Common Core Issues
Over my years of consulting churches of all denominations, shapes, and sizes, I’ve started to notice five common core issues in churches that are stuck.
- They lack clear mission and vision
- They don’t have a clear discipleship path
- They have become increasingly complex
- They are inward-focused
- They are led by weak leadership
In this week’s episode, we’ll focus on core issue number four: an insider-focus.
COMMON CORE ISSUE: INSIDER FOCUS
Most churches start with the same mission: reach new people for Jesus. But as “new people” become “church people,” the voices on the inside of the church become louder. People are coming, and we want them to keep coming. People are giving, and we want them to keep giving. Our mission shifts from reaching the people on the outside to appeasing the people on the inside.
Once this shift occurs, our church is headed toward decline. This week, I sat down with Michael Moore, the Executive Pastor at Faith Chapel and consultant at The Unstuck Group, to discuss the ways his church has fought to overcome this internal-focus tendency, and how other church leaders can do the same.
Join us for a conversation around:
- The 5 common core issues stuck churches face
- Faith Chapel’s method for encouraging outreach
- The importance of “double-barrel” preaching
- 4 key takeaways for maintaining an external-focus
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Welcome to The Unstuck Church podcast, where each week we’re exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. In over 12 years of serving churches, our team has identified some common core issues that can often keep a church from being all that God’s called it to be. One of those core issues is that over time, churches become more and more internally focused and sometimes stop reaching people outside of the faith altogether. On this week’s podcast, Tony and Amy are joined by Michael Moore, executive pastor at Faith Chapel in Birmingham, Alabama, for a conversation on their strategy for building and maintaining an external focus. As you’re listening today, don’t miss the opportunity to join Tony and Amy on August 13th for the exclusive podcast coffee hour. All you need to do to join them is leave us a review on Apple Podcasts, take a screenshot of your review and tweet it to us @unstuckgroup or @TonyMorganlive using the #unstuckchurch. You can also email a picture of the review to Jordan@theunstuckgroup.com. Anyone who sends it a review will get an exclusive invitation to join Tony and Amy for a virtual coffee on August 13th. Now let’s join Tony and Amy for today’s conversation.
Well, I’d like to jump right in today, Tony, because we’ve got a lot of ground to cover. You started The Unstuck Group, I think, what 12 years ago now?
Something like that.
Yeah. And over time, I’ve heard you talk about the five common core issues that you find in stuck churches. So today we’re going to focus on one of those, but would you first recap all five? Just remind our listeners.
Yeah, so it’s been interesting through the years, as our team has been onsite working with churches, as I personally have been onsite working with churches, it’s interesting how frequently these common challenges, they just rise to the top, and you can see very clearly this is why the church is stuck today. So lack of a clear mission and vision, that’s one. Secondly, not having a clear path to help newcomers eventually become fully devoted followers of Jesus. So that clear discipleship pathway. Complexity is a common issue that we run into, and that’s complexity around decision-making, complexity around ministry programming and a number of areas, really. Not being externally focused and too much of the ministry is just focused on the people that are already a part of the church. And then the fifth area is it’s really weak leadership. And that comes in two fashions, either leaders being appointed to roles that they’re really not gifted to be in or gifted leaders that are not empowered to actually lead. And so, Amy, those are the five challenges that we commonly find in the churches that we’re serving.
Yeah. And they haven’t changed much over the 12 years have they?
They really have not. No.
Well, today our conversation is about how churches get stuck because they become insider-focused. And Tony, you know, we just did this series on the life cycle. And, you know, that first phase is launch. Churches don’t start inwardly focused when they’re in the launch phase, do they?
