3 Challenges to Leading Long-Lasting Churches
I’ve had the privilege of serving the same church for twenty-one years, the past ten in the lead role. Sometimes raw adrenaline can carry leaders through the first season of ministry (usually a year or so). When the honeymoon ends, the adrenaline wanes, and everyone starts spotting the flaws in each other, the next season (usually another year or two) lobs significant challenges at us. I beg leaders to persevere through that difficult season for two big reasons:
- The best, long-lasting ministry stuff usually happens in the third season of ministry. This is when churches and leaders begin to live as family, trust one another, coordinate their giftedness, and live in the reality of whom they are.
- When leaders or churches repeatedly bail before they work through the difficult second season, they stunt their own growth. They become like a college boy who loves the thrill of starting to date a girl, but quits the relationship when he has to start doing the work of really knowing and loving her.
I wouldn’t dare suggest that my timeline holds fast for all situations. Every ministry is different. The equipping might happen quickly and you might be called to leave. Many other scenarios might come into play, but we all desire to plant/lead churches that will faithfully serve God for the long haul.
When my twentieth anniversary at Highland Park Christian arrived, I did a lot of reflecting. I’d like to share three challenges that I see for leading churches that will faithfully serve God for many decades to come.
Rapidly changing communities
In the past ten years, our neighborhood has seen a massive spike in homelessness, the closing of multiple storefronts, an increase of almost a thousand new non-profit employees in two next-door towers, and a steady increase of ethnic diversity. We’re constantly grappling with what these changes mean for our ministry.
I hope you love your community now. However, I also hope you’ll love your community when it changes. Will you be like the priests who shouted for joy when they saw the foundations of the new temple, or will you be like the priests who wept because they compared it to the old one (Ezra 3)? God allows us to grieve what is lost, but he then calls us to gratefully accept what is coming. The changes to our community warrant questions from us:
- Is what we are doing sustainable?
- Are we making disciples that will make disciples, regardless of whatever change comes next?
- How can we make ourselves more flexible?
- Are we hanging on to things that need to be let go?
- Are we learning about and listening to our changing community?
Paul said he “became all things to all people” (I Corinthians 9). We’ll fail this principle if we mourn, reject, or ignore our changing communities.
A constant pull to chase warped definitions of success
Caesar Kalinowski rightly rebukes the way most American churches measure success: the 3 B’s, which are bottoms, budgets, and buildings. The problem is not that these measuring sticks lack any sort of value. They do. The problem is that they are often the only measuring sticks that seem to count.
I recently heard from a group of college students who drive ninety minutes every Sunday to attend a church in the most resource-challenged and hurting part of a city. The communication and music is off-the-charts and they are growing like crazy. You can’t find a grocery store, Target, or thriving shopping center there, so the church’s success was fantastic for the neighborhood. But then:
- They moved from the poorest part of their town to the wealthiest. Local pastors heard from multiple people who said they felt “abandoned.”
- Many of those same people had left older churches in that part of town to attend the new church. It’s too far of a drive to go to the new location. Now they aren’t sure if they’ll return to any church at all.
All of this left me bewildered and grieving.
I read the policy of a prolific church that states how the pastors of their satellite churches are only allowed to preach a limited number of times per year. Compare this to my friend who chose to not add multiple services or more buildings. Instead, his church schedules two Small Groups to meet in a home instead of their building (on a rotating schedule). This gives them more space. During those weeks, my friend teaches the leaders how to prepare and deliver sermons so they can preach, teach, and lead in a home with their small group.
One of those churches is called a smashing success because of how many people they’ve attracted. You’ve probably never heard of the other church, but they are equipping people like crazy. They are deeply invested in their community. They are not dependent upon one person’s super communication skills. They seem to be functioning like a New Testament church. If their building crumbles or budget dips, their discipleship will continue. They are built for the long haul.
