8 Recommendations for What Pastors and Church Leaders Can do to Regain Vitality in Their Congregations
The very best research on congregational life reaches this simple conclusion: Highly effective congregations have leaders with the key attribute of an unrelenting, uncompromising focus and drive to help grow people into disciples of Christ. The strategies and programs they pursue are not radically different from those found in most churches. It’s their hearts—consumed by Christ—that make the difference.
The last 40 Reflections I wrote with the basic purpose of challenging conventional thinking about what’s important in leading church life today. My focus has always been on the traditional mainline denominations that were so dominant in America before starting their forty-year decline that seems to only be accelerating. Meanwhile, so many independent community churches are growing in number and participation. My training and inclination are to analyze why. Why are mainline churches declining and more progressive churches growing? I firmly believe insights can shape action.
My conclusion is that the old traditional churches have a Spiritual problem, spelled with a capital S for Spirit. They (we) have not paid enough attention to the Holy Spirit, who is Christ’s Spirit with us now. I advocate the renewed study of the centrality the Spirit had in the Apostle Paul’s understanding of the church life emerging under his leadership.
What follows are eight recommendations for what pastors and church leaders can do to regain vitality in their congregations. None of these are radical.
1. Emphasize the basics of how the Holy Spirit influences the lives of Christ’s followers.
Teach participants to recognize the Spirit at work in their lives. This will mean highlighting personal experiences, something avoided in traditional churches. Many pastors themselves will need to seek help learning this skill.
Many experts recognize that the Christian church is growing worldwide faster than at any time in its history. Almost all of this is in Pentecostal forms. If you are going to be a follower of Christ, then do it in a way that produces a difference in your life now. Many Pentecostals go to excess in highlighting feelings. The traditional emphasis on reason is a valuable corrective. Learn to appreciate the centrality of the gifts of the Spirit in Paul’s approach.
2. Stress the authority of inspired Scriptures.
We can look at the latter part of the 20th century as a great experiment with interpreting the Bible. It amounted to applying scholarly methods of treating Scriptures like any other human literature, without a faith commitment to its supernatural origins. Basically, it was a big failure, judged by the emptying out of churches that offered this anemic view of God’s Word. Where Protestant growth is happening, is in conservative churches.
The “market” for church life is among people who are looking for a source of authority for how to live their lives. The highest quality research on how participants grow in their faith concludes that nothing has a greater impact on spiritual growth than a reflection on Scripture.
3. Build church fellowship around encouraging one another in their Christian walk.
Traditional mainline churches typically have a shallow view of church fellowship where social small talk prevails. Help participants learn to talk about what God is doing in their lives. This comes easier when participants learn to recognize the Spirit’s work. Help others model conversation about their walk with the Spirit.
4. Practice personal spiritual self-awareness that helps you grow in denying yourself and trusting God.
Pastors cannot lead others to where they have not gone themselves. Pray for the Spirit’s growing influence in your life and work. Find approaches that work best for you. You will know when you find enjoyment in your way of exposing yourself to the Spirit.
5. Call others to a personal relationship with Christ, not just to church culture.
Traditional mainline churches have their own distinctive culture. “Involvement” is not necessarily a good predictor of closeness to Christ. Those open to church life today want spiritual nourishment.
While the proportion of the American population who claim no religious affiliation has increased rapidly in recent years, these typically are still open to religion, just not in its traditional institutional forms. They are looking for God-focused relationships. The fields really are ripe for harvest by those who can communicate the Gospel basics in personable ways. The unchurched looking for formal institutionalized worship are few. Pray for a fresh movement of the Spirit.
6. Build up basic Christ-centered fellowships by reducing barriers to the Spirit’s work in a congregation.
The Holy Spirit works through the primary relationships of those gathered as a congregation. The formal constitutional structure is secondary. Its purpose is to promote the health of informal fellowships. Organizational structures imported from secular organizations are inadequate for building on the ministry of Spiritually gifted members. Poor organization can quench the Spirit’s work among participants.
Changing any organization’s culture is difficult and prone to conflict. It needs to be led from the top. Start with small changes within the pastor’s authority. Build on successes. Recognize that big church structures do not necessarily work well in small churches. Do what best enables participants to minister to others.
7. Emphasize learning from experiences of the Spirit in the past and now. You can’t help people learn to swim very well by giving lectures on good swimming. Yet that is how traditional churches approach enlightenment by the Spirit. Mainline churches have a rich heritage of doctrine, or teachings about God. But the greater truth is personal encounters with God, guided by biblical truths. We know how to teach about the experiences of biblical characters. Supplement them by sharing stories about faith journeys in our times.
8. Approach sanctification as letting the Spirit draw believers closer to Christ. It is what happens after the Spirit by grace imparts saving faith. The goal of congregational life is to help participants grow in love, joy, peace and the other quality-of-life fruit the Spirit can produce. Life together is a process of helping each other keep in step with the Spirit.
A practical way to do that is to help participants chart their own personal spiritual journey in terms of how close to or far from God they were at various stages of their life. The question then is where they want to be in the future.
None of these recommendations is an easy fix for what ails so many mainline churches. Ultimately, they involve a re-orientation of Reformation theology to the Apostle Paul’s understanding of the Holy Spirit’s works among God’s people. The ongoing numeric decline of churches in that heritage should lead to greater humility and willingness to relearn the basics of ministry.
Faithful churches are stewards of God’s mysteries. How the Spirit works is a great mystery. Learn to let him reshape the traditional ministries that may be losing effectiveness in today’s society.