When the church is in the launch phase, I mean, they are just extremely focused on reaching new people, but it doesn’t take long for new people to become church people. When that happens, over time, their voices actually become a lot louder than the folks that are outside the church and outside the faith that we’re trying to reach. It’s interesting, when the kids were little, you’ve probably use this with your kids at some point along the way too. I mean, they would just get loud as they would get active, and we would have to remind them, you have to use your inside voice in this setting. The problem is, in churches, those inside voices, they do over time become louder than the voices of the people that we’re trying to reach. So the fact is church people, they’re already here and we want to keep them here. We want to keep them connected to the church. And the other challenge is church people, they’re already here and they’re already giving and we want to keep them giving and supporting the ministry. But all of this, over time, what we see is churches, because of this, start to drift more towards an insider focus. And it’s really hard to stay externally focused because of that.
Sure. And instead of a clear mission, we now have clear methods.
That’s right. That’s right.
Yep. Okay. Well with that as an introduction to today’s topic, you recently interviewed one of my favorite people from our team, from The Unstuck Group, to help us consider how we might overcome this challenge in our churches. Can you introduce today’s guest?
So today I have the opportunity to interview Michael Moore, and Michael and I met actually many years ago. He was a part of one of the coaching networks that I was hosting. And through that we just developed a great relationship, and I knew, as soon as I met Michael, eventually I wanted to him to be a part of our ministry consulting team at The Unstuck Group. And so he joined our consulting team, I guess it’s been more than five years ago, I think now Amy. His day job though, he’s the executive pastor and one of the teaching pastors at Faith Chapel in Birmingham, Alabama. They also have a location in Columbus, Georgia. And when Michael and I sat down in our conversation, I started by asking how Faith Chapel has maintained an external focus through the years. And here’s Michael’s response.
All churches want to be externally focused. But we all know that that’s not every church’s reality. I think the churches that are successful, the moments where we’ve seen success in our church, has really kind of come down to what we believe as leaders and ultimately what we can influence our congregants to believe. And what I mean by that, I think to maintain an external focus, leaders, staff, volunteers, congregants have to embrace this fundamental idea or this fundamental belief that my church is for me, but it’s not all about me. Ultimately, if we’re going to maintain an outward focus over an extended period of time, at a base congregant level, they have to believe that our church is for them, meaning we want to see them winning in relationships. We’re for them. We want to help them to grow as disciples. We want to help them to grow and help them influence. We’re for them, we’re for their families. But we also want them to embrace the belief that our church doesn’t exist to just be all about them, that when we’re making decisions, our filter isn’t simply just what makes them and them alone happy. If ultimately our congregants can embrace that, our staff can embrace it, it makes it easier to have that external focus. And so what we’ve intentionally tried to do, specifically over the past year during the pandemic, is really start with our staff leaders. You know, we’ve heard everything rises and falls on leadership, but it’s our staff leaders that will influence our volunteers, that will ultimately influence the congregation. If they can embrace that external focus, if they’re clear on just what external means. So who is our mission field? How do we help them? They have key influence over the calendar, over the programming of the church. They are casting vision in their team meetings, ministry meetings, so we can get a level of buy-in with those staff leaders, then the congregants aren’t just hearing the voice of the pastor or the pastors. They’re hearing the voice of their staff and volunteer leaders. So really spending time with key teams, family ministry team, worship and programming team, next steps team, communications team, making sure that they’re clear when we say external, what do we mean? Who is that mission field and how do we specifically help to meet some of their felt needs?
I love the fact that you just said it in passing. You said that the team knows who the mission field is. So you don’t talk about your mission field being in terms of a physical location. You talk about it as a person.
Yeah. As a person. And that shift in perspective is really key. Because if you think about the mission field as a people group, they have lives that exist outside of church. They have schedules, they have weekly rhythms. And so as we’re planning our calendars, as we’re planning ministry programs, if we think about them in terms of actual human beings, then we can’t be asking them to come to the campus throughout the week because they have to help with homework and they have to decompress from work. They have lives that exist outside of what we want to do. So really thinking about them as people helps to humanize some of our planning and keep it from being spreadsheets and numbers and papers that we’re navigating through.
So over the last year, there’s no doubt about it, we’ve experienced a huge disruption in how we do ministry as churches. Has that pandemic changed your strategy for reaching people in any way, Michael?
