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Designing the 21st century church

Eighty to 85 percent, of 4 of 5, churches in America have plateaued or are declining. According to Lyle Scaller, 100,000 of the 350,000 churches in America will not survive this decade. An average of 50 to 60 churches dissolve each week, and Win Arn estimates that 3,500 to 4,000 churches die annually.

Churches face the continual challenge of remaining culturally relevant while not compromising biblical principles. Christianity Today reports that "many church observers believe most of the churches planted after World War II are in their final stages of institutional life." Some will make it; some will not.

What will the 21st century church look like? We must examine the current condition of the church, our changing culture, and possible church structures. We've moved from the agrarian age through the industrial age to the information age, and each era has affected how we've accomplished our mission.

Agrarian Age

In the agrarian age life was organized around the individual and the family farm or business. The focus was upon the farmer, his crops, and his local market. He was limited only by physical ability and necessity. Each year he repeated last year's work, and he chose how to manage his farm. The valued skill was a diligent, hard worker.

The church in this era was organized much like the family farm. It had a community focus, and everyone worked together. Decisions were made informally, and ministry took place spontaneously in response to needs. Planning was limited and consisted primarily of repeating last year's routine. Although there was little demand for variety or quality, most members were highly committed. The church was one big happy family.

Industrial Age

As we moved into the industrial era, the focus shifted from the family farm to the city factory. Workers mass produced products on assembly lines. They were limited only by tradition and transportation. The valued skill was no longer a hard worker but a skilled manager who could plan, organize, direct, control, and supervise the work force and mass production process. This established a division of labor between management and workers, e.g. white collar and blue collar. The organizational structure now consisted of a management hierarchy. A powerful executive, who governed the whole operation, had middle-level managers under him. They in turn supervised segments of the operation and other workers. As business grew, the hierarchical structure developed more layers and became more control-oriented and less efficient.

The church adapted to this shift and also developed a hierarchical organization. Whether the pastor or the board of deacons became the CEO, the division between the clergy and laity became more defined. The pastor was to preach, teach, counsel, visit and keep the church's ministries in place and working. The church began to establish departments and appoint superintendents to be responsible for them. Enlisting, training, and mobilizing volunteers became a primary concern. Although this departmentalization made leaders more committed, members felt left out;. Ministry evolved into programs that had to be fed to survive -- even if they no longer served a significant purpose.

Information Age

Enter the computer and the birth of the information age. It helped automate the factory and facilitate the mass production process. Then it changed everything in our lives. Information, time and convenience became valued commodities. Customers' wants and individual service became the business norm. For businesses to succeed they had to anticipate customers' demands as well as the processes that would draw them.

The workplace is moving from the factory to the home via the phone, computer, and fax, and the organizational structure is moving from the hierarchy to networks and team processes. These teams, rather than supervise, direct the work. Supervisors who control the process are being replaced by team leaders who coordinate the process and empower the team to succeed.

Since society shapes our thinking, expectations, and lifestyles, the 21st century church must understand social changes and how they affect people. To ignore them is certain death; to address them realistically and creatively provides opportunities. Nicolo Machiavelli once said, "There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things."

How to Design the 21st Century Church

1. Think differently about your role. Accept change as a constant, and learn to live with it rather than resist it. We often resist changes in our methodologies because we think they're timeless principles. However, this mind-set can lead to ineffectiveness and irrelevance in our ministries. Use change, its resources, and its opportunities to your advantage.

Robert Lacey once said, "Ford was a man who loved his Model T so much he didn't want to change a bolt on it. He even kicked out William Knudsen, his ace production man, because Knudsen thought he saw the sun setting on the Model T. That occurred in 1912, when the Model T was only 4 years old and at the crest of its popularity. Ford had just returned from a European jaunt, and he went to a Highland Park, Michigan garage and saw the new design created by Knudsen.

