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An Effective Strategy for Congregational Transformation

By Paul Borden

Anyone alert to what is happening to the Church in the continents most touched by the Protestant Reformation recognizes the Church is losing the battle with the evil one. Accompanying that loss is the Church’s ability to influence communities and nations for the kingdom of God. We hear statistics about congregations on a plateau, in decline, or dying. Most denominations and associations of congregations are losing both dollars and influence because many congregations are declining. The overall picture is not bright. This situation differs from what God is doing in the Church south of the equator and in Asia. When one compares the former Christian world with the emerging one, the decline of the former is staggering.

There are bright spots in the U.S. and in other industrial nations. There are many large congregations reflecting various philosophies of ministries, reaching multiple generations, and using a myriad of strategies to make disciples for Jesus Christ. It is awesome to see congregations planted by risk-taking heroes of faith who are thinking outside the box. Pastors are implementing new paradigms and strategies for reaching lost people at home and overseas. When one sits with those involved in these arenas, we find hope that God may yet again move in a mighty way.

There is one other strong ray of hope: What is happening within some denominations and congregational associations at the local level. Groups of congregations — whether in regions, states, districts, conferences, or associations — are acting intentionally to transform older dying congregations and start new, vibrant ones. For example, our region — now called Growing Healthy Churches (formerly the American Baptist Churches of the West) — has seen God do a miracle in the past decade. Not only has God enabled us to see more than half of our older congregations turn around and produce an abundance of new growth, God has allowed us to plant over 80 congregations. The statistic that is crucial for us is baptisms (new disciples). Over a decade ago there were less than 800 baptisms a year. Now there are more than 4,000 baptisms every 12 months.

Other groups of congregations are also taking major risks to introduce change. As a result, God is producing pastors, lay leaders, and congregations who are working effectively to make disciples for Jesus Christ. This is happening in mainline circles, denominations that are not mainline, and associations of congregations that are known more for their independence and theological dogma than for evangelism and outreach.

Hit the Bullseye Network (www.HTBinc.org) exists to provide a place for peer learning and resources for those leading these new changes.

When you, however, put these things together with the success that God is producing through effective leaders and congregations, we are still losing ground nationally. While the younger generations are more spiritual in their approach to life, they are not finding meaning and fulfillment in Jesus Christ since the church overall is weak, irrelevant, and devoid of life.

There Is Hope

In counting the cost of discipleship, Jesus observed that wise kings always count the cost of battle before engaging an enemy. Today, generals and commanders still act in accordance with such wisdom. Before a commander begins any assault, he thinks through what he will need to win the engagement.

Throughout history we read about unwise leaders who failed to take into account the cost and, as a result, lost battles and wars. This principle is true in spiritual warfare. If our Lord created the Church and promised it would grow so the evil one and his minions not prevail, then leading congregations to health and growth involves spiritual warfare.

I believe our Lord is disappointed with His Church in our nation while His archenemy is delighted because, when it comes to the battle for people in relation to the population, the Church is losing. It requires a spiritual battle to change this phenomenon. And those who take on the assault must be prepared.

Almost every denomination or association of congregations with whom I speak tell me that their recent history of attempts at change resulted in failed ministry program after failed ministry program. It is as though every year there is a program de’jour that everyone is encouraged to implement. Pastors and churches assume these programs will produce revitalization and transformation.

As the evidence attests, these programs — many of them good and valid — have not worked. One major reason is that the assaults on dysfunction and death have been piece-meal as opposed to a well-developed and thought-out strategy that takes advantage of all the resources available to win the battle. In essence, we have sent pastors and congregations the newest rifle, machine gun, tank, or plane and told them, if they wield these weapons well, they will win. We know today that to assault the gates of hell with effectiveness means developing a strategy that takes advantage of all the resources God puts at our disposal.

This strategy must begin with and include prayer throughout its implementation. It must also take advantage of all the resources we have that help us understand health, growth, and reproduction. This strategy must include pastors who are willing to become lifelong learners. It requires deploying dedicated lay leaders who will stand with mission-minded pastors and help their congregation move from stagnation to an outward-focused mission. It must, however, also involve the denomination. The denomination must be willing to use its resources to help the congregation turn around.

The biggest resource the denomination has, after its effective pastors, is influence. In fact, this influence is more important than time or dollars. Denominations need to use this influence to make an unwavering commitment to the islands of health (congregations willing to make the difficult decisions required for health and growth) and a strong commitment of intentional neglect toward the islands of disease (congregations unwilling to make the difficult decisions required for health and growth). The next biggest resource denominations have is the ability (which is seldom used) to bring together highly effective pastors to work with other pastors, lay leaders, and congregations that want to become effective. The infrastructure is already in place; we just need to align it correctly.

I have stated the major reason denominations need to implement this strategy in Hit the Bullseye and Direct Hit. The average pastor is not a leader, either because of the lack of talent or the lack of gifting. This is not the pastor’s problem since this is the Creator’s desire. Many pastors, however, can exercise effective leadership behavior if they have help. But pastors without the talent or gifting required to lead systemic transformation need someone to come alongside and stand with them.

Denominations are built for such a task, although most people within denominations do not know what to do and do not have the courage to act as they need to for such transformation to take place. Denominations, however, can remedy this phenomenon. I know because I am seeing it happen within various denominational settings.

Implementing the Strategy

The route to congregational transformation by creating healthy parents for congregational reproduction revolves around one grand strategy that includes three major initiatives. These initiatives involve pastors, congregational units, and laity. Orchestrating this strategy is the local judicatory [districts] working in concert with the pastors, congregations, and lay leaders within congregations. We base the concept behind this strategy on layered learning. This way, we force people in a variety of ways to interact with the same key concepts and behaviors several times. We also base this strategy on the concept that in this day and age you must attract people to accountable relationships, understanding that you cannot compel them to be accountable. Yet, without some strict accountability, systemic change will not occur.

