These Things Don’t Change with the Times or with Culture
An estimated 65 to 80% of churches in America are in decline, and it can often seem that there aren’t any signs of health on the US religious landscape, but in reality, there are thousands of churches in America who are accomplishing their mission effectively.
Over the years, we’ve noticed certain behaviors that churches experiencing health and growth have in common regardless of culture or the current times. These churches embody what it means to be unstuck.
In this episode, Amy and I share:
- Five tangible actions that lead to health and growth
- Strategizing with an “abundance mindset,” and why this isn’t just for churches with more money than they know what to do with.
- The primary way we see unstuck churches multiplying
- One of the key differences between stuck and unstuck churches
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Sean: 00:02 Welcome to the Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we’re exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. An estimated 65 to 80% of churches in America are in decline, and it can often seem that there aren’t any signs of health on the US religious landscape, but in reality, there are thousands of churches in America who are accomplishing their mission effectively. Over the years, we’ve noticed certain behaviors that churches experiencing health and growth have in common. These churches embody what it means to be unstuck. This week on the podcast, we started a two-part series exploring the 10 things that we see Unstuck churches doing right. Before we get to today’s conversation, I’m curious, as a leader in the church, if you’ve ever felt stuck trying to move things forward and seeing little progress will leave you feeling that way. And year after year repeats itself in the same way unless you do something different.
Sean: 00:57 So what are you considering doing differently in the year 2020? Here’s an option, enrolling in the Leading an Unstuck Church online course. This is the last chance to get in this year. We’re closing enrollment on October 31st and here’s why we think you should give this a look. The data says that your church is likely facing some or all of the 12 core issues this course equips you to lead through. You can take lessons at your own pace, get coaching from our team as you learn, facilitate the exercises with your leaders and begin to implement next steps at your church. We’ve heard a lot of pastors say they feel stuck. We believe it doesn’t have to be that way. Check out theunstuckgroup.com/course and enroll by October 31st. Now, here are Tony and Amy to kick off our two part series on the 10 things that we see unstuck churches doing right.
Amy: 01:56 Well Tony, earlier this summer you wrote an article highlighting 10 things that unstuck churches do, right? And your list came from the 10 plus years of experience that we’ve all had through the Unstuck Group of helping hundreds of churches get unstuck. That article has actually had a lot of engagement recently and seemed to really resonate with leaders. So we thought we could spend the next couple of episodes of the podcast actually unpacking those 10 things just a little bit more. And for a little setup, Tony talked to us about the kinds of churches that have gotten unstuck. People sometimes ask, are they all similar in size? What are they like?
Tony: 02:31 You know, the interesting thing that we’ve learned in working with 400 churches now is that there isn’t a good way to distinguish healthy churches based on how they look. And what I mean by that is that some are large, some are small, some are multi-sites, some are not. Some have one style of worship. Others have something different. And we actually see the same thing with churches that are stuck. Some people may have a misconception that only small churches are stuck. And because large churches have lots of people that they aren’t. But we see large churches get stuck all the time and for many reasons, and we’re going to talk about some of those in these next two podcasts. So the thing we’ve learned about churches who are unstuck, they have some unique behaviors that we want to unpack and that’s what we’re going to talk about on these two podcasts.
Amy: 03:22 Well that’s really good. So for all of our leaders listening today who think that only a large church could do that or thats just something for smaller churches, we really do see these behaviors, right? No matter what size. Okay. So in no particular order, here are the five things that we see unstuck churches doing, right. So number one, no surprise here, Tony, they keep an outward focus. But let me just ask one follow up for some clarity. What do you mean by an outward focus? Are we all working from the same definition on this one?
Tony: 03:53 Yeah, I actually don’t think that we are. We’ve seen some churches think an outward focus only means really serving in the community. And I think that’s part of this. But it’s really a subtext to the main headline. And the headline is this, one of the primary reasons churches get stuck is that they begin to focus more on people who are already Christ followers rather than on reaching people outside the faith. And let me just say, that’s the natural tendency of every church. Over time, in every church, if intentional steps aren’t taken, we’ll gravitate back to their own preferences and gravitate back toward an inward focus. And what we see in unstuck churches is that their primary focus is on reaching people who are not yet connected to a church and who aren’t following Jesus. In other words, they have a passion and a conviction for the people in their community who haven’t yet considered the claims of Christ.
