21 Steps to a 21st Century Church – Part 2


Light in the ChurchThe second installment (#1 here) in the series “21 Steps to a 21st Century Church” adds another four issues the Church in the West, in America in particular, needs to address. None of today’s items are earth-shattering, but it amazes me how the simple things get overlooked and fester in our midst:

16. Deal with offenses swiftly
I don’t know when we became so thin-skinned in America. The rise of the culture of victimization, I believe, is the reason that so many people simply can’t get along with those who hold differing views. Doesn’t matter what the topic is, we too easily take offense at what the other side thinks. It’s as if we’re stabbing someone in the heart if we say that we don’t agree with a dear position of theirs. When you get right down to it, though, the source for being so easily offended is just human pride and self-centeredness.Nowhere else is this more evident than in churches. It used to be that churches split because of fierce doctrinal battles, but I heard of a split recently due to differing takes on whether the church parking lot should be expanded. All this rancor bodes ill for a Church whose growth in America has plateaued. The world looks at us, sees the disunity, and thinks, That’s no better than what I’ve got to deal with every day—and they’ve got more rules, too! Should we be surprised that we aren’t growing? Who wants to step into the middle of a group of people who take offense at everything?

The Lord has something to say about this:

There are six things that the LORD hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers.
—Proverbs 6:16-19 ESV (emphasis added)

Did you catch that last one? God considers stirring up discord to be an abomination. I’m fairly familiar with the abominations that Christians prattle on about, but offending our brothers and sisters in Christ is curiously left unmentioned. If only each one of us would heed that warning!

It’s time to stop to consider how others think. Time to walk a mile in their moccasins, as the old aphorism goes. Most arguments aren’t worth it, yet we would rather fight than not because we in the Church today have developed a chip on our collective shoulder. Doesn’t matter what the topic is, we have to be right and damn everyone else who thinks differently than we do! Literally.

This isn’t a call to abandon good doctrine, only to realize that it’s easier to get someone to your side by lovingly (with genuine affection) dealing with another person as God directs in His time. We need to pick and choose our battles wisely and be willing to let some things go. Our fellowship with another believer is infinitely more important than the size of the church parking lot. Let’s start living like we believed that to be true. Like the Bible says, if you have offended a brother in Christ (or he you), go and be reconciled before you render your spiritual service. Let’s not pretend that Matthew 5:21-25 doesn’t exist in our Bible.

Let’s learn how to be the bigger people.

15. Not more church plants, but more connection to existing churches
We practice a sort of Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest ekklesia that goes hand-in-hand with taking offense at others. Nothing else can explain the need for another church plant in the middle of a region filled with churches. Few church planters ever ask whether another church is necessary in a town of ten thousand that already has a church on every corner, but our predilection toward believing that ONLY WE ARE DOING IT RIGHT tends to lead to that congestion.The result is that estimates put the number of churches in this country at more than 350,000. That means that if every man, woman and child in this country were to be in church in Sunday, each one of those churches would hold about 850 people. Last time I looked, I didn’t see every man, woman, and child in America in church on Sunday. In fact, if you believe church pollster George Barna, we’re seeing fewer people in church than ever before.

I understand that some will cry that we need to build more churches to reach more people who don’t have enough churches around them to choose, but the fact is that too many churches are under-attended. Not only that, but church planters aren’t rushing to plant churches in rural communities where there might actually be a dearth of churches; they’re trying to put one across the street from three other churches in the fastest-growing Caucasian section of town. I know an area near me that is growing like crazy, but nothing explains the half-dozen monster churches built (for millions of dollars that could have been better spent) within a quarter mile of each other. I suspect you could put 2500 to 5000 people in each of them, but I guarantee that not even a third of that are showing up any given Sunday. And if they are, there’s another church somewhere that lost those people.

The plain truth is that we’re just cannibalizing each other’s churches. We’re not talking about the “three thousand added to their number that day” kind of evangelism that everyone dreams about, but no one actually does anymore. No, we subdivide our Christian population like a randy amoeba bent on replicating itself in ever smaller bits until there’s nothing left.

But what if a church decided it wasn’t going to view the church across the street as competition? What if we did a better job bringing people into existing congregations rather than building yet another church? What if we worked with the churches we had rather than build a new one because of a church split (see #16)? Or what if we changed our view that other existing churches can’t possibly be preaching the Gospel, instead suggesting that someone looking for a church might find a better fit in the church across the street than the new one we’re thinking about building?

