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.