Yeah. In a big way. I would say prior to the pandemic, verbally we didn’t say this, but our ministry approach was really skewed toward ministry that happened in a room. So when you look all across our ministry, our weekend services were primarily planned for an experience that happened in a room, small groups that happened in a room, counseling that we administered in a room. When the pandemic shut everything down, we had to quickly learn what does a ministry approach look like that happens not in a room, but on a screen? We’re still virtual. We’ll relaunch our weekend services in August of this year. But when we pivot, we’re going to be pivoting to a hybrid model. What does excellent ministry look like in an in-room experience? What does an excellent ministry environment look like on screen? The talent, the rhythm, the calls to action in both of those environments are completely different. A person who’s great on stage may be horrible on camera. So we’ve really tried to boil it down to see what the success behind the camera or in front of a camera looks like, what the success in that in-room experience looks like. And we’ve also really been tinkering with how do we become more of a ministry presence in people’s lives beyond Sundays? So Sundays, before the pandemic, and even during the pandemic, you know, we would often times say, well, that’s our super bowl. That’s our big day. And so we invested people and money and planning in it. Yet most people in that mission field are spending most of their week outside of the church. So what does it look like for us as a church to become more of a ministry presence in their lives Monday through Saturday? And how do we invest the same type of intentionality, staffing and resources around that Monday through Saturday focus as we were and are doing towards Sunday?
We talked a little bit about mission field just a moment ago, but how do you approach not only identifying your mission field, but really mobilizing the people that are a part of your church and already a part of what you’re trying to accomplish to reach your mission field? In other words, how do you get your congregation involved in engaging the mission field, Michael?
One of the things that we had to do was just cast some vision around it. And we had to be really intentional about how we talked about it because we didn’t want the congregation to hear it as an exclusive conversation. This wasn’t about who we were going to exclude. It was about being intentional, about reaching people who were far from God, reaching people who were outside of the walls of the church. I think if you think about it, and how we tried to approach it, as if we talked to our congregation about reaching the community. That’s too big, most congregants don’t even know everybody in their neighborhood, let alone in a city. However, if you break that down, there are people in your family who are far from God. There are people on your job. They’re going to be people who you run into at restaurants who are far from God. What does it look like to make a relational investment in them? And it may not be inviting them to church. It may be a kind word, a kind of action, but as we plant those seeds, God can use other people to come back and water it. But how do we be intentional about planting those relational seeds, conversational seeds, and think about not reaching your community, not even reaching your neighborhood, but reaching a small group of people that will run across your path throughout the week. Most congregants are able to wrap their arms around that because when you talk in those terms, they begin to see faces. They begin to think about the person that they just ran into over the weekend at the restaurant. However you say, well hey, we’re going to go out and reach our community. I think language like that may sound good from the pulpit, but it’s actually too big, too wide for an actual current to wrap their arms around.
Yeah, I agree. It’s interesting. I think, you can disagree with me if you sense this, but it seems that even how we engage our weekend services and how we design our weekend services could come into play when it comes to this vision casting for helping people join us in engaging our mission fields. And if those weekend services, Michael, are designed for believers with only believers in mind, it seems that it could be challenging to keep the church externally focused. So I guess the first question is, do you agree with that or not? And if so, how does that impact how you approach your weekend service planning as well?
