The Advantage: 1. Why Do We Exist?

We’re working our way through Patrick Lencioni’s The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else In Business.

Lencioni consults with businesses, nonprofits, and churches, and he frequently explains how the lessons apply especially to churches, because the work churches do is so much more important than the work done by anyone else.

Lencioni’s first question is an especially hard one for a church to answer: Why do we exist?

Now, I’ve read my Bible and so I know why the church exists. Okay? Don’t answer that one. Tell me why your congregation exists! Why does the world need one more Church of Christ in your hometown? What makes you special?

Hard, isn’t it? You see, you really don’t want to say, “Because we’re the only ones going to heaven,” especially if you don’t believe that. But that may be exactly why your congregation was founded — because everyone else was, in the minds of the founders, going to hell. Is that why you exist today?

Do you exist solely because someone founded your church? Is that all there is to it? Surely, there’s something special about your congregation!

If not, and I say this with the utmost seriousness, merge with a sister congregation. Why divide God’s resources to pay two preachers and two utility bills and divide your teens among two teen programs when you could merge into a stronger, more effective single congregation? Don’t exist because of ancient fights long forgotten … or just because.

[Members] in every [congregation], and at every level, need to know that at the heart of what they do lies something grand and aspirational.

So how do we dig out our purpose?

[A]n organization’s reason for existence, its purpose, has to be true. It must be based on the real motivations of the people who founded or are running the organization, not something that simply sounds good on paper. Identifying an organization’s true purpose becomes difficult when that organization has been around for a long time, sometimes for decades, and has never really clarified its underlying reason for being. In those cases, leaders have to go back and try to understand why its founders started the organization or, at the very least, to connect their current motivations to the organization’s history. If this isn’t doable, then those leaders need to go about this process as though they were rebirthing the company themselves, and they must be prepared to stick with their answer for as long as the organization exists.

Either find and take ownership of the original purpose of your congregation or else find a new purpose that you can own.

Failing that, merge — and merging could often be a very holy and laudable outcome. In fact, sometimes the merger honors the original purposes of the congregation because that purpose has been fulfilled. (The other churches in town now see things your way. You persuaded them!) Or those purposes no longer apply. (We split because the other church built a fellowship hall. Now we have one, too!)

Unity honors God. Separation for the sake of pride does not.

Now, among the Churches of Christ, the purpose question takes on a particular flavor. In many towns, the first Church of Christ was planted to be the first Restoration Movement congregation in town — perhaps in the 19th Century. The founders’ purpose was to provide a congregation based on the principles of the Restoration Movement, as they understood them.

If there are other Churches of Christ in town, they were likely either plants or splits. Especially before cars became nearly universal, many churches planted congregations as a growth strategy, even though the second church might only be two or three miles from the first.

There was a time when the theory was that a church over 150 was too big, and should plant a daughter congregation. It was a means of evangelism that addressed a culture that demanded small, intimate congregations — “family churches” as some scholars say, that is, a church built around a few core families. (But our culture has changed, hasn’t it?)

Sadly, of course, most towns also have congregations that were created due to acrimonious splits. Usually these splits were over the doctrinal hot-button issue of the day, and often those issues no longer divide those churches. They may have long forgotten about the “located preacher” or “no Sunday school” controversy. Or the issues may continue to be a barrier to unity.

More recently, many towns find their congregations moving either left or right, progressive or conservative, with the “moderate” churches disappearing, as the moderate membership insists that the leadership stop playing politics and take a position.

In such a case, a given city in this part of the country likely contains only conservative, progressive, and non-institutional congregations — with the churches in each camp pretty much believing the same things. As a result, the individual congregations may well struggle to explain why they exist as separate congregations except for the geographic convenience of their members, half of whom drive past nearly identical Churches of Christ to attend their favored congregation.

Every congregation has its own story, and many of those stories are truly ennobling and exciting. Just be brutally honest. Don’t look for a marketing slogan that will give you an advantage over that church down the road that’s just like you. Don’t exist just to exist. Don’t compete with your twin congregations. That’s not Christian. Either find a good reason to go on separately, or merge with someone who has a better one.

