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Learning From My Mistakes: Mistake # 3

In every aspect of life popular fads come and go. When they have had their moment in the sun, they usually leave no more impact on society than the hole created when someone dips a hand in the ocean. They are fun for a while and then they are gone.

Unfortunately evangelical Christians love fads. A new approach to church growth comes along and everyone jumps on board believing that the new approach will have the same impact in a small community in Canada that it had in a church in Southern California. It almost never does but for a period of time there is a feeling of anticipation in that small Canadian church. Then reality sets in and the new approach is abandoned.

I have lived through too many fads over the years not to have become a little cynical when I hear people talking about a new approach that will turn churches into powerhouses for God. My library is full of books that were supposed to show us how to grow great churches. In the end none of them really did all that they were supposed to do.


My personal experience with fads

When I graduated from Bible College I was all excited about a new movement called Church Growth. I had just been asked to become the pastor of the church that I had been attending while I went to school and like most first-time pastors I could hardly wait to get started. I was going to implement church growth principles and grow that church into one of the great churches in Canada.

As I have shared in other venues, it didn’t work out so well. I served as pastor for three years. The church didn’t grow and at the end of that time I was fired.

I then decided that I would become part of a church planting team so that from the start we could implement our own approach. I had just attended a conference at which the speaker introduced us to a whole new style of worship. Believe it or not it included using a worship team instead of a single person leading the singing. We had some talented musicians in our group and we decided that we would develop what at that time was a revolutionary approach to worship.

The first couple of years in that new church were among the best that I have ever experienced. There was a wonderful sense of unity. We felt like we were all part of something new and were excited every Sunday about this new style of worship. It was a great place to be and would have continued to be an exciting form of church life if we had only left it alone.

After a couple of years we decided that the church wasn’t growing fast enough. Our leadership team had just been introduced to the seeker sensitive approach that was being championed by Willow Creek Church in Chicago and we made the decision to switch from a church with the focus on worship to a church with the focus on attracting seekers.

We experienced a period of growth but before too long numbers dropped off. The church lasted for several years but eventually it closed down. There were just too few people carrying the load which meant that we were in danger of burning out those workers that we had.

The church no longer exists as a traditional church, a church growth church, a worship-focused church or a seeker-sensitive church. Today it is a non-existent church but the lessons that I learned still shape my thinking about church life.


Lessons learned

The first lesson learned was that a church needs to develop its own vision for where their church ought to go and then stick to that vision. Every church is in its own unique setting with a unique history and a unique mix of people who make up its present body. The program that worked wonders in another part of the continent may not work in that setting at all. Every church needs to understand its own reality and then develop its approach around that reality. It then needs to stick to that vision.

The second thing learned was that there is no new approach that is God’s answer for all churches. Each approach may contain truths that the church needs to recover but it is not God’s only way of doing church. After two thousand years God has not suddenly revealed to someone his way of being a church. Too often ideas are presented as God’s answer to all the problems that the church faces rather than as one way among many that God might use to build his church.

The third thing learned is that God uses all sorts of different types of churches to accomplish his work. Your church doesn’t have to experience significant numerical growth to be used by God. He wants to use you just as you are. He has given you everything that you need in order to do what he wants you to do right now. You need to discover what God’s plan for you is right now and start to do it.

The final lesson learned was that there is a difference between God-given mandates and methods for fulfilling those mandates. The great commission to go out and make disciples is a biblical God-given mandate. The great commandment to love one another is a God-given mandate. When Jesus was asked what was the greatest commandment and he answered that it was to love God with our whole being and to love our neighbor as ourselves, he was giving his followers a mandate for how they were to live their lives.

On the other hand missional church, seeker driven services, early morning prayer meetings, purpose driven church and many other approaches are all methods by which churches are able to carry out the mandates that they have been given. The danger with methods is that they become fads that everyone wants to try because they are the latest thing that is supposed to grow churches.

Fads come and go. The bestseller today becomes the bargain bin book tomorrow. We mistook the fad for the mandate and it turned out to be disastrous for us. The mandates are found in God’s word. The fads come and go. We need to learn from them while they are here in order to determine if they can help us carry out the mandates more effectively but we always need to remember that they are temporary. Tomorrow there will be a new fad from which we can learn. They are never the total answer to what God wants us to be as his church. That comes only from the God-given mandates in his word.

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