On-the-scene mechanics recorded how Ford momentarily went berserk. He spied the gleaming red lacquer sheen on a new, low-slung version of the Model T that he had considered a monstrous perversion of his beloved Model T design. 'Ford had his hands in his pockets and he walked around the car three or four times,' reported an eyewitness. 'It was a four-door job, and the top was down. Finally he got to the left-hand side of the car, and he takes his hands out, gets hold of the door, and bang! He ripped the door right off! How the many done it, I don't know! He jumped in there, and bang goes the other door. Bang goes the windshield. He jumps over the back seat and starts pounding on the top. He rips the top with the heel of his shoe. He wrecked the car as much as he could'" (The Men and the Machine, New York: Ballantine, 1987).

Knudsen left for General Motors. Henry Ford nursed along the Model T but design changes made it old-fashioned. Competition finally backed him into making the Model A, though his heart was never in it. Even though General Motors was nipping at Ford's heels, the inventor wanted to freeze an era.

The church can be very much like Ford, preferring to freeze life and remain comfortable.

2. Evaluate your purpose and ministries in terms of meeting needs. Ask yourself these questions:

  1. What is our purpose? What are we trying to accomplish?
  2. What 10 words best describe our church?
  3. What types of people find our church most attractive? Least attractive?
  4. List the needs of the people who find our church attractive.
  5. Why should my friends attend our church?
  6. What benefits do people receive? Do they outweigh the costs? What unique ministries do we have?
  7. Do we meet peoples' needs -- inside and outside the church?
  8. What are the strengths and uniqueness of our church?
  9. What are the needs of our church?
  10. What five needs do we want to meet within a year?

3. Develop a contemporary organizational structure. Consider these organizational principles:

No organizational design is perfect. All designs have strengths and weaknesses. Although they have weaknesses, the ministry teams that have specific purposes and are aligned with the church's vision can be effective. It is important to flatten the organization and avoid hierarchies that are inefficient in people-serving organizations. Concentrate on networking staff, volunteers, and resources to increase flexibility and effectiveness.

A simple, efficient system is best. Many churches develop structures for evangelism, follow-up, fellowship, and care ministries. Unfortunately they end up competing for workers, resources, and turf. They never experience the power of working together in a simple, efficient structure.

In most churches the best ministry structure is the Sunday school. It is the only structure that reaches people from the cradle to the grave. One pastor told his congregation not to complain about their needs not being met if they were not enrolled in a Sunday school or a Bible study. He used the Sunday school structure to address the important issues of the church.

Structure to empower rather than to control people. Most churches control rather than develop people. Empowerment focuses on helping people to develop spiritually and to identify, develop, and use their abilities for the Lord. It increases autonomy and creativity among the staff and volunteers and frees them to develop ministries. Empowerment will increase when the church keeps its vision and goals before the congregation.

Design key ministries to produce key results. The most important responsibility of the church is to make disciples. Success cannot be measured by the size of the crowd on Sunday morning because it is possible to attract large crowds and not make disciples. A disciple is someone committed to membership, maturation, ministry, and mission.

Develop programs with short life cycles such as modular education and life-span classes. The structure should meet peoples' needs, address societal changes and teach the relevancy of God's Word. The trend of shorter time commitments from people requires shorter lesson series and a more topical approach. Use an evening, single-day seminar, or retreat format. Consider these issues when developing new ministries.

Furthermore, don't just think geographically, think distinctively. Attract those who share your vision, not just those within a small radius of your church. People who share your vision and purpose will most likely fit into the life of the congregation.

The church's future depends upon your ability to anticipate the needs of people and the changes that are necessary to keep relevant and effective. "The future belongs to those who see possibilities before they become obvious."

In his book Dying for Change Leith Anderson encourages the church to be a renewing church that sees value in both tradition and progress. It takes time to understand and integrate theology and sociology. A renewing church remains true to divine revelation while remaining relevant; it keeps its eyes and ears on Jesus as well as the needs of the world. It continually evaluates, forms its strategies, and modifies its ministries. It establishes a specific mission with clearly defined goals and communicates them to the church. Changes are made only to increase its effectiveness in reaching people and making disciples (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1990 pp. 139-147).

This is a profile of the 21st century church that will meet needs and reach communities.


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