Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Is Strategy a Dirty Word in your Church?

Over the years, I have worked with many churches around the country, most of them being in rural America and usually seven hundred people or less. Because I lead a church in rural America, I can identify (and often empathize) with the struggles that small town pastors deal with on a consistent basis. Everything from A (dysfunctional Autonomy) to Z (unhealthy religious Zeal). However, many of the common struggles are symptoms of deeper core issues. 

While core issues differ in each church, there is a common bone of contention I see frequently; it is the lack of permission to use strategy. Some churches believe the word "strategy" belongs in the business world and has no place in church. Others fear systems or strategies would bring too much complexity and confusion to the church and endanger the principle, "The gospel is enough." 

I do believe the gospel is enough. The gospel is the change agent; it is God's powder keg of salvation (Romans 1:16). However, we can't deny the fact that God used strategies in the Old and New Testament. 

  • God systematically created the heavens and earth (Genesis 1-2)
  • God used Joseph's strategic thinking to preserve Egypt from famine, which ended up saving Israel too. (Genesis 27-50)
  • God used Jethro to help Moses set up a strategic plan to share his leadership burdens (Exodus 18)
  • God gave Joshua war strategies to overcome the enemy (Joshua 6)
  • Jesus used the strategy of sending out His disciples two by two with specific instructions (Luke 10)
  • God used the strategy of the cross and resurrection to save us from our sins (The Gospels)

The reality is, whether you believe in church strategy or not, you're using one. Whatever your process is for reaching people with the gospel is in fact, your strategy. Some churches use outreach; others rely on small group ministry; and for many the Sunday sermon is their only strategy. Regardless of the strategy, we must ask ourselves, "Is it working? Are we seeing life change? Is our church making a difference in our city or community? Is our church growing? Are we making disciples?" 

I encourage you, regardless of the size of your church, to consider implementing a healthy, gospel-centered strategy that is unique to your church. At the Unstuck Group, we believe God has a strategy for every's just a matter of discovering it. We have tools for both larger and smaller churches to help. Check out The Unstuck Group website to learn more.  

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Leading Change in Rural Churches

Nothing is as exciting as watching a church grow. Seeing people come to Christ and experience life change is something that never gets old. While we all pursue spiritual multiplication in our churches, we should also remember that growth and change are synonymous; you can't have one without the other; and with growth and change comes pain.

Much like a growing child, growth brings change, which in turn causes things to leave the body. For example, we don't freak out when our children run to us with a loose baby tooth; of course the child may be upset because he has grown fond of his cute little tooth, but we understand that it's a normal part of growth. When the tooth is pulled, there is usually bleeding; it's not pleasant, but it's part of growth. 
We understand that in order for permanent, stronger teeth to come in, this has to happen. 

The same is true in a growing church; especially a church that's under five hundred people. There are processes and systems that worked well in the church when the church was smaller; but when growth occurs, the processes and systems, much like the baby tooth, becomes loose and unable to meet current needs; things soon begin bleeding. 

The real struggle is helping those who have grown fond of past processes understand the necessity of "pulling" out the old so the new can come in. Here's a few "baby teeth" I see many churches still hanging on to:

  • Church Polity & By-Laws: Is your current polity set up for future growth? Does changing a light bulb still require a church vote?
  • Church Boards: How many decision-making boards do you have? Two is one too many. 
  • Worship Styles: Are you putting energy into a failing traditional service just to keep certain people happy? People who aren't willing to have their baby teeth pulled?
  • Generosity: Are you securing God's money instead of stewarding God's Money? Too often rural churches have old money that's being hid under a napkin instead of investing in the Kingdom of God.

As you think about these things, ask this question: "What must be removed in order for something more permanent to come in and sustain future growth? 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Avoid the Summer Slump

 Momentum makes church exciting; it makes people excited. It's easy to see momentum building as churches approach big days. We saw this just a couple of months ago. Spring was in the air; Easter candy overtook the shelves at Wal-Mart; and people were inviting their friends and family to church in hopes of seeing their lives changed. New faces showed up and there was a buzz in the air! It was as if the church drank a case of Red Bull!  Nearly every church experiences this energy rush during big days like Easter, Christmas, Mother’s Day and the first Sunday after New Year’s Day. Pastors live for these days...and then summer shows up. 