Yeah. One, I do agree with it. I think knowing who’s coming to the house, knowing who’s coming through the front door, can and should affect your actions. So if I just think about this outside of church terms, if I know that the only people who are going to be eating at the table are going to be me, my wife and my three kids, as an action it’s highly likely that we will use paper plates, plastic utensils, because of who’s in the room. However, if I invite you, if I invite your wife or your family over to the house, just your presence alone as a guest will affect what we serve the food on, what we use to serve it. And so, I think just knowing, hey, we’re going to have believers in the room on Sundays, but then we’re also going to have people are far from God, outsiders, it can and should affect the planning. And how deep you go with that really just depends on how deep you want to go in your planning. I think it can and should affect the songs that you sing. I think it can and should affect the length of service, how long you talk in the message. I think even some of the challenges that we issue informally in a church, if we’re planning a worship set, believers will be in a position to sing certain songs that unbelievers wouldn’t. As a believer, I can easily engage in a song that says, “Hey God, I give you my all,” but a person who doesn’t know God, isn’t in a relationship with him, they’re not ready to make that level of commitment, even in something as simple as a song. And so if our worship team, our service programming team, if they are aware, hey, a part of our mission is going to be bringing in these outsiders. Where do we sing those types of deeper commitment songs? Is it at the top of the service, later in the service? How do we keep the people who are far from God engaged in the journey? So I think it can go as deep or as wide as a team decided to, but I definitely think it should weave its way into the actions that the leaders are deciding to program into the service.
Let me go a step further, Michael, I know you do quite a bit of teaching at Faith Chapel. I would have to imagine it’s harder to prepare and deliver a message that helps people who don’t have a church or faith background while also still encouraging believers to take their next steps toward Christ. Is that true?
It is. It is. And I think it’s an art and a skill that has to be learned. Something that Andy Stanley said several years ago they really helped me with that. I think he called it a double-barrel preaching. He used Luke 15, and I thought it was really great. He showed in Luke 15 that the scripture tells us that in the audience were tax collectors, sinners, but there was also a religious crowd, Pharisees and Sadducees, in the crowd. Jesus is speaking to an audience that has both. Rather than diving initially deep into kingdom principles and God this and God that, he dove into a series of stories about people who had lost things. You’ve lost a coin, or you’ve lost an animal, or you’ve lost a son. Well, no matter what their theology was, everyone in the audience could relate to losing something. He then took that shared experience, we’ve all lost something, and then tied it into a bigger kingdom principle. And so as a communicator, if I’m planning a talk or a sermon, I think it’s thinking through are there stories, are there examples from my life? Problems that I’ve wrestled with, frustrations that I’ve had, that not only have I wrestled with these questions or frustrations, people in the audience have. It’s just a part of the human experience. We’ve all worried. We’ve all lost some things. We’ve all been angry. Once I can connect all of us together in that shared experience, as a communicator, I can then point to the Bible as the answer to that question, as the solution to that frustration, and can move all of us along. I think where it splits, in terms of believers and those who are far from God, can be in my calls to action. I may give a lower level application to somebody who’s far from God and challenge a believer to go deeper or to make a bigger commitment. But I think starting with that shared experience and then working my way into application can ensure that as a communicator, I’m taking the entire group along the journey.
All right. So I’m just curious. And even I even alluded to this before we started recording today. You just seem to bring wisdom every time I talk to you. And I think a lot of that is captured in some of the illustrations that you share or the stories that you tied to whatever that key thought is that you have in mind. Did you just come by that naturally? Or is that something you’ve had to work out over time, Michael?
Yeah, it’s natural. So, it was funny as a kid, I’ve always been very detailed, always thought in analogies and pictures, and growing up, as I would recap different things from my family, they would kind of jokingly say, well, hey, you’re going to tell us, you know, when you got in the car and what foot stepped out of the car first and what you had on when you got in the car. And so what I got teased on some as a kid, it actually has helped me as a communicator to take a 2000-plus-year-old-book and try to put it in terms that people nowadays can realize. So I think in pictures, I talk in pictures. I have to be intentional not to give too many details, to go down too many rabbit trails, but it is something that did go back in my wiring, even back as far back as a kid.
All right, well, this has been helpful to help us consider how do we avoid this natural drift towards insider focus and to try to remain externally focused as a congregation, helping our people in our church also remain externally focused, but Michael, as we wrap up, if you’re coaching a pastor who’s working to change their church’s culture and increase their external focus, what advice would you give them?
