Sunday, November 11, 2018

Help! My Church Is Not Breathing

I have known of many local churches which have simply stopped breathing, in that they have ceased to show any signs of actual motivation or energy.  I’ve even pastored a couple of those churches over the last forty years.  And here’s what I’ve learned about “Church CPR.”

First, it is important to understand the precise nature of the emergency.  And, that’s really not very difficult since it is always the same uncomplicated thing.  The problem is Chronically Low Morale. This ongoing condition simply drains the life-energy right out of a church, over time.

I get that this doesn’t sound very spiritual.  The idea of morale sounds more like a military or corporate issue.  But, morale is also a very real and essential ingredient in the Church’s everyday life and operations. So, let’s look at how we can act immediately and decisively to save such a local church in this type of distress.  

The Foundational Idea…

But, we must begin with this foundational idea.  The Church only ever finds a durable and efficient vibrancy in the energy of the Living Christ. God's redemptive plan is for the Living Jesus to literally share his enriching divine energy with the individual members of His Church.   And, absolutely nothing can substitute for that divine connection to bring radiance to the individual believer, and, in turn, to the corporate Church.

  But, the practical reality is that the level of that radiance can be significantly impacted, and even entirely diminished, by the human condition - both in terms of the individual and the corporate Church. The simple truth is that the power of Christ is always available to the Church, but the Church is not always well positioned or even willing to avail itself of this wonderful and completely indispensable resource.  So, what follows is merely a prescription to correct the human ill condition if and when it occurs within the local church.  

But, please remain aware that the ultimate goal of this writing is not to restore the efficacy, efficiency, and emotional excitement merely to the "programming" of a local church.  The real goal is to enable the struggling church to recover Christ's shared diving energy which must always enable, enrich, and guide the individual believer and the Church's every corporate program and undertaking.  A church is only ever truly alive and healthy as it lives honestly under the Lordship and is intimately connected to the vitality of the Christ. 

Indeed, a healthy Spiritual life never emerges, for the individual or the corporate church, from merely the efficient prosecution of some noble level of busy work. It only ever resides in our truly intimate heart-oneness with the Living Christ.

 Now, A Fresh Look ... 
And, the first thing to recognize is that we are dealing with the needs of a people group.  And, all human groups are very complicated mechanisms.  But, one thing is universally true of mission driven groups like the Church:  to flourish, they need a clear leader and an orderly leadership structure.

What they do not need is feckless, indeterminate, squabbling, and/or competing leadership.  So first, if you are the senior pastor, know that it is important to provide very inclusive, but yet, clearly apical leadership to your church.  The good health of a missional group is very dependent on a clear leader at the top. 

And, it is important, as that apical leader, that you see yourself in the role of “Champion” or “Rescuer” for this distressed church. You cannot see yourself as part of the tragedy, and thus, just another victim within this circumstance.   

But, it is also almost certainly true if you are leading a church which has stopped breathing, that you, too, are emotionally stressed and hurting.  And, be assured, a lot of us have been there.  And, we absolutely sympathize.  But, you simply do not have the luxury of folding up in a puddle of your own tears.  As their rescuer, your consistent personal fortitude, is the primary key to your church’s survival and renewal.

Indeed, the providence of God often brings us to circumstances which tend to clarify and classify who we really are.  And, when it comes to the very primary roles into which we fall within the Church, there are really only four.  There are Leaders, Lieutenants, Followers, and Loners.  

Hopefully, if your church is in distress, pastor, this crisis will identify and define you as precisely the devoted and capable  Leader which your church needs.  Or, it will show you to be a person who is willing to become that leader.

Either way, the important thing is not to see yourself as part of the tragedy, but as God's answer to the tragedy - His EMT (Emergency Management Technician) in charge of directing a successful rescue.  So, the obvious first step is simply to prayerfully seek Christ's fresh empowerment for your leadership.  

And then, when you are freshly filled with His Divine Spirit for the task, dear pastor, it is time to provide your church with a unifying godly direction and truly meaningful corporate challenges. And, through all of those challenges, be sure you lead them from the front - not the back.  

"Background senior pastoring" (which might actually be acceptable, and even necessary, in a larger, healthier, more thoroughly staffed church) just won’t work in a small church in  distress.  In a smaller, distressed church, you have to be a leader which is visually and emotionally available to the congregation.  Don't try to do it all.  But, do clearly exhibit a sincere heart-investment in it all.

A Side Note regarding the Leadership Structure...

On the other hand, if you are reading this as a layman who often finds yourself in confrontation with the pastor or competing with him or her for that apical position of leadership in the church – stop that.  Instead, become one of your pastor’s loyal and truly helpful lieutenants for the sake of the congregation's recovery and true well-being.  