Tony: 04:51 And they’re committed to doing something about that. I read recently some research from Lifeway Amy, and they found that about 60% of churches in America reported fewer than 10 people deciding to follow Jesus for the first time in their church over the last year. Wow. You know, as a church, we’re not doing a good job of fulfilling our mission to make disciples and we need more churches who are intentionally taking steps to reach their community. So with that in mind, I’m going to just kind of unpack a little bit here a few ways that we’re seeing very practical next steps that churches are taking to have more of an outward focus. They’re very clear about who they are trying to reach. And we talk about this a lot on the podcast, at the Unstuck Group, we would say that you have to define your mission field.
Tony: 05:49 And I think this is important, it’s just an important shift that churches and pastors really need to make. And as I mentioned in a recent podcast that you and I did, Amy, we’re now living in a post Christian America. And because of that, you’re no longer the pastor of a church. You’re instead the missionary to a community that’s far from God. And I know you didn’t choose that, but it’s the reality of where we are today. And so what we’re seeing is unstuck churches do exactly what we’re talking about. They define their mission field, they get clear on who they’re trying to reach by taking an objective look at where God has physically placed their church, and then they get to know the people in their community and understand the culture that exists around them. Amy, I mean, you’ve had an opportunity to engage with churches that do get clarity about this. How do you see this shaping the focus of the ministry?
Amy: 06:48 It’s really a game changer for churches. You know, a lot of the planning retreats that I facilitate when we have this conversation, we actually give these people a name and so maybe it’s, Mark and Jody and Mark and Jody have three kids and Mark does this and Jody does that. And once they lock into that, they actually start self-correcting themselves. When they’re doing strategic planning, they’re like, okay, really quick, guys would Mark and Jody do that? And so it refines what they do, what they put their energy into and what they don’t. So it’s a game changer.
Tony: 07:19 That’s right. A second practical next step that we see in these churches that have an outward focus is that they realize everything they do, whether it’s creating weekend services or other ministry environments, they do it for their mission field. As they’ve worked to understand their community, they’ve been able to kind of design experiences that those people would feel comfortable in and they begin to address the questions that people are asking. And so what I’m trying to express here is it’s not as easy as just doing evangelism training in your church or just creating an invite strategy. I think those things can be helpful, but you really have to create a church for your community. And sometimes that looks different than the church you currently have. So for those churches who are stuck, this often takes courageous and bold steps, but it can help those churches begin to fulfill the mission.
Tony: 08:15 Once again, and Amy, we were just talking this morning about this, and the reality is these types of changes don’t happen overnight. And so it really does take courage because in many instances change is initially going to create challenge because some people aren’t going to go along with it. And it’s not uncommon for us to see churches take a dip in attendance. Then when the changes take hold and the church really embraces what it is to engage their mission field, they begin to reach more and more. Momentum begins to grow at that point too. And I mean, I’ve been working with another church just in the last number of months and they’ve given new focus to who they’re trying to reach. They’ve defined their mission field, they’ve talked about some very necessary changes that have to happen not only with their weekend services, but their entire discipleship strategy.
Tony: 09:13 And they know that this is gonna take some time and they’re going to go through some challenges, but they also know and have confidence in what God’s going to do as they engage these changes. So, it’s not easy. But churches that want to get on track have to begin to really look at everything they’re doing through the lens of the person they’re trying to reach in their mission field. And then lastly, outward focused churches actually talk about inviting and building relationships with those who aren’t yet connected to a church on an ongoing basis. They’re helping equip people in their church with the tools and abilities to engage their friends, their neighbors, their coworkers, and build real relationships that can lead to people taking their next steps toward Christ. And the reality is, as a society, I think we’re beginning to lose a little bit of that skill of just relationship building. And so these churches are recognizing if we’re going to be outward focused, that as Christ followers, we need to improve our ability to build relationships. And so they’re actually encouraging people to engage those outside the church, but also equipping them with the tools and the practices to be able to do that.
Amy: 10:31 Yeah, they get a little more granular on the training, don’t they? Didn’t your little church in Atlanta, just do this last month.
Tony: 10:39 Yeah. So, Emily and I have connected to North Point here in Atlanta and just in the last couple of weeks, Andy Stanley has gone back to encouraging the entire church. So he’s taught this through their Sunday weekend services and you can go back to listen to Andy’s coaching and vision casting on this. But he encouraged the church to go back to embracing a keystone habit that’s been a part of North Point from the very beginning it’s been all about investing in others and inviting them to take a next step. And so I really would encourage you, we’ll include a link to Andy’s most recent message on this topic in the show notes. But he got very practical on helping those of us that are connected in the church on how we can really be more perceptive to the engaging opportunities we have to connect with people outside our church and outside the faith.