Until we start getting off our duffs and actually start evangelizing people to the point that our own church is swelling because of new converts, not recycled ones from some other church, we just don’t need another new church to add to the cacophony of churches already screaming, Don’t go to those heretics over there, come in here!

We’ve got to stop thinking about our own little mission and start thinking about what serves the Lord best. Yet another church that is hot today and dead tomorrow is not serving the Lord best. Let’s stop now.

14. Think like a visitor
Over the course of a men’s retreat my own church held, I brought up the issue that churches, in general, rarely think about what visitors experience walking into their church for the first time—especially if those visitors have never been in a church in their lives. The puzzled looks on the faces of several of the men told me that they’d never once thought about that. They’d grown up in a church and knew church practices and culture like the back of their own hand. What could possibly be “scary” about church?I have a degree in Christian Education. One of the things drilled into me by my profs at Wheaton College was keeping an eye open for how churches actually communicate with people. What does a church say through non-verbals? Those unspoken messages can be powerful, in many cases overshadowing the message that comes out of the pulpit.

A church that preaches the love of God, but never talks to visitors, is at cross-purposes to their message. Yet the doing may be even more important than the saying.

I suspect that most people reading this are old-timers. By and large, we’ve forgotten what it’s like to be new to a church—any church at all. We know the Christian lingo, the do’s and don’ts, where to take our kids to the right Sunday School class, and what weekday ministries our church offers. But visitors don’t. And when they find themselves overwhelmed by choices and less-than-helpful church regulars, they won’t come back. Ever.

We Americans are amused when folks from other countries talk about America and what it’s like. We take for granted that we live in a big country that has supermarkets everywhere, or that people drive rather than walk to destinations. We’ve all heard the stories. A Japanese fellow told me how frightened he was to drive on the highways here because of the sheer number of monstrous semis that roared alongside him. He’d never seen so many huge trucks, nor had he ever battled them for position on a highway at 70 miles an hour. That was a source of terror for him.

What sources for terror exist for visitors to our churches? To them, our church may very well be like another country where they don’t speak the language, can’t find anything, and seem stupid about the customs that everyone around them performs without thinking, as if in some intricate ballet.

Start thinking like a visitor. Act like we’ve never stepped foot into a church before. Note the lingo and culture. Brainstorm how to make the church more accessible and less scary.

Five simple things we can do to help:

a. Always be on the lookout for people we don’t know. Don’t leave it up to the greeters to be the friendly and informative ones. Offer to sit with new people. Offer to take them out for lunch afterward—on our tab (or even the church’s if the church is wise enough to see how meaningful that can be to retaining people.)

b. Make sure signs in your church point out where people need to go. We should walk them ourselves to make sure they’re accurate.

c. Install a map in the lobby that pinpoints the locations of all church small groups meetings. Have flyers near the map that have the pictures, phone numbers, and addresses of those small group leaders on them. Ideally, if we’re doing #1, we can take people to that small group map ourselves and walk through options with them.

d. Prominently display a plaque with the church beliefs and vision in the lobby.

e. Volunteer to call people who may have filled out a visitor card, especially if they live near us.

What other ideas for making visitors feel welcome can you come up with?

13. Our neighbors matter to Jesus
Yes, the people who live next door. The couple down the street with the sickly child. The elderly couple across the street who can’t do as much around the house as they would like. The single person in the nearby apartment who gets lost in the shuffle.Steve Sjogren once gave a message where he said that he didn’t understand how someone could jump on a plane to go to India for missions work when that same person’s neighbor didn’t know Christ. Say what you will about the slight that gives to world missions, but he does have a point. I’ve never understood how we can expect to win over another culture to Christ when we can’t even lead our neighbor to that same Christ.

Our best mission field is within a half mile of our homes. What are we sowing in that diameter of one mile? And if we can’t sow there, where can we expect to sow?

Every Christian and every Christian family is like an outpost on an unforgiving and hostile planet. Imagine living on the planet Venus with its 900 degree days, acidic atmosphere, and crushing surface pressures. The house of the Christian is the sole sanctuary from that brutality. If we all lived on Venus, people would be flocking to our little respites from savage living conditions.