If you will take on this more supportive subordinate role, it's likely that, as you taste the successes of this better leadership structure, this new role will become very fulfilling to you.  But, if you just can’t do this – you are, and will remain, part of the "CLM" (Chronically Low Morale) problem until you can.  May God give you the grace you need to become part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.

Now, the root cause of  "CLM" and the means of treatment…

First, we do need to recognize that there are always two facets to a corporate morale problem in the Church.  The first one is the physical side of the problem.  But, the second is the metaphysical, the spiritual side. 

Like a coin, these two sides of a morale issue are separate and distinct.  But, they are also intimately connected.  So, as we administer “CCPR,” (Church CPR) the idea is to save, not just the physical church (the numerical/social/programmatic functions), but also the metaphysical "soul" of the Church (its corporate spiritual health).  Fortunately, one plan of action can do both.

Now, the meat of the matter, the Root Cause of CLM...

Now, let’s identify what is the deep-seated cause of chronically low morale in a local church.  Again, it’s not complicated.  The cause is the Absence of a Shared, or Corporate, Inspiration within the group. 

To be clear, note that we are not addressing the individuals within the group, here.  We are talking about the group as a whole.  There are many, many reasons why individuals within a congregation might be personally depressed rather than well motivated.  And, at that molecular level, each individual circumstance must be handled, well, individually. 

But, truly, a church can be better as a unified group than it may be as disconnected individual members.  This symbiotic energy of a group working together is actually referred to as "synergy."  And, synergy is a wondrous thing to behold when it comes into play in any group, including a local church. 

So here, we're speaking specifically of correcting and maintaining the congregation’s corporate motivational level.  And certainly, this responsibility, at least initially, always falls smack in the middle of the pastor's  job description.  

And, know that, at least in the beginning, you, pastor, may, indeed, have to function, as "the Lone Ranger," i.e. the sole "Initiater" of this rescue effort.  And, isn't that, after all, pretty much the job description of Leadership.   By definition, "Initiation" is typically a one man (or woman) job, at least, at its apex

And here, at the risk of mixing our metaphors, is how this all  translates out, in completely practical terms, for the Rescuing Pastor.  You must simply be - or be willing to become - the “Chief Cheerleader” in your church.  And, what this means is that, for you, building and maintaining corporate morale becomes always, Job One - and thus, ever ingrained in all that you do.  

And, please do confirm this critical need for yourself, pastor.  As soon as possible, take the time to go and merely observe several truly vibrant, energized groups: social organizations, other local churches etc.  

And, even if these lively groups may vary in their precise nature or purpose, what you will easily notice is that cheerleaders are their common constant.  And, you will be able to easily identify the important contribution that these energized and energizing people make to the group's morale.  

So - here is how "Cheerleaders" in the Church typically pursue this important role…

First, God's cheerleaders simply employ the natural expression of their own authentic, Christ-enabled joy and excitement.

But, here is a simple reality which must first be faced.  If, within your personality type, you don't naturally or easily exhibit the trait of spontaneous “esprit de corps,” (that's French for "bringer of the party") then you are going to need to go to The Divine “App Store.”  

So, if you think yourself not naturally gifted as a cheerleader, look to this first.  None of us come with all the equipment we need for ministry.  

Thus, just do what we must always do in this case, confront your deficiency and ask the Lord to develop in you what the job requires.  Empowering positive changes in people’s character is what Christ does every day.  He will have no problem supplying you with the needed “character app.”

Cheerleaders identify and utilize every opportunity to inspire others.

Merely announcing or asking for something (as in the church bulletin or during the Sunday AM announcement time) doesn’t even compare to truly "stirring" someone to a cause. Merely raising the awareness of a need is vastly less impactful than actually drawing  people into that need.  

So, good cheerleaders don’t settle for merely raising awareness.  They perfect, in Christ, the “Stirring Skills” and then use them at every opportunity to inspire and maintain durable motivation. 

And certainly, it takes more time and effort to truly inspire people than to simply make an announcement.  But, if you want to really eliminate that chronically low morale problem, you have to go to the extra trouble to actually find a way to move them in their core – not just make them aware of stuff. 

And, good cheerleaders try never to overlook an opportunity to inspire.  So, a good rule of thumb is this: "Anytime there is a corporate victory – celebrate it!" 

 And, helpful to this idea is this working axiom:  It is always a huge cheer-leading  faux pas (that's French for "boo boo") to experience some corporate victory, and then totally neglect its celebration - after the fact.  From a financial achievement, to a high attendance event, to a new conversion, to the recognition of a layman's faithful, long term service – celebrate every shared victory.  And, never in just a ho-hum way.