   Unfortunately the weeks after Easter usually don’t carry the same excitement. Most of the people who showed up for Easter don’t come back. Church people aren’t inviting people anymore because, well, Easter is over and the eggs have all been found. Hot sunny days, vacations and the lake becomes our new competition.  It’s here that most pastors call a timeout and simply wait for Christmas. They spend the next several months surviving the summer and they really don’t get too excited again until Rudolf the Red-nosed reindeer starts playing on the television. As Christmas approaches, it’s a replay of the weeks before Easter. 

    While we want to make sure our teams have times of ample rest and restoration, we don't want to push the pause button on church either. In addition to leveraging natural growth platforms (Easter, Christmas, etc), we should consider building other platforms during the in-betweens to help keep some energy flowing. 

Here's three things to think about as we move into the summer:

  • Serve the Community: Big crowds aren't the only thing that creates momentum; and Sundays aren't the only days to experience it. What can your church do in the community over the summer that will create synergy within the church and the people in your city?
  • Create a Big Day: What can your church do in the summer that would be beneficial or attractive to the community? Baby Dedication Sundays, Sunday After-Church Barbecues or huge outdoor baptisms will create a lot of energy as well as give your members something to invite their friends to. 
  • Celebrate Volunteers: The summer time is a great time to celebrate your volunteers. Schedule a cookout, have a party or some other activity to both appreciate the people who make Sunday happen as well as cast vision for the fall. If you keep your volunteers excited, it'll spread among the church. 

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Healthy Team Enviornment

I am passionate about working with churches and leaders. I love watching light bulbs come on as pastors discover God's plan for their churches. Even though I typically go in as the teacher, I seldom ever leave a church without learning something that helps me as I lead my own church. 

Earlier this year, I had the privilege to go through a StratOp with New Song Fellowship Church in Valparaiso, Indiana. We spent the weekend together building a strategic plan to increase their gospel impact. During the process, one thing really stood out to me about their leadership team; they had a very healthy team environment. 

I sat and listened as each one was completely honest about what was working, what wasn't and what needed fixing. While some of the conversations had the potential to hit a nerve, they never did because each person on the team was nice, in terms of how they shared their heart. We ended the weekend with a unified vision and a well-built plan.

Here's three takeaways I discovered from our time together that can help create a healthy team environment (things that I am applying to my own team):

  • As a pastor/leader, encourage your team to be honest, but also encourage niceness. While the truth can sometime sting, being nice makes it easier to receive.
  • Create a safe place for the team to be honest; this means no one gets shut down when they share a comment that may be uncomfortable. 
  • Beware of fence riders. Indecisive people typically ride the fence to avoid confrontation or uncomfortableness. This behavior is very contagious to a team. 

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Understanding Spiritual Surgery

I remember very vividly the day my sixteen year old daughter had her tonsils removed. I believe my wife and I were more nervous than she was. We sat in the hospital room, listening to the doctor explain the procedure, that ended with the promise of lots of ice cream. That morning, it seemed like the ultimate goal was to "get through this" and then everything would be ok. However, we learned very quickly the surgery was, in some ways, the easy part; the recovery room was where the most pain and anguish was experienced...pain that ice cream didn't seem to help. 

This same principle is true when it comes to spiritual surgery. As a pastor, I have learned that God is always "cutting things" out of our lives that interfere with our relationship with him. Sometimes our surgeries are followed with little or no recovery, as if having a mole removed; like when God convicts us for being belligerent with someone. After repenting and offering an apology to the offended, healing takes place rather quickly. And other times, God must cut away things that are deeper in the body; things that require a lot more bleeding and my daughter's tonsillectomy.

Three days after my daughter's surgery, she wanted to go out with her friends. My wife quickly intervened with a strong "NO" because she understood that recovery took time; and if she didn't take time to heal, her condition could worsen, making her sicker than before the surgery. Anytime God cuts something away that was "deep" in our hearts (things like pride, jealousy, bitterness, etc)  we must allow God to nourish us back to health. Both our human and spiritual tendencies are to return to our normal state as soon as possible, which is always too soon. God is always working in the waiting. 

It's in the times of recovery that we discover again, the still small voice of God. Perhaps this was what Jesus meant when he spoke to Paul, "My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor. 12:9). When we are at our weakest is when God can do His greatest works in our life. 