Our problem is that we forget that the planet Earth is unforgiving and hostile. Our unsaved neighbors are already living with one foot in hell. Do they find a respite in our homes? Do we take our respite to them in their time of need? Do they have even one clue as to the source of our respite from the storms of life?

If not, why not?

We talk about growing our churches, but we too often forget about our neighbors. Instead, evangelism becomes a concept rather than a reality. If we are not there for our neighbors in their time of need, how can we call ourselves servants of Jesus Christ? Can we expect our neighbors to suddenly fall under the conviction of the Holy Spirit by some random encounter or can we be the ones to bring the Spirit of Life into their homes?

Churches convinced of the need to grow need look no further than the neighbors of the people in the church. That’s where it starts. And if our churches are hindrances to our neighbors, then we need to find ways to take down the barriers without compromising the natural offense of the Gospel. If Christ is the stumbling block, then so be it. He Himself declared that He would be rejected because of who He is. But we, our churches, and the way we live out our faith should never be obstacles that keep our neighbors from Christ.

Tomorrow brings four more issues. Thanks for stopping by. I pray that what you read here stirs your mind, your soul, and your actions.




12 thoughts on “21 Steps to a 21st Century Church – Part 2

  1. Cultural Savage

    I appreciate what you have to say about these issues, however, I must call into question your comment about Church planting.

    while I am not for creating “the hot new church down the street”, church planting is vital to the mission and health of the Christian community. Yes, we need to grow and strengthen out existing churches, and spliting off to persue another style or whatever is not healthy… this side of the coin I agree with. But Still, church planting needs to happen.

    Example: I live in Utah. We care alot about missions here, because we live in the heart of a fairly unreached mission field. There is somewhere between 0.5%-2% of evangelical/protestent Christians in this state. If we did not plant churches here, the existian chruches would all have to be 5,000+ in order to see the majority of people in Utah “churched” (granted, that is not the goal, rather seeing lives lived for Christ is, but still, I hope you see the point).

    I don’t mean to rant so hard about this, but it is a dear issue to me. Maybe you could re-work that point into something like “we need to plant churches in a healthy way… one that builds up and from the existing churches.”

    Anyways, thanks for your thoughts.

  2. Cultural Savage

    I just wanted to also apoligize for such a reactionary comment. I see more of what you are saying, and agree a bit more with you… still, I think Church planting in a healthy way is vital to the catholic Church community.

    Thanks again!

  3. Culural Savage,

    I can definitely see a need to plant more churches in Mormonism’s backyard so long as one new church doesn’t cannibalize Christians from another church.

    In most places in America, though, we’re just shifting our base of Christians from one church to another and that does no one any good. People float from the latest hot new church to the next; I believe this dishonors God. We need to strengthen our existing churches rather than always starting new ones. Every time we start a new church at the expense of an old one, it’s a failure on our part.

    Studies have shown that the average church has a heyday of about fifteen years before rot sets in. That’s terrible and we need to do something about it other than starting new churches. Sometimes I think we’re so addicted to the new thing that we can’t commit to anything, including our churches.

  4. Ken Fields


    Thanks for the first two installments of this series. I am looking forward to the remainder! I have only one complaint…you want me to change the way I do church? You’ve got to be kidding me…I’m a Baptist. And as you know, we can trace our heritage all the way back to John The Baptist! But, then again, as Baptists I guess we don’t believe in tradition. And change? Definitely not!

  5. codepoke

    we subdivide our Christian population like a randy amoeba

    I had to quit reading. That’s hilariously and perfectly appropriate! OK. Composure regained.

  6. codepoke

    Good stuff, Dan.

    I could not agree more about the church plants. Do we think the world doesn’t notice that there are dozens of churches within 2 miles, and that none of them work together? They would know we were Christians by our love, if it were visible.

    On the neighbor subject, I notice that you make it a personal responsibility. Teaming up sure helps.

  7. cwv warrior

    # 15 raises some issues. I’m not a pastor and won’t be planting a church any time soon but, having tried to work within the churches has been a nightmare for is. I have two angry sons to show for it! First, churches aren’t open to remedial work. Second, churches aren’t genericly under one umbrella. MANY have left the straight and narrow. Third, I don’t really have my own narrow agenda; i’m talkin basic doctrine here.
    Maybe you’re gonna get to this issue later since it’s a BIG one? Your ideas are great…welcoming the newbies is huge: I like the idea of a continual beginner’s course to help baby Christians.

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