Amy: 11:38 Yeah, I listened to it too. It was fantastic. All right, so let’s move on. The second thing that unstuck churches are doing right is that they’re multiplying ministry. So how is multiplication helping churches get unstuck? Tony?
Tony: 11:52 Yeah. Well, first of all, it’s part of the way God designed the church. I mean, one of the last things Jesus said was that the church would spread into Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Now, if you were one of those early apostles standing there with only a few people, no buildings, no significant financial donors for this new church, you were probably thinking, how on earth are we going to do that? But obviously the early church had to begin thinking multiplication right away. And unstuck churches are often multiplying in many different ways. I mean, one example, they’re multiplying in their group environments. They have a strategy to raise up new small group leaders and birth new small groups. Creating new groups is a second way they’re multiplying ministry leaders. So current team members have apprentices or people that are shadowing them and learning how to lead ministry and getting hands on training.
Amy: 12:51 And these churches have an intentional strategy to launch new ministry leaders as their ministry expands or as they multiply campuses. And then related to that at churches that are unstuck are multiplying by adding services or campuses. In other words, not every unstuck churches is a multisite church, but for those that have developed systems, they are reproducing themselves as a church by adding services and adding campuses and expanding their already healthy ministry. So we also see unstuck churches, planting churches. I mean, there’s just a number of different ways, but they’re looking to multiply. They recognize that through multiplication at every level of the church, it’s obviously going to help us carry out the mission God’s called us to. You know, I remember multiplication. That whole concept was so important in staying unstuck in my church’s journey. I remember we came to a point where finances were not the primary barrier to us reaching new communities. It was actually leaders. And you know, my ministry colleagues went all in. I was so focused on the weekend and the leadership there, they were doing this little side thing on leadership development. It took me awhile to really understand it, but they had a priority focus and a strategy to identify high potential leaders, both staff and volunteer. They created cohorts to prepare them for ministry and multiplication. And honestly, if we wouldn’t have done that, I think our story would have looked much different. I actually believe we would have started down the left side of the church life cycle heading towards maintenance because that lack of multiplication of our leaders would have been our lid.
Tony: 14:35 Yeah. I often hear from larger multisite churches that it’s not because they lack finances. It’s not because they lack new locations that they want to go to. The reason why they’re kind of stuck as far as multiplying campuses is they don’t have the leaders to pull it off. So, yeah, it’s a critical piece of what it means to be an unstuck church.
Amy: 14:57 Okay. What’s the third thing we see unstuck church is doing right?
Tony: 15:01 Yeah. Another important marker of an unstuck church is that they’re generous and it’s not just the people of the church who are generous, but the church as an organization is generous as well. And here’s what that often looks like because there is a clear vision in these churches. People are compelled to give their resources and they know what they’re giving to and what they’re collectively trying to accomplish. And often in these churches, we see very healthy per capita giving numbers and an appropriately sized budget to go with it. And speaking of their budget, these churches are often operating from an abundance mindset. And that’s not because they have so much money coming in that they don’t know what to do with it. In fact, I’ve not run into that church yet. But they’re operating out of an abundance mindset because they’re strategic about how they plan their budget and then allocate their resources.
Tony: 16:01 And you know, I’ve shared this story before, but I love the model that Church of the Highlands in Alabama has provided us each year when they create a budget, they project their expenditures based on only 90% of what came in the year before. So in other words, they’re not shooting high and just hoping and praying that God will provide, they’re actually being good stewards of the resources God’s bringing to their church and they’re being very smart about how they invest those resources. Then whatever comes in beyond that 90% they get to use that for new strategic initiatives and to be generous as a church and so they’re stewarding their resources wisely and they’re prepared for whatever God has next for them. Amy, we also see unstuck churches using their finances to be for their community, by partnering with other organizations who are working to make the community better, and they’re investing both volunteer time and significant amounts of financial resources and these local organizations to make a greater impact in their communities that they’re creating opportunities to show their generosity and develop that culture within the people of the church.