Avatar of Jay Guin

About Jay Guin

I am an elder, a Sunday school teacher, a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a lawyer. I live in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home of the Alabama Crimson Tide. I’m a member of the University Church of Christ. I grew up in Russellville, Alabama and graduated from David Lipscomb College (now Lipscomb University). I received my law degree from the University of Alabama. I met my wife Denise at Lipscomb, and we have four sons, two of whom are married, and I have a grandson and granddaughter.
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10 Responses to The Advantage: 1. Why Do We Exist?

  1. John says:

    There can never be too many voices assuring the seekers, the confused, the hurting, the feared and the ignored, “YOU are God’s child”, while reminding the pew sitter that they lose abolutely nothing by seeing Christ in the next person they meet.

  2. Thanks, Jay, for another voice -and a clear one- in our chorus calling for mergers as a real and tangible step toward operating as “the church” in our city. This very powerful question, “Why does our congregation exist?” is not going to be received very well, I suspect, by the very folks who can answer it best. But in some cases, it’s not so threatening. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that in a large portion of the congregations, the real reason they came into existence does not even exist anymore. It was the establishment of a group to preserve distinctives we no longer care about, or a turf battle between people who are long dead. Likewise, matters of geography are often now non-issues. There has been a freeway installed since!

    I think the main challenge is to the fundamental idea that once a congregation is established, only abject spiritual failure can close it. There is an assumption that congregations are eternal. One reason I continue to use the admittedly prickly term “religion club” is to remind us that WE created these things, not God. We made them, we can re-make them. I have been fortunate enough to go through two church mergers, not involving failing groups, but between thriving groups. The one thing I noticed was that once the club leaders developed relationship with other club leaders and stopped thinking like competing shopkeepers, merger was a natural consequence. (Also important, there was not among these leaders the abject terror of someone getting mad and leaving, though a very few did.) As to the members, they almost ran over the leaders in their desire to complete both mergers. Honestly, they acted like excited kids whose parents were adopting a new little brother. The whole thing had the wonderful feel of a small boy saying, “Come on, you can stay in my room!”

    The only people who had to die to themselves in any real way to affect a merger were leaders and staff. We had been preaching this for years… then we had to actually do it.

    Not to pour water on this in any way, but Jay, what do you think would be the response of your own fellow-elders to the idea of merging with other congregations in your city? How open would they be, not to merely incorporating the members of a smaller group into your large one, but to actually merging?

  3. Most mergers fail. Within a very few years, the average attendance of the merged group is about the same as the average attendance of the larger of the two groups prior to the merger.

    At least a part of the reason for this is that too many mergers are entered for the wrong reasons. Two failing congregations will only make (temporarily) a larger failing group. Until we know our purpose, we will have difficulty acting with purpose and conviction. Until we can say, “This is why we are here and here is how we will fulfill this purpose” we will drift – as many churches have done for years.

  4. Wonder where these stats come from? Not doubting you, Jerry, but I have heard of so few true mergers that I wonder how this data was gathered. Perhaps it comes from denominations who do cost-saving consolidations of congregations or parishes, which in many cases, neither parish wants. I don’t think that is what Jay was proposing here. Now, I have seen a couple of “absorptions” where a small failing group was absorbed by a larger group and few of the smaller group actually lasted there. Can’t say why. I also think there is a difference in asking “why we are here” as believers and asking “why do we exist?” as this discrete, stand-alone 501c(3) organization. The latter requires us to consider, “does this specific club NEED to continue to exist as a separate entity, or will this mission continue to be carried out by the church even if this club closes up shop?”

  5. Ray Downen says:

    How encouraging to read the suggestion that congregations which began because of mistaken beliefs can best serve Jesus by merging with another similar congregation! But I immediately think of large churches which are deliberately starting new churches which at least at first will be led by the elders of the bigger church. I feel the larger church is seeking to expand the kingdom by an additional meeting place which will attract and win folks who live near the satellite church but pretty far from the bigger church. In such cases, it’s good to have separate congregations to serve different parts of a city. Especially with Obama’s price for gasoline which most now use to drive to the meeting place. Thriving churches meet together often, and each assembly needs adequate parking spaces not too far from an entrance to the place of meeting. So there are good reasons for some churches dividing rather than consolidating.

