The Future of the Churches of Christ: Direct Hit, Part 1 (Leadership, Barriers)

Book—Borden,-Direct-HitI’ve stumbled across a book by Paul D. Borden, Direct Hit: Aiming Real Leaders at the Mission Field. Paul led the American Baptist Churches in the northwestern US to be revitalized and to grow.

Now, the American Baptists are considered mainline churches, in contrast to the Southern Baptists, who are generally thought of as evangelical. Moreover, the Southern Baptists have congregational autonomy, whereas the American Baptists are subject to the control of regional and national offices.

So you’d think that Southern Baptists would be doing better — but in the northwestern US — a notoriously difficult place for church plants and missions — it’s the other way around. What happened?

In 1997, I, along with others, began working with a group of over two hundred congregations in northern California and northwest Nevada, affiliated with the American Baptist Churches of the West. From 1997 to 2001, we experienced a miracle of God. In 1997, less than 20 percent of these congregations were growing. Many had experienced growth and health in the 1950s and ’60s, gathering over five hundred in worship each Sunday. By the time we arrived, many had less than one hundred in worship attendance and the congregations were aging, often with few if any younger families attending. However, by 2001, over 70 percent were growing, and many of those congregations today are averaging between three hundred and nine hundred people in worship attendance. Today we are aggressively planting new large congregations that launch with over three hundred people in worship. Our miracle continues.

(Kindle Locations 225-231).

This is amazing news for any denomination in any context — but for the American Baptists in the American Northwest? “Miracle” is right.

Leadership

The first key factor is that our change began as we focused on the crucial role of leadership and made it a value in our congregations. Usually we started with our pastors. For those who were here before 1997 and are still here, now leading much larger congregations, it required a significant spiritual and mental shift in how they viewed their role. It was a role that took some convincing prior to acceptance, and then required intensive training and mentoring to fulfill. But as pastors have accepted this role, they have experienced a dynamic change both personally and professionally.

However, not only pastors need to become leaders. Good leaders are constantly raising up new leaders. The pastors in our region understand that one of their primary responsibilities is to develop their staff and board members as leaders.

(Kindle Locations 232-238).

Obviously, Churches of Christ have rejected the single-pastor system, but we have preachers and we have elders. And for us, both the elders and preacher have to get on board with leading the church toward greater evangelistic effectiveness.

Unfortunately, the Churches have no national or regional headquarters to call these guys up and urge them to re-commit to church growth. And we have no obvious resources for training. Our training programs are largely bought at the local Baptist bookstore.

Sometimes one of our universities puts on a program, but attendance by elders at such events is uncommon, and these events aren’t necessarily pushing an evangelistic agenda. The Tulsa Soul-Winning Workshop rebranded itself the “Tulsa Workshop.” Pepperdine and ACU don’t typically have a track on how to grow a church — and if they did, who would teach it?

Our more conservative universities are actually more likely to offer evangelistic training, but this training is too often a regurgitation of methods that worked very well in the 1950s. And they focus, perhaps not intentionally but in reality, on “converting” people from another denomination to our denomination.

Someone training at a university or preacher school to be a pulpit minister will learn a lot of Greek and Hebrew but next to nothing about how lead a church through change or how to work with an eldership — even an eldership that wants to do better but doesn’t know how.

So let’s begin by admitting that we have a denominational structure that does not lend itself to training church leaders very well. It could, but it doesn’t.

Women

As our congregations grow, more and more staff members are recruited, mostly raised up from the congregations they attend. For example, we now have a pastoral cluster designed for female full-time staff members, which is led by a female staff member. Most of the women in this cluster were not in church leadership five to ten years ago. A congregation grows in proportion to the number of new leaders that are being developed every year.

(Kindle Locations 238-241).

Face facts: women are, on the whole, more extroverted than men. Women are most socially aware than men (on the whole). And it’s unimaginable for a church to be evangelistically effective without women being very heavily involved both as volunteers but as leaders.

Moreover, the absence of women in leadership roles runs so contrary to American culture that it would be a barrier to growth in any American context.

Barriers

Pastors who won’t lead evangelistically

Most pastors do not see themselves as the leaders of congregations, except perhaps when accepting the title of “spiritual leader.” Few pastors are willing to assume the role of a leader who takes responsibility for mobilizing the congregation to accept the mission of obeying our Lord’s Great Commission: to make disciples for Jesus. Instead, many pastors and other church staff presume that their job is to call individuals to personal discipleship.

(Kindle Locations 255-259).

