How worried should you be about your local church? Do any of these represent your church?
- People are a little discouraged.
- It’s hard to get volunteers.
- Not many new folks show up.
- When new people do come, they don’t come back.
- Everybody in church knows everybody.
- The problem isn’t a lack of vision; it’s too many different visions.
- Much attention is paid to minor decisions.
- Financial pressures block every attempt to innovate.
- The purpose statement that hangs on the wall of your church doesn’t represent what really
- The age of those attending church is older than the community around it.
- We seem to love our way of doing things more than we love lost people.
- You (yes, even you) have wondered about switching churches.
How did you do on this quiz? Did you check more than half of the boxes? If you did, your church might need to recalibrate. Did you check them all? You definitely need to recalibrate!
Most Free Methodist churches were begun in a red-hot heat of evangelistic enthusiasm. People were being saved from lives of sin. Families were being brought back together. Social evils were being fought. Everyone sang the songs of faith with all their hearts.
But as the years slipped into decades, the spiritual fires were banked, the passion waned, evangelism became simply a class to attend, and the driving reason for your church’s existence became lost in the mist of history. Good people, who loved Jesus, continued to gather but without a collective vision for the future. Pastors came and went, the numbers dwindled, and finances became tight. The church stayed open, but only because of a valiant group of people who remembered and valued what had happened in that sacred space. The denomination didn’t seem to care, or if it did care, it didn’t know what to do. Because our denomination is over 150 years old, this description fits many of our churches.
Even when a church is prospering, “church” means different things to different people; doesn’t it? For some people, church is just a place to show up when they need spiritual help. But for people like us, who read articles like this, our church is our core community, our church is woven into our very identity, and our church is our participation with God in His plan to save the world! So when our church languishes, we languish. When the church is failing, we weep.
Every church gets off course and, from time to time, needs a recalibration of its compass. Sometimes it’s just a few degrees off; other times it’s way off! Not to mention the churches that aren’t even sure what their course is — they’re just working hard and praying for the best but without any clear direction. There is no shame in recognizing that your church needs to get back on course. The shame would be in failing to recognize the signs.
One benefit of belonging to a larger church family is that, when a local church drifts off course or loses steam, the larger family can respond. You don’t have to figure it out by yourselves. The Free Methodist Church – USA has developed a uniquely Free and Methodical response for churches that could use a little help setting a new course. We call it the Recalibrate Initiative because it’s an 18-month process to help churches recalibrate their collective compass: to find anew their passion, identity and direction. In some ways, it’s like restarting your church.
We’re Doomed, I Tell You, Doomed!
There are two significant obstacles that confront every church that desires a renewal process like the Recalibrate Initiative. The first obstacle is the belief that every old church is destined to die. This concept is called the “life cycle of the church” and has permeated the Christian world. The life-cycle concept is simple: It maintains that just as people typically only live for 80–100 years, churches also are doomed to die after 80–100 years.
Here’s the problem with the life-cycle concept. It isn’t true! Old churches are not doomed. What is true about the “life cycle of churches” is that if churches don’t recalibrate, if they don’t go through a significant re-envisioning of their future and implement corresponding changes, they will eventually find themselves wildly disconnected from their communities, and they will consequently die. That much is true. So don’t do that.
But what isn’t true about the “life cycle of churches” is that it’s inevitable. The key is a reinvigoration of the church that turns the downward arc of the life cycle into a new beginning. This new upward arc, combined with the old downward arc, creates an “S” shape, so in business circles, it’s called the S-curve (for Sigmoid curve). The life cycle ends in death, and that is what will happen to every church unless it creates a new initiative and turns the downward arc into an S-curve. Let’s do that.
The second significant obstacle is you. I mean that with all love and kindness. The moment you and I design and manage the church for ourselves rather than for our children and grandchildren, their friends and our secular neighbors, we’re doomed. The moment the history of the place becomes more important than the future of the people, we’re doomed. The moment we give up on our Lord’s command to go to all the peoples of the world and instead decide to just safely hide our “mina” in a folded piece of cloth (see the parable in Luke 19), we’re doomed. Ironically, it’s good church people like me who may stand in the way of needed changes. It’s often people like us who, out of the best of intentions, unintentionally doom the church to continue its current downward trajectory.
Changing the life-cycle curve into an S-curve demands a re-envisioning of the church’s purpose. But that won’t happen unless we care about lost, lonely and hurting people more than we care about ourselves and our traditions. When you think about it, it’s obvious; isn’t it? We can’t expect to essentially start our church over again unless we have some of the same fire and passion that started it in the first place.
What Is Recalibrate?
It’s uniquely Free. The Recalibrate Initiative does not impose a one-size-fits-all purpose for your church. Every church that goes through the process will need to do the hard work of spiritually discerning their purpose, their mission, their goals and their values. Those, in turn, will be used to build a strategic plan.
