place on Christian thinkers? My own experience is that they’re treated as carnival sideshows in a lot of churches. Folks who think deep thoughts are somehow inferior to the weeping Wendys and empathic Eddies who get all the attention.

Who can blame intellectually-deep Christians for fleeing the average church? What happened to the Francis Schaeffers and J. Gresham Machens of this world? I’m not really sure where they go, but whenever there’s a “spokesperson for Christianity” quoted in the newspaper or featured on a TV roundtable discussion one truth can be counted on: you’ll never see the theological equivalent of William F. Buckley.

Why so many Christians despise the intellectuals within their midst is beyond me. That so many church leaders allow this confuses me to no end. Perhaps we should not be surprised that the best we can do is Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson whenever the news media wants a Christian perspective.

We need to change this attitude NOW. Instead of poking fun of the theology whiz-kid, we should be holding him up as the standard for the rest of us—unless we’re satisfied with the stupidity we see paraded in public whenever a Christian is asked for his opinion on an important issue.

17. A church’s core values should be obvious
No one should walk into a church and have to ask what people at that church believe. If folks have to go on an extended hunt to get a statement of faith and the general vision of a church, that church has failed to communicate. The first thing folks see when they walk into a church’s lobby should be a big plaque on the wall that lists core values. Also, newcomers should have no problem recognizing the core values because they are proclaimed from the pulpit and lived by the people in the church.In addition, there’s no reason to have people hanging on at a church when they don’t assent to those core values. Nothing drags down a church faster than being loaded with people who don’t want to follow the core values. I think that church leaders should reiterate those values and let people know that if they don’t like them, there’s always some other place down the street that malcontents can attend.

If that sounds harsh, well…it is. But it should only be harsh if the core values of the church don’t align with the core values of the Gospel. If that’s the case, then we should only be happy to leave such a counter-productive church. Otherwise, we should let the dross know just where they stand.
The Church Growth Movement has made us too mamby-pamby about losing people. The honest truth is this: a church of 50 who are all on-board with the church’s core values will grow and make a difference for Christ. On the other hand, a church filled with 5,000 who continually question the core values—or who never live them out—will get nowhere and fight perpetually losing battles until they become worthless for the Kingdom.

I hope you’ve gotten something from the start of this series. Stay tuned for the next four entries coming tomorrow!


18 thoughts on “21 Steps to a 21st Century Church – Part 1

  1. Weekend Fisher

    I have trouble relating to this. Maybe it’s because I’m in a congregational church instead of a megachurch, dunno. Where I go, theological interests and studies are encouraged. Never saw anybody give the theologically inclined a hard time (though there’s not a feeling that everybody’s calling is to read theology at a master’s level). Pastor tends to tap these people to fill the pulpit and do Bible classes when he’s on vacation. We could use all kinds of reform, but the kinds listed … ?

    And we’ve though of putting a “mission statemnt” of sorts on the wall, Doris (resident artist) has volunteered to do a painting of Christ if we can only agree on a theme …

    Again, I could easily list all kinds of things that need changing with my church. It’s not heaven on earth. We’re dropping the ball in a number of places. But just reading your list, I wonder if there are different to-do lists for different kinds of churches.

  2. Ronni

    This is great.. can’t wait to see the rest… I remember the old days in a church I grew up in, where there were discipleship programs… and younger Christians were mentored…intentionally and asking questions was applauded. Today we are expected to know or find out for our own and live with it. I love the give and take of true teaching and I love it when a leader says “I don’t know, but I’ll find out… lets find out together”… that is true leadership… And discernment and prayer time for those under us, and over us is so majorly needed… our microwave society expects a 2 minute prayer to solve all the problems of the week. How can we truly know God and be intimate, and hear what He wants to tell us in that amount of time. I so want to see leaders who lead by example and not by smoke and mirrors. I know my leadership spends time in prayer, and that is why things happen. I pray it happens in the Church as a whole.