Yep. Churches of Christ have the same problem. Our preachers would far prefer to preach a 17-part series on personal disciplines — which take place alone — than on evangelism. Some preacher are introverts who prefer Bible study to meeting new people (I can identify), and some preachers just have no background or training on which to rely. We preach what we know, not what the church needs to know.

Pastors who aren’t held accountable 

A second barrier is that pastors have been trained and often perform in an environment where faithful endeavor is honored, but fruitful results are not expected or demanded. This avoidance of results is present not only for pastors but also for any individual who possesses ministry responsibilities in the congregation. And so we have declining congregations and declining denominations.

(Kindle Locations 262-265).

In the US, nearly every non-governmental, non-church job has very high expectations and high levels of accountability. But ask a preacher to account for how he spends his time — even for where he is during the day — and, well, you’ve never heard such well-studied excuse-making and rationalizing. And personal attacks on the poor schmuck who raised the question. It’s not part of the Church of Christ ministerial culture.

Plenty of our ministers work very hard for countless hours. And these ministers don’t mind the questions. But our colleges and universities are turning out generation after generation of ministers who have no expectation of accountability for their time. It’s a problem. Even those who work very hard generally are unwilling to discuss with their elders or supervising minister how they spend their time or what their priorities are.

I’d love for someone to do a study (It’d be a great dissertation topic) comparing the ministerial staff’s work ethic to church growth. I bet the correlation is about 80% — meaning that the odds of growing without a hard-working staff is 20% or less, and that only happens when the neighborhood or town grows and the church gets its fair share of transfer growth.

Here’s the interview question: Do you believe that a minister should work as many hours for the church as one of our more active church members works at his secular job plus the volunteer hours he commits to the church?

PS — I am not at all criticizing my congregation’s current staff.

Leaders who insist on the status quo

A third barrier to change is that many congregations are led by a handful of people who have gained that position by default. A long line of ineffectual pastors coupled with the continual loss of key lay leaders has defaulted into these people taking over control of the congregation. Though often they often start with good motivations, their leadership deteriorates to one of conserving the status quo. Their fear of losing more people, coupled with an introverted theology that the congregation exists for them and those like them, causes them to gain personal significance from holding things together.

(Kindle Locations 272-276).

Of course, this attitude can affect both ministers and elders, but it’s more likely that the elders insist on pressing the brake pedal while the ministers are trying to accelerate the growth effort.

Sometimes, however, this is because the preacher has done a poor job of preparing the elders for change, trying to “lead” around the elders — which is always a mistake. The elders always win when it’s a power struggle.

Small-church organizational structure

Regardless of the denomination and its polity, most congregations in the United States are designed to be small, remain small, and function ineffectively in the twenty-first century. … Unlike in the Scriptures, authority is divided from responsibility to act. There is little if any accountability for results, and the little that does exist is not applied with consistency throughout the system. In some cases, triangulation is codified into the system. Egalitarianism is honored over effectiveness, and bold leadership is greatly discouraged.

(Kindle Locations 281-286).

And that’s a fact. When a church grows, it has to re-organize itself. And that means some members lose positions of power. When the church had 100 members, the patriarch of family X could count on being consulted on major change. He would always be in the know, and he could effectively veto anything he opposed. After all, his contribution was 20% of the church budget and people remembered all the great work he’d done for the church when he was younger.

When the church hit 300 members, new deacons were appointed, job assignments were reshuffled, and authority was delegated from the elders and ministers to volunteer leaders — many of whom joined the church years after the patriarch of family X was a key volunteer and leader. So no one asks for his blessing before moving the nursery or re-arranging the pews or whatever. And so he feels disrespected and responds by trying to prove his continuing power by leading the opposition to these changes. And he fails. And so he leaves. That is, unable to re-establish his veto power over church affairs, he becomes passive-aggressive — acting like a three-year old. He is, of course, unaware that he’s trying to re-establish his power over the congregation. He just thinks he’s standing for what’s right and for greater respect for the older members.

Profile photo of Jay Guin

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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7 Responses to The Future of the Churches of Christ: Direct Hit, Part 1 (Leadership, Barriers)

  1. Bob Brandon says:

    For my “for what it’s worth $0.02” perspective, some utterly irrelevant observations: (1) most of our churches are religious fraternal clubs with women’s auxiliaries, (2) too much “mean girls/guys” behavior; (3) the cult of indispensability; (4) faith in hierarchy/chain of command; (5) a Maginot Line understanding/application of lines of fellowship; and (6) living inside the box is very comfortable for many invested in (1)-(5).

