Can Churches Be Saved?

During the last week of September 2017, fourteen members from Trinity United Methodist Church  attended a conference for church leaders at the Church of the Resurrection (COR) in Leawood, Kansas. This is the largest United Methodist church in America— 20,000 members, four campuses.

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Led for 27 years by Adam Hamilton, COR today has moved from its humble beginnings in a funeral home to become a mega church. Overtime, COR has developed an annual leadership conference that is a hotbed for the latest trends and ideas related to churches.

Our team consisting of laity and staff attended with no desire to mold Trinity into a mega church. We went in the search mode, open to new ideas and strategies.

From Wednesday thru Friday, the pace was nonstop.

General sessions presented a variety of speakers from seasoned veterans to fire hot millennial church leaders.

After each presentation, like an established talk show host, Adam Hamilton, conducted insightful interviews, peppering the experts with worthwhile questions.

On Thursday afternoon, the session with Tony Morgan, founder of the Unstuck Group, was an attention grabber. Mr. Morgan’s topic— Seven Stages of Church Life Cycle: Moving the Church from Being Stuck to Unstuck, was a real look at the life cycle of a church. Mr. Morgan’s presentation was sobering with a serious sense of urgency.

His work is grounded in four areas: assessment, planning, structure, and action. Additionally, a bell curve is used to capture the phases of life for a church.

Seven phases are the focus for church life. These range from the initial launch of the church to the final sad action— placing the church on life support. Throughout this session, I kept thinking about Trinity and where we might register on the bell curve.

Mr. Morgan’s presentation impacted every member of our team. He touched a nerve.

It is no secret that for several years, attendance and interest in churches is in decline in America. Our church, Trinity, hasn’t been immune from this downward trend. An analysis of our attendance data over the last 15 years confirms Trinity’s slippage.

For the last eight years, I’ve had the privilege of being a part of the staff at Trinity. I am no expert on churches as my prior life was in public education. However, I do have some observations.

Within my first year of work at Trinity, aside from an annual financial audit, staff evaluations, and a required charge conference at the conclusion of each church year, it appeared that we had no formal assessment or evaluative tools neither internally or externally to really take a close look at how the church is doing.

From my work in education, I can remember schools I served participating in an evaluative/accrediting process with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Local fire and police departments, periodically are assessed by professional organizations. Such evaluative assessments for accreditation are utilized by other professionals in our communities as well. A timeline for these evaluative interruptions might be every 3 to 5 years.

For the most part, a simple template is used— evaluate everything that is currently in place, make recommendations for improvement, and develop a realistic strategic plan.

But, there is one key ingredient, the assessment is conducted in cooperation with the local organization, but with the expertise coming from individuals outside the local organization.

With churches this would be a significant shift in evaluative thinking. But, from my humble perspective a shift that churches can’t avoid if they expect to keep their doors open.

At Trinity, we are taking a risk.  We entered into an agreement with Mr. Morgan’s Unstuck Group. Our twelve months of work is in its initial phases.  I hope to live through this experience to tell you about it!!

Several years ago in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I had the privilege of accompanying our senior high youth to coastal Mississippi. On our last day of work, a member of the church where we had been staying during the week stopped to talk with me.

He wanted to thank us for coming to help. But, he also wanted to share an observation.  With tears in his eyes, he said, “The church people are the only ones left. They are the only ones still sending teams down to help us. Everyone else has pulled out.”

Now, I know churches are far from perfect. We have our flaws.

However, if we churches expect to “pull out” of our current mire, then we must significantly adjust our current scope of evaluating and assessing.

This means we must commit to assess every piece of our church beyond our normal predictable routines.

Who knows, disrupting those predictable routines might salvage a few churches.

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