  3. Doug McHone

    Are you planning to give a quick summary of each of your points and then put meat on the bones you lay out, or are these posts going to be short cries for action?

    I’m considering some follow up posts to support what you have said, but don’t want to step on your toes.

  4. Doug,

    They’re going to be short. Some cries for action, some ideas. Some will be fleshed out more.

    There’s not much I can say about things like respecting the intellectuals more, but other ideas coming up will have more meat. As we get closer to #1 I think there will be more I can add.

    But feel free to add now! I don’t own these ideas. Run with it, bro! And please feel free to disagree, too.

  5. Doug McHone

    Oh, I don’t anticipate many disagreements. Taking another scan at your list, I only see one point that I would make any elaboration on, and it is one of method rather than one of intention.

  6. Weekend Fisher,

    Not every church will have every issue listed here. Some churches do a better job than others in certain areas.

    As to the issue with intellectuals, particularly those people with knowledge of archeology, ancient languages like Greek and Hebrew, and other knowledge, I’ve seen a lot of them marginalized in churches where their knowledge is not given any importance. It depends on the church’s style of ministry and even its denominational heritage.

    Still, the examples I’ve seen of this are so disheartening that I have to mention it.

    I also wonder why no Christian intellectuals have arisen who can speak publicly to modern issues in the way that someone like Francis Schaeffer did. That really hurts us Christians not to have gifted people speaking for us to our culture. Instead, we get the same old same old and we look stupid in the process. I know part of this is intentional on the part of the news, but it borders on being 100% even within sympathetic news organization.

  7. cwv warrior

    Dr. D James Kennedy. He is our intellectual church leader, and he follows Schaeffer pretty closely.
    Anyway, can’t believe I read the whole thing. Usually don’t have the patience. You have some good points. The interactive thing(#20)? Could drag things down, but if the purification (# 17) process works, perhaps it WOULD liven things up a bit, heh?

  8. Steve B

    Two-way sermons can increase biblical understanding
    This is one topic that could take down a church, IMO. The point of a sermon is to teach. The point of a class is to have this 2-way communication between the “student” and “teacher”. To allow questions to be part of a sermon would distract the real meaning of the sermon topic.

    Now does that mean that it shouldn’t be done? I think maybe once or twice a year have an “open sermon” to allow questioning. Maybe have the questioning be open not only to the senior pastor but also any other church pastors. Afterall, all of these educators would have the necessary education to make it this level of leadership.

    19. Leaders should primarily come from within a congregation, not from the outside
    I wholeheartedly agree. The church I attend is had installed a pastor who is the granddaughter of the church’s founder. This keeps a continuity from generation to generation. I don’t know if any of her kids are waiting in the wings when she retires.

    Just a couple of thoughts.

  9. Steve,

    You said that the point of a sermon is to teach. I will contend that teaching and lecturing are two different things.

    I’m an educator. Lecturing to me does very little. Allowing me to ask questions makes it all worthwhile. When I was in college, I had a class with a genius NT prof and I asked questions like crazy because this guy had a remarkable mind. I learned more from him through the questions I asked than through the lecture.

    That’s always been true for me. Studies show that this is true for most people. Retention drops precipitously when people are not allowed to cement what they learn through questions.

    Real teaching is always two-way. Jesus allowed His disciples to ask questions and He answered them.

    The issue then becomes how questions are fielded. There are many ways to do this that would not interrupt the sermon. We just need to implement them.

  10. Lyn

    Why not take number 20 and totally revamp Sunday morning? Praise and Worship service first, then the teaching, then Sunday School, where the topic could be the same as what was taught in the service. It would be a good opportunity to flesh out the ideas of what was taught, and could be a little less “formal” where people could interact with one another and fellowship. Gives the brain a little while to wake up that way too.

    I enjoyed the reading so far and am looking forward to the next installment…some of these things have been on my heart for awhile. Bookmarking you so I can come back later too.

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