Here's three things that will help you in your recovery:

1) Don't rush God; be faithful to Him where you are

2) Don't define God by your weakness; He is still strong

3) Don't resist God; whatever He has removed is beneficial to your spiritual health

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Radical Hospitality

   Attracting unchurched people should be the goal of every church. Churches who have contemporary worship and a modern facility typically attract new people on a regular basis; but what's the secret to get them to return next week? The bottom line is, it’s not enough to be attractional. Lights and modern music will attract unchurched people, but it won't bring them back. There's lots of ways to get people to a building (Easter, children's programs, etc); that's the easy part. Getting them to come back is harder.
    First time guests are handled in various ways. Most churches hand off a visitor’s card and a gift, like a t-shirt or coffee mug. However, if we take a look at this common strategy, we will quickly learn that t- shirts and coffee mugs aren’t causing people to come back...if they were, churches would be full and t-shirt and coffee mug companies would be making bank. Gifts are nice, but gifts do not create an experience, and that's what is experience. 
   Some first time guest experiences can even be a little scary...especially in smaller churches. I have been to churches were guests are publicly recognized, asked to stand and engaged by complete and total strangers, with extended, sometimes sweaty hands. Other times new guests are treated as if they have a horn growing out of the left side of their they walk into the building, they get “the stare” from everyone. And other times, new guests are looked upon as if they’re wearing an invisible suit; people barely even acknowledge they’re there. 
   While we all have our own ideology about how to engage first time guests, there’s one thing that I know for certain... it takes much more than t-shirts, coffee cups and hand-shakes to make a gospel-impression. It takes something that must be cultivated, developed and celebrated... it takes love. I believe expressing God’s love is the secret to MOVE first time guests to returning guests, especially when the new guests are unchurched people. People outside the church can easily detect or sense love. Whether they realize it or not, it’s what their looking for.....we all are. Love moves people. 
   Movement matters. Movement equals growth. And moving unchurched and/or first time guests to returning guests requires a simplistic, yet intentional strategy. So if love is the trump card that can cause new guests to move to returning guests, what does love look like? Let me begin by telling you what it doesn’t look like. It doesn’t mean giving every new guest a Jesus hug. For new guests, there is a way to express God’s love without making people feel weird. I call it “Radical Hospitality.”
    Radical hospitality is simply being an expression of the gospel. It is intentionally engaging people with God’s love and especially His grace. When people are engaged with God’s love and grace, it helps their heart to become more open to community, truth and God’s Spirit. It can make the difference in how they respond to the worship service. It can even make a difference in how they respond to the sermon and the gospel. It will certainly make a difference about whether or not they come back. Therefore, radical hospitality isn’t something we do because it’s nice, we do it because it’s missional.
   When people genuinely love others, it just does something powerful. I have seen first hand how the love of Jesus can literally change the way a person feels about God, church and even their own self. So think of radical hospitality like this; it is the first action to prepare hearts for the seed of God’s word. Therefore, it is the first action to move new guests to returning guest and eventually, on a journey towards discipleship. 
    As you think about what your hospitality looks like, consider these four things:

1) Does your hospitality team (ushers, greeters, etc) understand the mission behind what they do?
2) Is your hospitality authentic or robotic?
3) What are your touch points from the parking lot to the sanctuary?
4) Who is leading your hospitality teams? 

For more resources check out The Unstuck Group

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Getting Small Churches UNSTUCK

Here are five things to think about that will help you break growth barriers and get your church unstuck. Whether you're a small church in a large city or a small town...these thoughts may help you move forward in reaching people with the gospel. 

1. Presence before Preaching: Many people believe if they construct a building with a steeple, stained glass windows, and a denominationally flavored sign in the front yard, people will naturally show up to hear the preacher. Unfortunately, we know this doesn’t work; if it did, the thousands of existing churches would be full every weekend and their communities would be impacted by the gospel. Unfortunately, they are not. I call the “Field of Dream” mentality. It’s the “If I build it, preach in it, they will come” myth. While it worked well for Kevin Costner, it does not work for the local church or pastor. If a small town church wants to make an impact, they have to understand the concept of Presence before Preaching. This is the simple idea of leveraging a high-relational environment by being an expression of the gospel outside of the building…and by the way, that doesn’t mean handing out tracts or church invites. Creating a gospel expression must be intentional and strategic; the motive must be pure. Unchurched people can easily spot strings, regardless of how we try to camouflage them with good intentions. 

The small town is the ideal place to leverage such a concept. As a matter of fact, small towns have one thing the larger cities don’t have; a strong spirit of community; and communities have one attribute that can be both beautiful and tragic. They talk. When a church understands how to simply model the presence of Jesus, without giving a sermon, they become a gospel expression of love that results in the community talking about it. Once that happens a shift occurs, because people like what they see. It’s kind of like discovering a really good restaurant in the city, but even better, because you can’t hide a good restaurant in a small town.