Probably three things. And these aren’t in any order. One, I would encourage him or her to be patient and extend grace to themselves and extend grace to their team and their congregation. Meaning changing a culture really gets down into how do I change beliefs and how do I change behaviors? As human beings we’re attached to what’s comfortable. We kind of pushed back on change. And so, be patient. Changing behaviors over time is a process that doesn’t happen overnight, but if you take some intentional actions, it can change. Two I would tell them that they’re going to have to, at some point, make a decision. They’re going to have to choose between who they want to keep and who they want to reach. And the tension as a pastor and a leader, the natural inclination, is going to be to focus on those inside of the creation that you can see those, that you can hear, those who you already have. How do I keep them happy? How do I keep them involved in the mission? However, there’s a bigger group outside of the church that you can’t see that need the gospel, that needs what those insiders already have, a relationship with Jesus Christ. And just because we can’t see them inside of the four walls of the church, doesn’t mean that those people don’t exist. And so as you’re making your decisions, your insiders, especially, as you change things to become more outsider focused, some of your insiders may be very loud, but loud doesn’t mean large and loud doesn’t mean that those are the most important voices. So keep that outside group in mind and love that outside group enough to make the changes necessary to endure any persecution that you, as a leader, have to do to reach them with the gospel. The third thing that I would tell them is really getting clear on your mission field is going to help you to determine as you begin to make changes, what is a distraction? And what are those things that you should be focusing on? Because a lot of things may be helpful, but it doesn’t mean that it’s aligned to your mission. Throughout the pandemic, I’ve never come to you, Tony or Amy, or any of the leaders on the team and ever suggested, Hey, Tony, I think that we should do an entrepreneurial workshop or business masterclass and really teach people how to thrive in business. Although us doing that could be successful and could be very helpful, given all of the businesses that have gone under and struggled during the pandemic. However, I’ve never suggested that because I’m clear on our mission field. I’m clear that we exist to help churches, to help church leaders get unstuck, and as great an idea, as helpful of an idea as that may be, I am fully aware as a team member that if I brought that to you, you would lovingly shut that down because it’s helpful, but a distraction from our mission. And so, as a pastor, as a leader, if I can get my leaders clear my staff clear on our mission, on our mission field, then they can help me. They can help you pastor, to mitigate some of the requests, to mitigate some of the programs, to mitigate some of the events that may be a good idea. It may be helpful, but given your unique mission and your unique mission field, is actually a distraction for you. So that clarity and really getting clear on the scope of your mission, your mission field, will really help you to distinguish not only what is helpful but what is best aligned to achieve your unique mission.
Michael always has such incredible insights on life and ministry. What were the big takeaways, Tony, for you from that conversation?
Yeah. So a number of things stood out, but let me highlight these. First of all, just recognizing that need to be intentional about shaping culture, not only within the team, but also within our congregations. And I loved Michael’s phrase, “We want to help people see my church is for me, but it’s not all about me.” And I thought that was just a great way to articulate what we want people to experience in our congregations and to recognize it really isn’t all about each individual. We want to help them take their next steps towards Christ, but there’s this broader mission that we’re a part of. A second thing that stood out to me is we need to, as churches, clarify who we’re trying to reach. And you know, we talk a lot around here at The Unstuck Group, Amy, about clarifying our mission field, but it was a good reminder from Michael, the mission field isn’t a location, it’s a person. And we need to get really clear about the person that we’re trying to reach, because that will then drive everything that we do as a church, including how our outreach strategies are leveraged to engage that person and begin to point them towards Jesus and connection to the church. A third thing that stood out to me was having a plan for guests to actually show up. I loved how Michael talked about how they prepare not only their worship services, but their teaching with guests in mind. They actually expect guests to join them for their weekend services. And then finally, something that really stood out was this need to identify the distractions in ministry that might be pulling us off mission and, you know, even coming through what we’ve experienced in COVID, you know, on the front end, what I heard, Amy, from a lot of churches is because of the disruption, it really forced us to simplify what we were doing as a church, because there were limited ways that we could engage with our congregation and with our community and out of necessity, churches simplified. Well, here we are now 18 months later, and now I’m starting to see the complexity, again, start to creep in. And so it’s a good reminder. We need to stay focused on our mission, and what we know, Amy, is that if we really have clarity about who we’re trying to reach within our mission field, the decisions actually become easier to make about what we need to stop doing as churches in order to be more effective engaging the person we’re trying to reach in our mission field.