Amy: 17:20 Yet, Tony, we hear this comment a lot, if we were to close our doors tomorrow, would our community even notice. But one church that we’re working with is in Odessa, Texas and they launched this major initiative called for the basin. It’s kinda oil country down there and it’s introducing their church and hopefully ultimately helping reach people in their community in brand new ways. So it’s an externally focused community-based initiative. And you know, I don’t know all the details, but when that shooting happened there six or seven weeks ago in Odessa Midland area, I have to believe that the work that they did in their community before that event really helped them serve the large groups of people who found them after that shooting. So it really made a difference. That’s absolutely right. What’s the fourth thing we see unstuck churches doing, right?
Tony: 18:12 Yeah. This next one is hard because people generally do not like change. But we’ve learned unstuck churches embrace the new, they have an expectation that things will change. And this really is a culture that they’ve built into their church. There have probably been several times in the church’s history where the leaders had to make a courageous decision and make some kind of change. And if you’re a church that hasn’t changed very often, this can be really hard. But the more change you experience, the more people grow accustomed to expecting change. And there’s a really healthy church that I know of that has this acronym CCC for their name. The attenders there have affectionally dubbed it the church of constant change because things are always changing. But those new things have brought significant health and growth to that church and no one is surprised anymore by the change that’s happening. So at an unstuck church change is expected. We actually see this as part of God’s design for his body and he is constantly renewing us as Christ followers. And the church has to be constantly renewing as well.
Amy: 19:29 And if people feel like it changes a lot, just look at culture today. We have to keep up with that pace at some degree. That’s absolutely right. All right, so last but not least, what’s the fifth and last unstuck church marker for this week’s episode?
Tony: 19:43 Yeah, Amy, this last one. It’s a big one and I think it’s one of the key differences we see between stuck churches and unstuck churches. What unstuck churches are doing right is equipping God’s people to do the ministry, and you and I have talked about this many other times on the podcast, so I’m not going to go into a lot of detail of what that looks like for you. The leader that’s listening, you know you’re supposed to equip God’s people to do the work of God. What I want you to be thinking about today is, is that is that really a part of your culture within your team, at your church, and what are you doing to track and make sure that this is a part of how not just you operate as a leader, but how your entire team operates? Are you as a team giving people in your church the opportunity to really engage the ministry?
Tony: 20:36 Now, let me speak specifically to the smaller churches and the pastors of those churches that are listening to to the conversation today because of the commonalities we see in churches that are stuck when it comes to equipping God’s people to do the work of God is that oftentimes those churches get stuck because they have a complex governance structure. And this can be a smokescreen for churches because they think they’re having more people in ministry because those people are on committees and involved in decision making about ministry. And the reality is they’re not doing ministry. They’re just talking about what they’re hoping other people will do to engage ministry. And all it’s doing is adding complexity and it’s not really equipping people to engage in the ministry that could be accomplished as a church. And so I really want to encourage you, number one as a leader are you just making sure that this is a part of your culture in your church? Is ministry being given away? Secondly, does the governance structure of your church cause more people to actually engage with their spiritual gifts and live out what the body of Christ is called to do? Or are people just sitting in committee meetings, talking about what should be done and then finally, are you, are you really modeling that for others? As a pastor or leader in the church, you’re not the one doing all the ministry, but you’re encouraging people to embrace what their role should be within the body of Christ.
Amy: 22:17 Well said. All right. Thanks Tony. That’s been a great dive into the first five of the 10 that we’re gonna talk through what unstuck churches are doing. Right. Do you have any closing thoughts?
Tony: 22:27 Yeah. I just want to encourage the leaders who are listening to take a step back and think through any of these areas where your church might be stuck. If you’re feeling more inwardly focused or you’re not seeing ministry multiply or if your church isn’t living out generosity and embracing new things or equipping people for ministry. Just hit pause for a second, gather your team together and have a discussion about the why behind that. Why, is it that you might be stuck in a particular area? One of the best things that you can do for your church is just admit we might be stuck and identify why and once you have that clarity, you can start to take the next steps that are necessary to move towards being unstuck. Then come back next week and hear about the last five things we see unstuck churches doing right.
Sean: 23:46 Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. Make sure to subscribe to get the show notes in your inbox. Every week you get one email with our leader conversation guide of all of the resources we mentioned and some bonus resources. You also get access to the archives of all of our podcast resources from past episodes. You can sign up by going to the unstuckgroup.com/podcast, if you like what you’re hearing on this podcast, help us get the content out by subscribing on your favorite podcasting platform, giving us a review and telling your friends about it. Next week, we’re back with part two of the 10 things unstuck churches are doing right.