2. Get Rid of the No Shirt, No Service Sign: Over the years I have had the opportunity to travel to different cities. One of my favorite cities is New York. Manhattan has a ton to offer, including a variety of good places to eat. They have everything from fancy, upscale restaurants, where one plate can cost you as much as seventy dollars, to the food trucks that sit on the side of the streets, where you can buy a big slice of New York pizza for three or four bucks. I remember during one of my trips to Manhattan, one of my friends fell in love with the Gyro food truck. According to him, it was so good, he almost got saved again...almost. There’s something I’ve noticed about food trucks; I have never seen a “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service” sign hanging on the counter. While food truck menus are different, they all have one thing in common; they serve people...period. Whether it’s the Gyro truck in New York, the Bratwurst truck in Milwaukee, or the hot dog truck in Chicago, their mission is people. They don’t cater to a certain dress style, social class, or economical class...just people. If you have an appetite and a little money, they’ll hook you up. Really, every restaurant’s mission is serving people, but not every restaurant is set up to serve all people. I have seen restaurants with the no shirt, no shoes, no service, sign posted, some even with pride. Sometimes they even have an explanation point at the end of each statement (many are grease buckets, where a dress code is the least of their problems). 
Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think I would want to eat a New York strip sitting next to the guy with no shirt, rubbing his beer belly, while fussing at his barefoot children. Gross. I get why restaurants have to post the sign...because somewhere in the past, the beer-belly thingy probably happened. Here’s another interesting observation; upscale fancy restaurants never post that sign. They don’t have to. They send the message by how the building looks and how their patrons are dressed. There’s just an environment that lets you know as soon as you get to the front door, put on your stinking shirt and shoes before you come in. Those kinds of restaurants don’t need a sign just know. There are a lot of churches that operate like a fancy restaurant. They have a similar code; and like fancy restaurants, it isn’t posted on the front door or written down anywhere, but everyone knows. 

This code, much like those at restaurants, are designed to do one thing; keep certain people out so that loyal church members can get the church experience in a comfortable, pleasant environment. This kind of church attracts people who want their church experience to be similar to the experience of fine dining. They show up to be served and waited on. They expect everyone to be pleasantly dressed; sitting in a pleasant environment with nice people having nice conversations. Everything and everyone is pleasant. When someone walks in dressed differently than those around them, things change fast. Now everyone is uncomfortable. Churches, like the fancy restaurants, don’t have to post a sign; everyone just knows, especially those who walk in looking different than everyone else. 

If you’re going to reach people in your town or city, you have to develop a culture where everyone who walks in the door feels welcome. This can’t be done by simply changing a dress code, there has to be intentionality behind it; and it has to be cast in such a way that your church gets the “why” and not just the “what” of reaching people.

3. Don’t Call Time Outs: A good leader is like a good coach.... He knows the value of winning. And in the case of the Church, winning is seeing lives changed and people discovering Jesus. A good coach knows that winning requires strong leadership, discipline, and creating good plays… or what I would call strategies. One strategy of the game is knowing when to call a time-out. 
I have coached all of our kids through their biddy-ball years. I didn’t have to worry about running plays; our primary objective was to get the first and second graders to shoot the ball at the right goal. Just like in college basketball, each team was given a number of time-outs that could be called anytime during the game. I used time outs when the kid’s tongues were hanging out and they were about to fall over with exhaustion. College basketball, however, doesn’t use time-outs so the players can rest (they use their second string for that). If you watch college basketball, you’ll always notice the coach will call a timeout when the other team has made three or four baskets in a row or some dynamic play. They’ll steal the ball two or three times, make the shot, and the crowd goes wild! When that happens, the opposing coach will call a timeout. There are two reasons he does that; one, so he can tell his team what they’re doing wrong or what they need to change; and two, he breaks the momentum of the scoring team. When a team makes several good plays and the crowd goes nuts, momentum happens. The players are pumped, the crowd is pumped, and the roof nearly comes off the gym. It creates energy in the air that inspires the players and causes them to give it 100%. On the flip side, the other team feels intimidated and overwhelmed. Calling a time out at the right time can make the difference in who wins the game because momentum is power!

