The church is shifting

Last weekend I had the opportunity to meet a ton of people for the first time. Convention attendees, authors, speakers, and ministry leaders from across the US. And it was interesting because there was a phenomenon among the conversations that I found fascinating.

Somewhere in the conversation there would always be this thread of “do you see what is working in youth ministry?” In other words… “what’s worked for me in the past is presently not working.

Here’s how I described what I’m seeing in my work.

There is a shift towards the small. While I see large ministries getting larger, more organized, and reaching more masses of people than ever their successes come via the small and intimate settings of community, micro-community, and stuff that happens outside of programs. But outside of churches in the 3,000-5,000 range I see tons of head scratching frustration. Leaders are sensing the shift, they are seeing numbers change, yet they aren’t coping with it well. Their response to the shift towards the small is to create a program that appeals to that. In other words… their people want something small and not programmatic but ministry leaders desire to create a program of ultra-small groups. And they wonder why it isn’t working.

Here’s a problem to be overcome. As soon as I say “the church is shifting” many people’s brain automatically label “shift” as “emergent church.” And that includes a whole slew of people the church at large seeks to ignore and marginalize. I really think they would rather fail than admit that some of those people were right.

Here’s what I am not saying. I’m not proposing that the church should change. (future tense) I am recognizing that society has shifted (past tense) and that the church is shifting to respond. (present tense)

Here’s what I am saying. This isn’t about theology. It is about the church, the timeless truths of God’s Word, and it’s leaders responding to a seismic shift in how culture works in our society. Society is shifting and many church leaders are clinging to programs as if they were the Gospel!

Instead of purpose-driven churches we need to see mission-driven churches. Instead of copying what we see at conferences and mega-churches, we need church leaders to spend serious time studying their communities doing the hard work of ethnography. (This isn’t new, A.B. Simpson said the same thing 120 years ago!) We need to see churches working within their communities instead of asking the community to come to their buildings.

Let’s make it even simpler.

Churches who build their ministry around their community are succeeding.

Church who build their ministry around the short cuts of copying megachurches are failing.

By Adam McLane

Kristen and Adam live in Ahwahnee, California.

6 comments

  1. What do you mean “a program of ultra-small groups”? Do you mean that they are forced communities based on a curriculum rather than relationships? Or that small churches are dividing up their people into small groups that are too small?

  2. o.k. Adam. Great post.

    I gotta give one little push back, and ask “exactly how do you define purpose differently from mission”? Hasn’t the complaint been (not mine btw) that the Church has been “driven”, and not led, or flowing, or organic?

  3. Andrea- I mean the latter. As in people want to be in smaller communities naturally and incompetent church leaders try to force what is natural into a program. When the natural groups resist the church labels them as “rogue.”

    Todd- I think purpose and mission are somewhat different, albeit nuanced. In a way, I think that the leaders have over-owned and over-lead the mission/vision of churches. As much as I love my SP at our new church, ultimately the success isn’t tied to him as the people grasp the mission clearly.

  4. Adam, good points all around. What you’re saying is a little to the extreme so I’m not sure I totally agree with you, but I’ll tell you what I completely agree with:

    Just copying what “that guy” is doing has not worked and never will work on a large scale. And this is what so many youth pastors try. I hear the same question all the time. “What works?” I’m not sure they’re saying that what they used to do didn’t work… Many of them are saying that they still haven’t found anything that works. OR, they found something, but each year it’s all about the latest and greatest new ideas, so they drop the thing that worked to try something new, hoping for the better.

    This is something businesses understand well: Constantly innovate, measure what works, keep it, and keep innovating. It takes more work to do it this way in the beginning, but the long term pay offs are huge.

    But we each need to do it–like you said, see what our own community needs and try to meet them. If we’re just copying what worked for “that guy,” we’re going to keep chasing our tail every year.

  5. Nate- dude, how cool is it to have folks from Oak Park commenting? OK, I’m over that.

    I think where I’m coming from is a recognition that the church has failed and is failing. It sickens me to think about how many people most churches gleefully don’t reach. (95% or more per community) It sickens me that spending money is the solution to problems of the heart. (more programs, bigger buildings)

    I constantly remind myself.
    #1 Christ died for everyone. Every human should have the opportunity to join in community with Christ followers.
    #2 Jesus doesn’t need our money or our programs to make that happen. What he needs is us to reach our neighbors.

    My desire is to see millions of new churches planted right here in the USA that are intentionally small and intimate. It’s as if the American dream somehow got mixed up with the Gospel.

    I dunno, I’m just battering around thoughts.

  6. I resonated with this post because I feel like I’m in the same place. I’ve been at my church for 6 1/2 years and we just graduated the kids who were 7th graders when we got here. They literally started youth group the same Wednesday I did. The problem lies in the issue that what worked for them, and for the most part, all of our group for 6 years doesn’t work anymore. So now we are trying to rethink and retool, and ask ourselves some tough questions about what we need to do and what we need to just chuck out the window and do over. I’m excited about this experience, but terrified about it at the same time.

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