And, "cheerleader pastors" give their people plenty of "Corporate Motivational Focal Points."

Focal points are very important, whether you are decorating a room, planning a party agenda, composing a photograph, or trying to motivate or re-motivate a church.  Focal points provide an "orientational" starting point for an intellectual and emotional "buy in." 

So, good cheerleaders identify and implement corporate motivational focal points within the overall church life at every opportunity.  And, the most effective Corporate Motivational Focal Points are fashioned from a simple, Three Element Cycle:  Challenge - Achievement - Celebration. 

When your church can face a meaningful challenge together (pretty much anything meaningful, big or small) - and then come together in a truly synergistic way to achieve that meaningful thing – and then truly celebrate that shared victory corporately – there is a sweet, life-giving energy which flows back into the church from that simple process.   

So, pastor, lead and cheer-lead your church through this life-giving motivational cycle over and over to generate new energy within the body.  If you do, it won’t be long before your church is healthy again and breathing on its own, as Christ is able to use this simple "morale-building mechanism" 

From prepping for Bible School, to raising money for a new church van, to painting the fellowship hall, to decorating the building for Christmas - it doesn’t matter.  If your church shares the rigors of the "foxhole" (the challenge) together, they will emerge a band of brothers and sisters in Christ who can joyfully celebrate their survival together - given the opportunity.

And, "cheerleader pastors" employ their pulpit to inspire...

If your church is "not breathing," pastor, and you are still giving them low-key "Teaching Sermons" on Sunday morning, you must address this tactic.  Teaching is certainly important, but so is Inspiration.  We must provide both.  And, we simply must not teach at the complete expense of inspiration.
 So, here is another good rule of thumb:  Preaching is for Inspiration, Teaching is for Direction.  Preaching is for Motivation and Teaching is for graceful Guidance.  

So, think about this.  If your church is suffering from Chronically Low Moral and showing no signs of vibrancy or energy - they are not actually going to go anywhere corporatelySo, they don’t actually need direction nearly so much as they need motivation.  

If your car's engine is broken, the correct priority to address that problem is not really to install a bigger compass on the dashboard.  So too, is your preaching ministry.  The idea is to simply match, especially your Sunday AM Preaching Type, with the real time needs of your distressed church. 

 And, even if you are, indeed, an inspirational type preacher in the Sunday AM, take a fresh look at your preaching.  If you are constantly preaching "church" - the corporate program - don't do that either.  

The Gospel is aimed at redeeming the character of the individual believer, not the corporate group.  If your individual members do not experience a Christ-empowered character renewal - you can forget about the spiritual health of your church as a whole.  It will not be there.  So, in the majority of your sermons, attempt to inspire the individual believer to pursue the personal newness which is available to them in the power of the Living Christ.  That is the true source of a durable morale in your church.

And, in the overview of your preaching ministry, no pastor, worth his salt, will ever stop pushing himself or herself regarding their preaching ministry.  Your God, your church, and your lost community will always need you to be the best you can be in your preaching ministry. So, always stay surprising and avoid a same-ole, same-ole "formula rut" in your pulpit. 

And, be sure never to entirely measure the efficacy of your preaching by merely how you feel about the structure and delivery of the sermon.   Rather, chiefly measure it by whether or not you actually inspired people to step up, and grow up in Christ.  

In short, when it comes to your sermons, don’t settle merely for good order and delivery.  Also insist on examining it for tangible results.

And, cheerleaders beget cheerleaders.  

 It will happen as your church begins to breathe again, that new cheerleaders emerge from the congregation.  So, it is important to welcome the help of new cheerleaders (this is the inclusive part of your leadership).  Make room for them to express their own "cheerleading gene" in the life of the church in ways which truly contribute and which are truly fulfilling to the cheerleaders, themselves. 

And finally, godly cheerleaders pray.

We are not talking about a want-list kind of prayer, here.  Agonizing, God-entreating prayer is certainly of inestimable importance to the life of the Church.  But, in this case, we are talking about the cheerleader spending much time simply enveloped in the easy and personally renewing companionship of God.  

 We are speaking of that personal seclusion which is spent with the Lord in the pure joy of His companionship.  The idea is to simply let these times define themselves in some mutually fulfilling way - perhaps just allowing your mind to drift in the "mind of Christ" or quietly listening for unforced revelations of divine insights - or, whatever.  The operative phrase here is simply "mutually fulfilling and unforced companionship," seeking after a true heart-oneness with God - for its own sake.
Indeed, this is the very essence of all that the godly cheerleader exudes and hopes to inspire in others.  A widespread and vibrant heart-oneness with God among your membership is the only real and truly resilient remedy for Chronically Low Morale in the Church.