If there’s one thing that can cripple a church, it’s a lack of momentum. Momentum is energy, movement, and force. When the church is growing and blowing up, Satan does his best to call a time out in hopes of breaking the momentum. He knows that momentum can take a church to new levels of growth, but the lack of it can paralyze growth. There’s a ton of ways the enemy can call a time out. Things like staff conflict, integrity issues, or financial strain has killed momentum in countless churches. That’s why healthy checks and balances are so important in the church. You must identify and define the core values, accountability and principles that will guide your church well, through season of momentum and rest. There are lots of ways to generate momentum by leveraging your calendar…which is my next topic. 

4. Fail to Plan, Plan to Fail. There is another way the enemy uses time outs; this particular time out is not due to poor Christian discipline, instead, it’s a result of poor planning and calendaring.  Over the years, we have coached many pastors, whose churches struggled with creating, and in most cases, keeping gospel-centered momentum; meaning momentum that counts. In my humble opinion, big days don’t count unless lives have been touched by the gospel. 

Almost every church will experience momentum during the big church days that naturally happen every year. Easter, Christmas, Mother’s Day and the first Sunday after New Year’s Day always carry with them a level of momentum. Most pastors can see momentum building weeks out, as they approach Easter. Spring is in the air; Easter candy overtakes Wal-Mart and church people begin inviting their friends and family to join them for the weekend service and many of them discover Christ. New faces begin showing up and there’s an excitement in the air. Then Easter Sunday happens. The chairs are full; the pastor is pumped; and the church appears to be growing…at least for a day. 

Unfortunately the weeks after Easter usually don’t carry the same excitement. Most of the people who showed up for Easter don’t come back. Church people aren’t inviting people anymore because, well, Easter is over and the eggs have all been found. It’s here that most pastors call a timeout and simply wait for Christmas. They spend the next several months surviving the summer and they really don’t get too excited again until Rudolf the Red-nosed reindeer starts playing on the television. As Christmas approaches, it’s a replay of the weeks before Easter. Making an impact in a small town requires churches to be strategic with the calendar. They must learn to leverage natural growth platforms, as well as build platforms during the in-betweens.

5. Learn How to Fish: In Luke 5  we are introduced to a group of fishermen named Peter, James, and John. These guys busted their humps the night before, casting nets and caught nothing. Frustrated, tired, and cranky, morning came and it was over. They began cleaning their nets to head home. Suddenly this guy named Jesus comes on the scene that asks Peter if he can borrow his boat and use it for a pulpit. Peter agrees and Jesus does his deal. Afterwards Jesus looks at the frustrated, fish-less Peter, and asks him to take his boat out into the deep waters and cast his nets. Peter must have looked confused (because you don't net fish in the daytime or in deep waters). Nevertheless, Peter rows out and he throws his nets into the water.  End result? A ton of fish. 
As the story goes on, Peter realizes Jesus is something special; he realizes this guy is much more than a master fisherman; something inside of him tells him he’s The Master. Peter falls to his knees, trembling, not quite sure what to expect next. I love what Jesus says, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men." Basically Jesus said, "Your occupation as a fishermen isn't going to change; but what you catch will change." In other words, Jesus called us to catch people with the net of the gospel. I know there are good churches, which have good intentions and really want to see people come to Jesus. Yet at the end of each year they can only celebrate a few conversions and even fewer baptisms. Lots of things can contribute to this. Poor theology, lack of outreach, or lack of discipleship can cause a low conversion and/or baptism rate; but there’s something else that’s crippling the local church; it’s the lack of fishing skills. 

Yeah, I know that sounds weird. However, I’m pretty sure if Jesus used fishing as one of his first analogies to talk about evangelism, so can we. As pastors, we must teach our people that catching people for Jesus begins by knowing where to fish; and that place is the unchurched. 

Small town and big city churches alike must also learn how to fish with the right bait. Your weekend service can be one of the places to fish for the unchurched, if you can get them there. Obviously the weekend service is not a natural place to catch souls for Jesus, because unchurched people normally don’t wake up Sunday morning with a desire to hear singing and preaching. However, with the right invite culture, attraction, and mission, the weekend can become a strategic place to fish. It’s the principle of attracting the unchurched to the weekend gathering. If your church is attractive only to the religious, your chances of actually catching souls on the weekend are few.  Never let anything stand in the way of the gospel; without it, you’ll never catch people for Jesus. Lastly, small churches have to use the right hook, which is the gospel. There is no substitute for the gospel. The gospel is the only life-changing hook that will pull people to the cross of Jesus.

Check out other resources and tools that can help grow your church at