Church changes

Tim O’Neill, Exec. Chair
Exponential Australia.

7 Switches the Church of the Future Must Make

I think that it’s no surprise that many churches across Australia aren’t doing so well at present. NCLS in research commissioned by Exponential Australia has found that nearly 70% of Australia’s churches are in decline with fewer than ever reporting that they are growing.

Mark Sayers tells us that:

We are in a time of significant and rapid worldwide change. Political scientist Randall Schweller notes that “the world is undergoing transformation.…. a chaotic period where most anything can happen and little can be predicted; where yesterday’s rule takers become tomorrow’s rule makers, but no one follows rules anymore; where competing global visions collide with each other; where remnants of the past, present, and future coexist simultaneously.” Sayers, Mark. A Non-Anxious Presence (p. 21). Moody Publishers. Kindle Edition.

We are in a VUCA time, a time of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity.
In times like this we must adapt not just to where the culture currently is, but to where it’s going.

It’s natural to respond by trying to do things better than before. But this will eventually lead to weariness and burnout. And often the desired results just won’t happen. The answer in such different times is usually found in doing things differently than before rather than better than before.

But what are the “different” things, we must be doing, the switches that must take place?

I see seven switches the church must make if it is to keep pace with the quickly and at times radically changing culture in the world around us.
Yes, in many cases these switches will require us to do some things differently to what we have been doing. But don’t worry, these switches won’t take us away from being a biblically authentic Christian church, but rather back to it.

Switch #1. Valuing Engagement Over Performance
The church that we read about in Acts showed disciples who were engaged with God and with each other. Their engagement went beyond engaging in corporate worship and listening to a sermon to engaging with each other, praying for each other, ministering to those outside the church as well as those inside.
People want to be seen, to be heard and to be known. As members of the body of Christ, we are all called to be engaged with His work in our world. As Ephesians 4:16 says:
“From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”

Switch #2. Valuing Making Disciples Over Attracting Attendees
We live in a world that esteems the big and noisy. But big and noisy isn’t always best. Jesus attracted the crowds, but worked with the 12 and others like the 72 he sent out to every place he was about to go.
Fidel Castro who led the revolution to take control of Cuba and became President of Cuba for 49 years once said “I began the revolution with 82 men. If I had to do it again, I’d do it with 10 or 15 men and absolute faith. It does not matter how small you are if you have faith and a plan of action.” (P 172, Church Marketing by George Barna.)
Jesus calls us beyond being attendee consumers of a range of religious products and services to follow Him by obeying His commands. There’s a difference!

Switch #3. Valuing Empowerment Over Excellence
I might be biased but I think that my son is a better preacher than myself. But that wasn’t always the case. So how has this happened? Over the years we were prepared to play the long game, accepting a lesser standard on the platform so that skill could be developed and experience gained. And so we put aside the opportunity to present our best so that we could empower our young and emerging leaders.
When we value excellence over empowerment, it’s difficult for new leaders and ministers to emerge.

Switch #4. Valuing Character Over Charisma
One great piece of wisdom I once heard about dating and marriage was that people were attracted to each other by charisma or an attractive personality but then they had to live with their character. Character should always win out in the long term.
Sadly we have often valued the people who can gather a large crowd quickly over those who can shepherd them with love and integrity, taking them on the journey to be authentic followers of Jesus who themselves make disciples. The number of charismatic leaders who have fallen in recent times and Chuck De Groat’s research in “When Narcissism Comes to Church” hi light that strong charisma combined with weak character is a dangerous combination.
Paul wrote about the Christ like character that we are to display when he described in Philippians 2:5-8 the way Jesus came to serve with humility. This is the kind of leader the church needs. It’s the kind of leader who will see God glorified rather than themselves.

Switch #5. Valuing Sending Over Size
The true measure of the success of a church shouldn’t be how big it is, but how many people it sends out on mission. The dominion mandate (the Old Testament forerunner of the Great Commission found in Genesis 2 and 9) tells us that we are to go and multiply across the face of the earth. Multiplication means giving away and sending out the spiritual sons and daughters rather than keeping them at home.
It’s a leaders role to raise men and women for mission and send them out to start new spiritual families. When we do this, we see multiplication begin and the new leaders grow and mature and move into the harvest field.
Jesus made it clear that the problem wasn’t in the harvest. It’s there and ready. He told us the problem was in seeing harvesters sent into the harvest field and said “Go I’m sending you…” (Luke 10:1-3). When we send and go, we do as Jesus commands us.

Switch #6. Valuing Love Over Legalism
The church in Acts 2 saw explosive growth happen because they received the favour of the people in the broader community with the result that many more were saved and added to their number every day (Acts 2:46,47). You can’t receive favour from the community unless you are lovingly engaged with it.
Love should not be contained. As followers of Jesus, we are called to love like Him (John 15:12) the way we love will demonstrate to the world the authenticity of our faith (John 13:34,35). Healthy doctrine helps give shape to how we apply Jesus’ teaching to the world in which we live.

It should see love increase (1 Timothy 1:5) rather than restricted. We have to be careful we don’t restrict our love because of religious rules that we or others have constructed. I’m thinking here of how Jesus healed on a Sabbath to the horror of the Pharisees. He performed acts of love even when it went against their rules.

Switch #7. Valuing Jesus Over Man Made Religion
I think many are hungering to get back to following and worshiping Jesus. But sometimes man made religion gets in the way rather than facilitating this. Sadly, there are huge numbers of people in our nation who love Jesus but don’t love their experience of His church, and so have given up on church.

Hebrews 12 tells us that Jesus is the author and perfecter of our faith and that we are to fix our eyes on Him.
So the question must be asked “do our traditions, rituals and habits help us fix our eyes on Jesus, or distract us?” Perhaps they do. Perhaps they don’t. If they do, that’s fantastic. But if they don’t, well perhaps we need to review them.
Jesus is Lord. That is His rightful position. He should come first before anything else; even before the traditions we have put in place and observe. We need to evaluate whether the traditions and religious practices come before Jesus or after Him. If they come before Jesus, we need to repent and rectify this.

The World Needs The Church To Be The Glorious Bride of Christ.
Our nation is facing increasing spiritual poverty. It needs people like us to be engaged as followers of Jesus who truly make Him Lord.
Mark Sayers has recently tweeted that “The world’s out of control. We need to be more engaged with the world now than ever before. That’s why God has put us here.”
I believe that God truly is doing a new thing in our country. Isaiah 43:18,19 gives us some incredible wisdom here:
“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?”
To see the new thing that God is doing and to embrace it requires us to let go of the past. We can acknowledge what we did in the past, but the new thing can only be embraced when we move from the past to the new.
The temptation is compromise; a little bit of the old and a little bit of the new. Jesus made it clear that this wasn’t going to work. He tells us that no one should put a new patch on an old garment (Matthew 9:16). Likewise an old fabric of church will not be made new by just starting some new programs and mixing the new with the old.
Perhaps the answer is to plant new churches that might be different to the churches we have previously experienced?

As we plant new churches around our nation, let’s pray and encourage that they be new wineskins, different from the sending churches. That way the new and the old can both be preserved. (Matthew 9:17)

The sending churches may be great, healthy churches ideal for the past and even current times. But the churches being planted need to be suited to tomorrow and the times that follow.

My encouragement for existing churches is to review the 7 switches, see where you are at and to gently look at what changes can be made over time without causing chaos. To the new churches being planted, pray and think about how the 7 switches can be part of the DNA of the new church from day 1.

Tim O’Neill
Exponential Australia

20 November 2023