    The internet/social media has made it far easier for Christians of different backgrounds to find and support each other. For many, their favorite teachers are online and approachable, even from the other side of the world, and not in their home congregations. And many invest a lot of energy in developing ties of fellowship through social media. This significantly undermines traditional(ist) applications of fellowship and control by congregational management.

    All of the above notwithstanding, physically being with other believers is vital and invariably sought. We want a place of safety to bring our burdens and joy and to be reminded that this world is not our home. We want them to be confessional. Too often our congregations, like so many others across the United States, are simply not safe havens – “fair havens”, to suggest a metaphor – for faith.

  2. Some of this reminds me of The Piramid Principle of Church Growth, which I read back in the 1970’s. These principles are not new; they are just not applied. Thanks for bringing these things to our attention again.

  3. Price says:

    I think the autonomy at the local level without any accountability to a central leadership runs counter to the first century church example. Every significant development or doctrinal position had to be run through the folks in Jerusalem. Paul and Peter had to explain their activities. Interesting when you consider the miracles performed by each… and yet they honored the council in Jerusalem.. The council kept the independent assemblies from developing their own theology and practices, except where freedom to choose was given.. Today, there are what? 25 different divisions within in the CoC all based on their “understanding” of doctrinal purity and claim to be the one true church?? Some of the most bizarre teachings come out of these sects because there is no standard for truth.. just personal opinion.. the only accountability is to the ones who keep the church treasury in tact. It seems to me that using the experience of trusted men (and women) to guide the various assemblies and avoid the rabbit trails of doctrine that separate and divide would be a move in the right direction.. Of course it would remove one of our favorite endeavors which is throwing rocks at “denominations.” The lack of using women in leadership roles is embarrassing and counter productive in today’s world. And, once again it’s not the example we’ve been given in scripture.. Women were used mightily by God throughout scripture and in the early church and we won’t let them pass a tray. What modern day woman would readily accept that kind of treatment when scripture paints a much different picture? The male ego has got to be reined in…and of course that would happen if a governing body were to hold the leadership accountable.

    But whatever.. the church universal will continue to grow with or without the churches of Christ. If they choose to be a relic of history.. then so be it.

  4. Larry Popwell says:

    I am enjoying your open, frank dialogue starter comments; things which need to be discussed before it is to late, before tradItionial and archaic leadership strangle the life of Christ’s Church.

  5. laymond says:

    “PS — I am not at all criticizing my congregation’s current staff.”

    It is not my senator who is screwing up Washington D C , so it has to be yours.
    Yeah, a central governing church council would fix everything. The Catholics are a great example.

    Actually, the only staff you know enough about to be able to criticize is your own.

  6. Mark says:

    I am glad you brought up this topic. Too much archaic leadership is a large problem, the majority of whom are perceived to not understand the modern world or represent/care about all groups in the congregation.

    Bob is correct when he wrote, “The internet/social media has made it far easier for Christians of different backgrounds to find and support each other. For many, their favorite teachers are online and approachable, even from the other side of the world, and not in their home congregations. …This significantly undermines traditional(ist) applications of fellowship and control by congregational management.”

    I know some ministers/pastors, priests, and rabbis of both genders who post their sermons online and take questions about them and other topics and post their responses on blogs, when appropriate; otherwise they respond in private. They often develop large followings because they can relate to the people. Within the cofC, Dr. Patrick Mead is likely the best at relating to the modern people. His blog would get most ministers fired if most elders read even 1% of it. That is a tragedy in and of itself.

    I saw a picture one time of a female associate rabbi teaching some of the children of the congregation. I saw that and said, “wow, those kids don’t realize how lucky they are and what they are getting.” Why was this surprising? I never saw a cofC minister have the time or desire to teach the children anything. All I saw was their preaching long sermons and then shaking hands at the door like a politician. Now, was this by the minister’s choosing or did the elders prohibit it or did the elders not realize that it was a problem or was it just benign neglect?

  7. Dwight says:

    One the big problems I see is thinking as an institutional church or thinking that the people are in a closed off system. In our way of thinking we don’t empower everyone to do everything within their reach. The elders and preacher help perpetuate this closed off system, because they see everything in this light. The only way to get around this is to 1.) move final leadership off campus or to assign missions 2.) empower everyone to do task (set them on there own mission) as God already has given us. Regardless we must get rid of the closed system. The only system that should exist is saints converting the lost and then they are added to the saved. These people then meet with others of like faith. More are added in. Power to the people or the church.

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