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Keeping Your Church on the Cutting Edge

Learning will make the critical difference for churches and ministries to remain on the cutting edge in the 21st century. Learning helps organizations adapt to change, avoid repeating past mistakes, and retain critical knowledge.

The church can thrive in change and uncertainty when leaders and members are clear about their biblical purposes.

When churches learn from both their mistakes and successes they can improve their processes to meet cultural challenges and changing standards for ministry. If they do not learn, they lose their ability to provide relevant, biblically sound ministry.

Churches that learn fastest introduce a range of ministries and services to their members and community and adjust them quickly based on results and feedback.

How Do You Create a Cutting Edge Church?

1. Identify and articulate shared purposes, values, and vision.

This is a must. Values and vision provide the direction and energy to keep the church on course and moving forward. As people are more empowered, a clear understanding of the purposes, values, and vision keeps everyone moving in the same direction. Biblical purposes and mandates distinguish the church. By clear understanding of and strong personal and corporate commitment to biblical purposes, the church becomes more than just another business or organization.

2. Become entrepreneurial.

Churches on the cutting edge adapt entrepreneurial strategies to Christian ministry. This means that leaders are unafraid to take risks and stimulate vision among those who minister with them. Part of this process involves empowering others. In fact, all members are encouraged to be entrepreneurs. Many members can take independent initiatives rather than having to submit every idea for approval. This does not ignore accountability and commitment to the church's shared values and vision. It is the conviction that each believer is called, gifted, and empowered by the Holy Spirit and as such can hear and discern God's will.

3. Learn to thrive on change and uncertainty.

Al Flood, chairman and CEO of CIBC Bank stated, "In a fast-paced, continually shifting environment, resilience to change is often the single most important factor that distinguishes those who succeed from those who fail."

The church can thrive in change and uncertainty when leaders and members are clear about their biblical purposes. Problems come when a church confuses its true biblical purposes with preferences for ministry methods. In a church that is clear about God's unchanging purposes, change and uncertainty are opportunities to be exploited. The question is, "How can we use these changes in the process of achieving our goals?"

Flood identified five basic characteristics of what he calls Type-O (Opportunity-oriented) people. When these same characteristics are present in the church and its leaders, that church can thrive in change and uncertainty.

1. Positive: Display a sense of security and self-assurance based on a view of life as complex and challenging but filled with all kinds of opportunity.

2. Focused: Have a clear vision of what they want to achieve.

3. Flexible: Demonstrate a special pliability when responding to uncertainty.

4. Organized: Develop structured approaches to managing ambiguity.

5. Proactive: Engage change, rather than defend against it or evade it.

(Taken from Flood, Al, Chairman and CEO of CIBC Bank. The Learning Organization. Speech to the 62nd Annual Coaching Conference on the Challenge of Lifelong Learning in an Era of Global Change, Geneva Park, Ontario: August 1993).

4. Encourage experimentation in ministry.

Every change requires a new experiment. A change in culture forces everyone to adjust. What was accomplished and achieved must be evaluated honestly, with nothing taken for granted. The methods, strategies, and tools used yesterday may not work today and may be obsolete tomorrow.

Promote a learning lab experimental mentality. People who are encouraged to participate in experimentation are more motivated, engaged, and productive. This is not reckless experimentation but a system of trying, learning, and adapting to become more effective in ministry.

Learning and staying on the cutting edge today requires that a church view itself as a work in progress or a laboratory. Like landscaping your yard, it is learning while you are experimenting, creating, and developing. An approach to ministry development that often fails is to present facts to a committee who in turn submits them to a board who has the power to ignore or postpone action. By the time a decision is made the window of opportunity may be closed. Motivation, morale, and effectiveness all suffer. Frustration may result.

You can capture the learning opportunities by asking your team weekly and monthly what is working and what is not in regard to achieving purposes and goals. Use this feedback to correct mistakes and make adjustments. Accept a mistake as a breakdown on the path to accomplishment rather than a personal failure. Robert Hargrove in Masterful Coaching (San Diego, CA: Pfeiffer & Company, 1995) says that "breakdown" triggers creative and effective thinking, new ways of being, and the invention of new tools. The questions to ask when you make mistakes are not the psychological ones like "What is wrong with me?" "What is wrong with what I did?" "What is wrong with the others?" Rather, you should ask, "What was the breakdown?" "What correction do we need to make to eliminate the breakdown in the future?" "What is missing that would make a difference?"( (c) 1995 by Pfeiffer & Company, and is excerpted from Masterful Coaching by Robert Hargrove, published by Pfeiffer & Company, San Diego, CA)

5. Become more risk taking.

Fully empowered equipping leaders and ministering leaders must be allowed to learn the hard way, by making mistakes. This means developing a more risk-orientated culture within the church. Those in ministry must be encouraged to experiment and feel the freedom to fail and learn. Ask your group, "Do people in the group generally look at mistakes as learning opportunities or as a reason to get discouraged and give up?" Tom Peters’ book, Search for Excellence, is about Howard Head, inventor of the fiberglass ski. Head would go to his workshop, mix up a batch of black plastic goop, and mold it into a pair of skis. He would then take them to Mount Washington, New Hampshire, to have the ski instructors try them out. Over and over the skis broke on the rugged terrain. After 33 trips to the shed, the thirty-fourth pair of skis worked. If Head had been afraid to make a mistake, he would not have invented fiberglass skis.

The reason for continued experimentation, risk-taking, and learning is to take action and minister more effectively.

6. Facilitate cross- pollination.

To stay on the cutting edge, do all you can to avoid inbreeding, exclusiveness and group think. Mix team members around in ministry as much as possible so they can develop new perspectives and new skills. A primary value to be cultivated in the church is to honor different views and perspectives. This can lead to new ideas, methods, and tools for ministry. It is also essential to involve new members in ministries appropriate to their spiritual development and giftedness. Most thriving ministries today involve people who come from different ministry specialties with different views and perspectives. They have taken the time to understand one another's positions and ideas. They learn to dream together with a willingness to give and take, so great things begin to happen.

7. Become and recruit cutting edge leaders.

Today's organization requires leaders who are more flexible and responsive. They must:

  • Foster an environment conducive to learning and self-renewal.
  • Create an appetite and agility for continuous change.
  • View every church member as a source of valuable ideas.
  • Share their expertise and also their mistakes freely with others.
  • Demonstrate a high level of patience and tolerance for ambiguity.
  • Share information, power, and decision making with others throughout the church.
  • Demonstrate commitment to their own learning.
  • Have a strong sense of purpose for themselves and the church.
  • Encourage relationships and the building of networks.
  • Demonstrate courage and inspire others through their own actions.
  • Respond to both spoken and unspoken needs of others in the church.
  • Have high personal and professional standards.

Christ is our model for staying on the cutting edge. Although He walked counter to the religious and institutional norms of His day, His ministry was solidly based on God's principles and purposes and contextualized to the culture and the people to whom He was ministering.

W. Edward Deming said, "Nothing happens without personal transformation." Jesus said, "Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds" (John 12:24, NIV). This truly is the secret of being a cutting edge church.

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