Our Changing Church

Every church is changing. Even though the gospel is unchanging, every church is an expression of the gospel through their language, culture and time. But as the culture, language and time outside of the church continues to change, and each church’s cultural expression will fall behind if it does not change. No church that prevails in this culture can measure itself by other normal, or even “successful,” churches. Even growing churches tend to grow because they are “better” when compared with other churches, which means that often these churches grow because people transfer from other churches. There is some growth by conversion, but very little even in most growing churches.

For several years, there has been a number of criteria associated with what church authors call “prevailing churches,” which are churches that seem to lead new people to faith and grow from new believers coming to Jesus and getting baptized. In Alan Nelson and Gene Appel’s book How to Change Your Church (without killing it), they offer the statistics that 85% of churches are plateaued or declining, 14-19% are growing from the transfer growth from the 85%, and 1% are growing by reaching primarily non-Christians, and their growth is 50% or more conversion growth.

Now, counting conversion growth is a little tricky. How do you count someone who left the church for 10 years but was raised in a Christian home and was baptized when they were seven? What if somebody was baptized Roman Catholic in infancy, but their family never attended church and they come to faith in our church? Is that conversion growth? Counting can be tricky. Generally, I will count someone coming to faith anew as a conversion if they have been out of and away from the church for more than five years. But mainly, I look for evidence that they were not biblically converted before their baptism, and that they are biblically converted after.

So how does a church become part of this 1% that is growing primarily by leading people to Christ? I’ve read a number of sources that essentially give the criteria below:

Marks of these churches include:

  1. They partner with believers by providing ministries in which the church organization and its people cooperate evangelistically.
  2. They are able to lead new seekers to Christ even while growing Christians in discipleship.
  3. Relationships with the unchurched are prioritized organizationally and by a high majority of members.

This third criteria includes:

  1. The natural seeking process is respected. People aren’t badgered for belief.
  2. The value of evangelism is widely shared.
  3. Outreach is part of the overall church strategy.
  4. Seekers’ questions are valued and addressed.
  5. Members are equipped to share their faith.
  6. Very evangelistic approaches are respected and celebrated.
  7. Relevance of the Bible and gospel are prioritized and never compromised.

These can also be reduced to other questions like the following:

  1. Is our church interested in attendance growth, or are we interested in kingdom growth?
  2. If evangelism is a main calling of the church, then we cannot think we are spiritually mature if we aren’t evangelistically motivated. Regardless of evangelistic success, are we evangelistically motivated?
  3. Are our mechanisms and practices of worship accessible and meaningful to those who are far from God? Is worship culturally digestible? If not, what area of our community is fully intelligible to non-Christians?
  4. Are we trying to reflect the practices of Jerusalem while living in the community of Athens or Corinth? In other words, are we contextualizing the gospel to the culture that we live in?
  5. Do we have the will to lead the kind of church that does these things?
  6. What should a prevailing church measure?
  7. What sorts of things today should a prevailing church be doing? Are we doing them? If not, why not?
  8. What kind of church does High Point Church think it is?
  9. What makes the difference between people who think they’re exceptional, and groups that actually are exceptional in a way that leads to kingdom growth?

I wrote down these applications eight years ago when I came to High Point Church:

  1. We need to be measuring the newcomers class and new members class. What percentage is not transfer growth? Is it more than 50%?
  2. What part of our ministries and programs is good evangelism? Do people in our church think “if I could get my coworker/neighbor/family member to come to _________________ at High Point, they would hear the gospel in the way I hope they would”?

How do we become part of that 1%?

  1. We need seeker-intelligible services and seeker-conscious services, but not seeker-sensitive services.
  2. We need a high value on evangelism.
    • The gospel is central in every message and contextualized to the topic at hand.
    • Evangelistic relationships are given priority.
    • People are trained and enabled to do evangelism individually as well as within the church. All gifts are used.
    • The church has a regular and quality introduction to Christian faith through a gospel class or presentation.

Churches like ours must continually remember that for whatever reason we pursue the wrong things, we lose our vitality (partly a quote from Robert Quinn). Whenever a church changes, its direction is usually born in the heart of its leaders, which in our case is the elders and staff. Yet one of the things I’ve seen over and over is vision that is essentially artificial. It isn’t difficult to have a nice future of success percolating in your mind. Every single person in existence has such a vision about their life. The uncommon thing is for that vision to connect with everyone else we are leading, and for it to actually go somewhere.

To test if the vision is effectively becoming reality, I believe one of the most telling questions to ask people in our church is, “Do you want to invite non-Christians in your life to our church? If not, why not?” The answer to that question is hard to hear for people leading a church. Sometimes will disagree with their answers, but we should know them.

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I believe our vision for the church emerges like plans for the future in a marriage. Neither husband nor wife can force the other into a future vision. There has to be a kind of mutuality about it that comes out of their care for each other, their shared values, and where they find themselves in the present. No pastor can unilaterally force a church into any vision, not if he is seeking to lead the flock he actually has. Whenever a vision is unilateral and forceful, a pastor doesn’t leave his flock, he rearranges it and proceeds only with the willing. Everyone else is scattered, and he gets himself what is essentially a new flock.

I believe that if High Point is going to change into a church that regularly makes new disciples, we are going to have to change. I believe I am going to have to change. Probably all of us will have to change to some extent. But that change will have to come out of faith and discipleship, not some picture I can paint from the pulpit. It will have to come from a shared spiritual substance—a substance that holds up the mission of redemption for all of us who belong to Christ in the local church.

As a church, we have emphasized spiritual substance the past year because it is the gospel-filled disciples who will always make disciples. It turns out that when we are shallower in our faith, making disciples feels unnatural, embarrassing and even forced. But the more we are reformed into the image of Christ, the more leading people to him becomes natural, normal and ordinary. There are certain dynamics in structures for making disciples that we have worked on and will continue to work on. I want to see High Point become a more seeker-intelligible and seeker-welcoming place. But I want those seekers to find Christ in a place where people are becoming substantive disciples. Only then will they see the Christian gospel as truly a message for all of life, and increasingly for their life.

What’s next?

At a recent staff and elder retreat, we unanimously thought that what’s next for us as a church is to continue in the work evangelism and discipleship by recognizing the priority of those two things. But the only way this works is if each individual person, by walking in step with the Spirit, actually lives a life of evangelism and discipleship. If that sounds vague to you, our staff members Niccole Khail and Vincent Pierri led an Engage & Equip Live breakout on the topic of evangelism, which included practical steps for having evangelistic relationships and conversations. We turned it into a podcast, and you can find the episode Doing Evangelism (June 28, 2018) on iTunes or on our website.

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