Yeah. Well with all of that in mind, where would you encourage pastors, Tony, to begin if they hope to overcome this common core issue of being insider focused?
Well, I would say this is probably the easiest place to begin, and also at the same time, one of the hardest places to begin, but I would challenge those of you who are teaching, so senior pastors and teaching pastors, you need to make this shift first in your church. You need to begin to shift your teaching to speak to both audiences. So one audience, it’s the people who are already following Jesus, they’re already connected to the church. They’re a part of your congregation. The second audience is the guest who will be joining you for possibly the very first time this coming Sunday. And this person may still be considering the claims of Christ. And I know it’s challenging to prepare and deliver messages that are engaging both audiences, but this is the opportunity that we have to begin to set the culture in our church, that we expect believers. We expect people in our congregation to be with us on Sunday morning, but we are also expecting people to join us that will be here for the very first time and may not yet be to the place where they are following Jesus. The challenge too, of course, is the next steps that we’re encouraging both audiences to take, they may look different. But both of those audiences, we do want to encourage to take a next step through the teaching. And as Michael mentioned, those steps may be different, but we need to be intentionally communicating what’s next. And here’s the great thing. You get to make the shift without getting anyone else’s approval. So you don’t have to seek the approval from your elders or your boards to make the shift in your teaching. I will say, as a side note, if your elders have to approve your message before you teach it, you have a whole different set of challenges to overcome. But this really is a pivot that you can begin to make on your own. You can initiate this. And I would say, if you begin to teach messages that are prepared with guests in mind, people in your church will begin to assume it’s safe to invite guests. And that’s one small step towards shifting towards a more externally focused culture within your church.
You know, it would be a good thing to, maybe because I secret shop churches frequently, and it’s amazing how many times there really was never a welcome to me. There was never any content specific to me. Like I could probably fit, you know, find things, mine things from the teaching, but it’s this little dial turn that gives me a cue you were expecting me, you knew I was here, and I can settle in and I can hear it. And you know, for pastors, I think, if this is a concept you’re wrestling with, go visit another church once and get out of your denomination so things are different and weird for you, too. And just experience what that’s like to be a new person in something that is so normal to you. It’s not normal to new people, and they need those handles. So good advice. Well, Tony, any final thoughts before we wrap up today’s conversation?
Well, what I loved about engaging the conversation with Michael today was it was a good reminder to me of how our process, The Unstuck Process is intentionally designed to help churches overcome some of these challenges and core issues that they’re facing. And so built into The Unstuck Process is this focus on clarifying the mission field, built into the process is designing ministry strategy to reach more people, to actually grow the church, and to engage more people from the mission field, and built into The Unstuck Process is this desire to help believers take their next steps towards Christ as well and having real intentionality around that discipleship strategy. So if you have been struggling in these areas and need some outside help, we would love to come alongside you. And you could begin that conversation with someone from our team today by going to theunstuckgroup.com.
Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. Don’t forget to reserve your spot at the upcoming coffee hour with Tony and Amy on August 13th. And you can do that by leaving us a review on Apple Podcasts and then tweeting us a picture of your review @unstuckgroup or @TonyMorganlive using the #unstuckchurch. At The Unstuck Group, we work every day with church leaders to help them build healthy churches with coaching and planning, to focus them on vision, strategy and action. And if that’s a need in your church, we would love to talk. You can start a conversation by visiting us at theunstuckgroup.com. Next week, we’re back with another brand new episode. Until then, have a great week.