Every church makes constant decisions that veer their path towards either an attractional (all we care about are the 3 B’s) model or an incarnational/missional (deploying people to be Jesus’ hands and feet in their community), sustainable model. It’s not that any church ought to strive to be unattractive. We don’t honor Jesus with stale sermons, nasty bathrooms, and unfriendly members. However, sustainable, God-honoring churches allow their Christ-like love and Spirit-filled truth to naturally attract people to hear the Good News. Their incarnational ministry is attractive.
Constantly evaluate if you are veering towards what God has called you, or if you are veering towards what our current church culture tells us we must do. These two things won’t always be the same.
When asked to give an opinion about any other local church, my answer is the same: “I’m rooting for them.” It’s true. But I can root for someone and still vow to not buy into the same definition of success that they seemingly have. Discern.
Imagine if every month you were handed a one-pound chain to wear around your neck. You could function quite normally for a long time, but eventually, it would start to weigh you down. That’s how discouragement in ministry often works. I’d like to tell you that stinging words, broken church families, and leadership failures wouldn’t weigh me down. I’d like to tell you that one solid prayer time can take care of those wretched memories. But I’d be lying. Some days it feels like I’ve found all of those chains and put them back on again. It feels like going some place new would let me leave those chains behind.
I’ve only survived this long for three reasons:
- God cleanses me in prayer. I use the Lord’s Prayer as a template, which makes me both ask forgiveness and then consider whom I need to forgive daily.
- The encouragement of the saints sustains me.
- The excitement of God’s work on earth propels me.
A phrase we often use in Board meetings for Blackbox International (help for trafficked boys) is that God is working upstream. He’s doing things long before we know about them, but they’ll eventually wash toward us. Over and over I’ve realized that the miracle this week was begun years ago by him.
We recently walked into a meeting with a neighborhood non-profit, ready to share our dream that had been blossoming for over a year. Before we could share it, they told us about a new effort they were getting ready to launch. As they talked, our mouths dropped. It sounded like they’d stolen our plans, fleshed them out, raised the funding, and launched our dream. We quickly adjusted our dream to support theirs.
God works upstream, but it’s hard to remember that when the water is rising. Edward Gilbreath, in his important book Reconciliation Blues, tells of a meeting he attended in 2005.[i]
A group of about fifty leaders, all of them esteemed in the work of reconciliation, gathered in Indianapolis. Although Gilbreath anticipated the gathering with excitement, his buzz quickly evaporated as leader after leader lamented the lack of progress in their communities. The meeting felt like a funeral. He noted, “An impulsive reaction for Christians immersed in the work of social justice and reconciliation is to become flustered, angry or bitter even as they trudge along in their ministries.” Concerns increased about how the meeting would conclude. Would they all leave with nothing but discouragement?
The answer came toward the end of the day, when Dr. Perkins suddenly walked into the room. Everyone knew all about Perkins. Gilbreath notes that he was dubbed “the godfather of racial reconciliation.” Dr. Perkins stood in the middle of the circle, with all eyes fixed upon him. His face, with its strong brown features, was accented by the lines of time. What would he tell us? What wisdom could he, the patriarch of the movement, impart to us on staying the course and fighting the good fight? Gathering his thoughts, he looked at us with a gentle but fierce gaze. . . .
Gilbreath describes how Perkin’s fierce gaze gave way to tears. Perkins recounted the suffering he’d endured, but then reminded them of their call: “What is God telling us?” Dr. Perkins continued. “I feel he’s telling us Philippians 1:6—‘He who has begun this good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.’ It is God who gave us this ministry, and he will be the one to fulfill it. We just need to continue to give our hearts and souls to loving others and living the gospel in an incarnational way, and then trust God to bring the change.”[ii]
Blessings, my brothers and sisters. Be encouraged. The Lord is with you and so are we.
[i] Edward Gilbreath, Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical’s Inside View of White Christianity (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 219.
[ii] Edward Gilbreath, Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical’s Inside View of White Christianity (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006),184-186.