Writer Annie Dillard somewhere makes the observation that quite possibly the greatest indication of God’s grace she can imagine is the continued existence of the church on earth! There are days like that, aren’t there? Days when we wonder why in the world God puts up with us. Days when the best we can do is laugh at ourselves, ask God for a little more divine patience, and pray that somehow God’s grace might break us open and make us new. Besides, it’s good to laugh and, at least sometimes, to laugh at ourselves. In that spirit, I offer this little list of the seven habits of highly ineffective (and later highly effective) churches. It is intended to be fun, but serious too. I can imagine congregations having a good time building a skit or mime around each habit, or people with a flair for dramatic reading offering them up at a pot-luck dinner or talent show. Have fun, and keep the faith!
Seven Habits of Highly Ineffective Churches
Elevate mediocrity to a spiritual discipline.
Figure out where average falls and aim below there. Doing things with excellence, joy, and flair may make someone uncomfortable. God doesn’t really expect much anyhow.
Take no risks.
A successful practice of risk avoidance is often best achieved by sending any and all new ideas to a minimum of four boards or committees who understand that it is their role to say “no” to new ideas for their review and approval. This process may need to reinforced by remarks noting how a particular idea might make the church liable, cost money, or ruffle feathers.
Practice the following evangelism strategy: “If they want us, they know where to find us.”
Assume that everyone does know where you are and what you are. It can also be helpful if your building looks like a medieval fortress. If you don’t have that going for you, encourage your ushers and greeters to look like palace guards as they perform their roles.
Blame early and often.
Maintaining dysfunction in a congregation is made easier if scapegoats are regularly identified. In some congregations, ministers make wonderful scapegoats. You may also blame “newcomers,” or “people who don’t understand how we do things in this church.” If all else fails, blame the Conference, the denomination, or Satan.
Always be prepared to make an account of the excuses that are within you.
Have an all-purpose excuse like, “I’ve just been so busy” (elaborate at great length just how busy you are), implying that no one else is busy. Occasionally try out a creative new excuse, like, “Our dog ate the printer-ink cartridge and required an emergency appendectomy. He is now very busy too.”
Make it clear to all that the job of the pastor(s) and staff is to keep everyone, meaning church members, happy.
Think of your church as “The Love Boat,” and the pastor as the cruise director and activity planner. The job of clergy and staff members is to keep everyone on board happy. If someone is unhappy, it’s a sure sign your pastor is not doing the job.
Spend as little money as possible.
Even though you may enjoy spending money on personal things like a car or a cruise, you can demonstrate your commitment to modesty and a simple lifestyle at church. The very best programs cost nothing. And why would your church building need any renovations—if it was good enough for your grandparents then it’ll be good enough for your grandchildren.
Seven Habits of Highly Effective Churches
Strive for excellence in service to Christ.
Effective churches are churches where people enjoy what they’re doing and do it well. Give God your best whether in the care of church grounds, the soup you prepare for the homeless shelter dinner, or the hymns and anthems you sing in worship.
Cultivate a spirit of innovation and experimentation.
Make the “seven last words of the church,”—that is, “We’ve never done it that way before”—a distant memory. Be open to new ideas that advance your mission. Free people to develop and try new ministries. Just remember, if you’re not failing at something, you’re probably not trying anything.
Take the initiative to build relationships with people and groups in the wider community beyond your congregation.
Refuse to be isolated. Take to the streets, the coffee shops, libraries, and parks of your community. Be curious about what’s going on. Get involved in community events. Meet people. Introduce yourself as a member of the church. Invite people to “come and see.”
Accept responsibility for mistakes, learn from them, and in all things let grace abound.
Christians aren’t perfect; they are forgiven. So making mistakes is not the worst thing that can happen. Beside, we often learn the most from our failures. In the end, and in the beginning, it is about God’s grace, not our achievements. Cut others some slack. While you’re at it, cut yourself some too.
“Always be prepared to give an account of the hope that is within you.” (1 Peter 3:15)
Look for where the love, energy, and life are flowing and focus on that. And recognize excuses for what they are: a sign of insufficient commitment. Be people of hope, trusting in God to find a way even when we can’t.
Be willing to let people go in order to stay focused on your core mission.
It is more important for your church to be clear and steady about its core mission than it is to make everyone happy. Some people may be better off in another congregation. When folks are unhappy, connect, talk, and pray with them. If things remain stuck, let them go with your blessing, giving priority to your mission.
Splash it on!
A hospice nurse told the story of bringing an elderly woman home for the final days of her life. Noticing a large bottle of perfume on the woman’s dresser, the nurse asked, “Would you like me to dab a bit of that behind your ears?” “Honey,” said the woman to the nurse, “why don’t you just splash it on?” God loves cheerful givers. So spend money wisely, well, and freely in God’s cause.
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