It’s uniquely Methodical. The Recalibrate Initiative does impose a guided process that the church must follow. Under the guidance of a coach, the church takes step after step, following a predefined calendar that begins with issues of the heart and then moves to address practical matters — everything from the signs in your church to the length of the sermon.
It’s a part of our Multiplication Plan. The Free Methodist World Conference has been led by God to challenge every general conference to participate in a “Decade of Harvest.” World Conference members have asked: How might the global Free Methodist Church reach 3 million members by 2025? Here in the USA, our answer is a three-pronged Multiplication Plan that includes spiritual renewal, the recalibration of existing churches, and the replication of ministries. In coherence with our denominational vision, the methodology of bringing wholeness to the world is to be through the multiplication of “disciples, leaders, groups and churches.” That’s why it’s called the Multiplication Plan.
As a part of that Multiplication Plan, the Recalibrate Initiative is an 18-month process with three phases:
Pastors in regional training engage in a re-envisioning of their ecclesiology and their vision for the local church. Simultaneously, the pastor begins a series of thoughtful conversations with key lay leaders so they can flesh out the vision together. The vision eventually coalesces around a purpose, vision, mission and values that then work themselves out in a strategic plan. All of this occurs under the guidance of a regional coach. The four regional coaches for 2017 are Andy Haskins, Rick Rouse, Mike McAvoy and Darrel Riley.
Church leaders will hammer out the specifics of their strategic plan. All eight systems of the church will be explored, but major attention will be given to the worship system, the evangelism system and the assimilation system.
Implementation of the strategic plan occurs in this phase. The critical public relaunch will be from October to December. Experience has shown that a church that goes through the Recalibrate Initiative will see at least a 5 percent growth during the first six months (rather than the slow decline the church had been experiencing).
The four key variables of any recalibration effort are:
The pastor must have a vision for the church and the emotional maturity to guide the congregation toward that vision. Typically, in a church that’s ripe for recalibration, everyone has lost hope except during moments of faith-filled prayer. But in moments of sober evaluation, everyone recognizes that the current trajectory will lead to the church closing, sooner or later. The pastor is usually the one who first dares to believe and eventually becomes convinced that recalibration is possible.
The Key Lay Leaders
Especially in congregations that have had frequent pastoral turnover, there may be more authority vested in long-term lay leaders than in the pastor. In those cases, those leaders must join the recalibration effort without reservation. In all cases, the key lay leaders must be full participants. Opposition, regardless of whether it’s open opposition or passive-aggressive opposition, will scuttle the initiative. These leaders will be the ones who either genuinely agree to sacrificial change or who find ways to undermine real change.
Since it’s usually older churches that recognize their need for recalibration, the facilities are often — how shall we say it — suboptimal. The vision will need to address signage, parking, children’s areas, the platform, AV systems, seating and common areas of the church. Of course, some of that means money, so the renewed vision will invite renewed financial investment.
Even communities that are shrinking can still house growing churches although it will take intentionality and understanding. But growing communities, communities in transition, and communities with young families are easiest for a church to recalibrate in.
A declining church is usually doing a lot wrong. But that’s not where a Recalibrate Initiative begins. Because it doesn’t help to fix the music, the foyer or the parking if the core issues are not addressed. The heart of the matter is the heart. And again, we’re not talking about sinful hearts, we’re talking about hearts that don’t share a common passion for people finding full restoration in Jesus. Once hearts are fused together over a common passion for the lost, then is the right time to fix the music, the foyer and the lack of parking.
How do we sign up?
The 36 churches of the 2017 Recalibrate Initiative cohort have already been selected, and those pastors have begun their training even as this magazine reaches you. The nomination and selection process will soon begin for the 2018 cohort. But it’s not enough for your church to need a recalibration; the pastor and the key lay leaders must desperately want it. If that’s the case, speak to your conference superintendent and ask to be nominated for the 2018 Recalibrate Initiative cohort.
What about the rest of us?
Don’t wait for the denomination! You can lead your own mini-Recalibrate Initiative. Begin in prayer. Pray for a broken heart. Pray for broken people. Pray for the kingdom to invade your community and your church.
Then pretend your church doesn’t exist, and start it over again. Whom can it reach? What should it look like, smell like, sound like and feel like in order to reach them? If caution hasn’t gotten you where you need to go, throw caution to the wind — the wind of the Spirit. Let that Holy Wind blow through your collective compass, reset that compass and reorient the whole church toward His destination. Worry less. Start more.
Bishop David Roller served for 17 years as a Free Methodist missionary in Mexico and then for 10 years as Latin America area director for Free Methodist World Missions. He was first elected a bishop in 2007.