    In smaller towns where two are competing yet both serve Jesus, merging is the right thing to do. But I am sure that some of “us” seek to impose on others laws foreign to New Testament Christianity. Merger at the cost of accepting non-apostolic worship laws is not a good idea. Unity “in Christ” is made impossible when non-apostolic “laws” are involved. When both groups accept the Bible as authority and agree on the slogans which were early adopted in “our movement,” then merger is surely the right thing. Good thinking by this writer and the commenters.

  6. Avatar of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Jerry wrote,

    Within a very few years, the average attendance of the merged group is about the same as the average attendance of the larger of the two groups prior to the merger.

    I’ve heard this as well, and believe it has some serious study behind it. As I recall, the reason for the loss of members was often the failure of the merged church to organize to operate as a larger church — assuming that a church of 400 can be overseen the same as a church of 200.

    The experts on church growth have written extensively about the difficulty of making the transition above 200 or 250. You see, in a smaller church, everyone really does know everyone. There’s no real need for small groups. And a small staff is quite enough.

    But at 400, some ministries are too big to be run well by volunteers. You need a teen minister and maybe a children’s minister. Small groups becomes an essential ministry because so many members will struggle to make connections. Moreover, with larger numbers come larger expectations. And a far more diverse body of members.

    A church that tries to operate the same way it did at 150 members will soon fall apart as new members fail to assimilate and members are disappointed in the poor quality of the ministries that are important to them (which may be no worse than before, but people just naturally expect bigger churches to have better programs).

    Obviously, many churches successfully navigate the transition, but many do not — and those who do normally get to spend years learning new skills and approaches as the church grows. A merger forces an immediate acceleration.

    The key is for the leaders to spend time with other congregations that have successsfully merged and ask how they did it, take lots of notes, and be humble enough to learn from the experiences of others. And the Church universities often have people on staff who can be of great help in guiding a church through the transition.

  7. I would agree with Ray’s idea that in a city, it is a good thing to have more than one neighborhood presence of the church. But this assumes that the congregation is actually part of their neighborhood. In my experience, most are not. I don’t think this is intentional, but outside of the occasional tract-passing campaign in the neighborhood, most local congregations hardly interact with their neighbors at all. How different might this be if the neighborhood congregation were involved in things that are important to the rest of the neighborhood, like the schools, or neighborhood safety, or after-school programs for kids, or neighborhood social events, or even something so mundane as cleanup of parks and alleys? If instead of just meeting here for three hours a week, we acted like we lived here?

    I like the idea of “congregation as neighbor”. But without such regualr and intentional interaction, this is more “congregation as convenience store”.

  8. Kent Gatewood says:

    Does a merger force one pulpit minister to do something else?

  9. Usually. Sometimes, the less influential pulpiteer leaves. More often, his job duties change. Then several months later, he leaves for another pulpit. This is not the act of a shepherd, but true hireling behavior: “If I can’t preach on Sunday mornings, I need to find some different sheep to serve”. It is unusual for any religion club of any size to intentionally feature a shared pulpit. Don’t ask me why the podium is a regulated monopoly. I don’t know. But then I also don’t know why talking for half an hour three times a week makes you the most important person in the club.

  10. Avatar of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Kent asked,

    Does a merger force one pulpit minister to do something else?

    Sometimes. Some churches fail to merge because one minister or the other is afraid of losing his job and so stands in the way. Other times, both ministers resign to make it easy for the churches to merge and find a new identity. Other times, the church divides the preacher duties between the two ministers.

    Rarely will the churches pick one minister over the other, but sometimes one minister will voluntarily leave the pulpit to take on another ministry. In short, I’ve seen every possibility there is.

    Mergers reveal a lot about the hearts of the ministers.

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