This strategy also allows local judicatories to engage in an experiment without having to make major changes (in most cases) to the way it conducts its business. This provides a chance to see if change will occur that results in healthy growing congregations without upsetting the denominational or associational structure. Implementing this strategy also allows district leaders to try something significant without looking foolish if it does not work. Trying a strategy with a handful of pastors and congregations as an experiment solves the hesitancy districts face in introducing new programs to all their pastors and congregations.

The cluster/learning community initiative

The first piece of this strategy involves gathering a group of pastors into a cluster or learning community to meet monthly for a minimum of 1 year to learn about, discuss, and hold each other accountable for growth in two major areas: leadership and congregational health. We base each cluster on developing a covenant where pastors and their denomination or association agree to behave in certain ways.

This cluster, learning community, group, gathering, etc. (in some denominations the word cluster has taken on negative meanings due to failures in the past in the gathering of pastors together for some purpose) is led by a current or former pastor who has had more success than any pastor in the cluster in leading a congregation to grow primarily through evangelism. This leader determines how the cluster will operate for the 12 or more months it meets. This is not a peer-led group, since such groups will never produce the accountable relationships required to lead systemic transformation.

The consultation initiative

As stated in Direct Hit, congregations on the upside of the life cycle often need consultation to achieve the next level of effectiveness. Congregations on the downside need intervention. In this article I talk more about congregations on the downside of their life cycles. This means that my descriptions will be more about intervention than consultation. However, even when we do interventions we call them consultations.

Consultation is the second initiative of this three-part transformation strategy. Consultation involves two aspects. The first aspect is the weekend. The second aspect is walking alongside the congregation for a minimum of 1 year, coaching it to implement the changes resulting from the weekend part of the consultation.

The purpose of consultation is twofold. First, one must deal with the proverbial elephants in the room. This is true regardless of where a congregation is on its life cycle. If the congregation, however, is on the downside, the elephants are bigger and there are more of them.

The second purpose of consultation is to offer the congregation hope. Consultation will help the congregation develop a clear, specific, and detailed path that will lead to greater health and effectiveness.

The weekend usually reflects a clear consistent pattern that becomes unique for each congregation related to its particular strengths and concerns. The report the consultants present to the congregation at the end of the weekend generally lists the congregation’s top five strengths, the top five concerns or problems that are hindering health and growth, and five specific prescriptions. We direct each prescription to each one of the five concerns and state specific behaviors the congregation and its leaders need to implement within certain deadlines.

After we list these five strengths, concerns, and prescriptions, we set another date with the congregation — normally 4 to 6 weeks following the weekend event. On that date we ask the congregation to vote to either embrace or reject the weekend consultation report in its entirety. Voting is crucial regardless of the congregation’s polity. We believe failure to vote or failure to embrace the entire report is a sign of rejection.

If the congregation votes to embrace the report, the judicatory leaders commit to walking alongside the congregation for a minimum of 1 year to provide the needed resources to effectively implement the report. If the congregation rejects the report, the judicatory leaders tell the congregation they will not work with them in any intentional way to encourage health and growth.

Once a congregation embraces the report, the judicatory leaders then promise to provide an effective congregational coach who will be at the church at least once a month for 12 months helping the congregation make the changes spelled out in the report. They will also provide any needed resources (people, time, and in some cases money) required to make the needed changes.

A church’s health and resulting growth begin to occur during the consultation initiative of the three-part strategy. It is the only process I know of where denominational people (who hopefully are trained to do this) roll up their sleeves and get involved in the life of the congregation. They do it in an intense way on the weekend and then do it with regularity and consistency during the 12 months of coaching.

The lay leadership initiative

During the year that the pastors are meeting in clusters or learning communities and their respective congregations are experiencing consultations, denominational leaders invite the laity in the congregations to two training events. These events re-enforce what the pastors have been learning in their cluster meetings about healthy missional congregations. These training events also support all that is happening in the congregation as a result of the congregational consultation.

The first training event focuses on a healthy congregation, what it looks like, and how it behaves. The second training event focuses on making the Great Commission the primary value of the congregation.

The three-part transformational strategy is a layer-learning experience. The ideas, concepts, and strategies that the pastors are learning each month in the cluster experience are communicated in an intense way in the consultation. We also communicate the same issues in the lay leadership training events.

The Role of the Judicatory or Association

The role of the judicatory or association is to attract pastors and congregations to the strategy. Once that occurs, the role then becomes one of overseeing the strategy and providing the resources to effectively implement that strategy. The key resource is getting the right cluster leaders, consultants, and congregational coaches, and the people leading the lay training events. Most judicatories and associations need to realize that often the right people are not in their denomination. This means they will, at times, need to look outside their denomination to find these leaders until they have enough trained individuals to fill these key roles.

Conclusion

This strategy works. I have been helping implement this strategy with judicatories in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, the Salvation Army, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church USA, the Southern Baptist Church, the Trinity Association of Churches (a charismatic association of congregations), the Open Bible Churches, the Church of God, Anderson, Indiana, and a number of other groups (over 20 in all). In all of these settings, we have seen on average 50 percent of the congregations that become part of the experiment begin to transform, become healthy, and grow. That is why I have written Assaulting the Gates. It describes how to employ this strategy and how God is using it to turn around established congregations that are plateaued or dying.

PAUL BORDEN, Ph.D., executive minister, Growing Healthy Churches, San Ramon, California

 

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