All organizations, including churches, have a reason for being. Only a few actually know that reason and articulate it and live into it.
Sometimes the reason is clear and crisp, other times it is fuzzy and nebulous. Some choose their “why” intentionally, others do so accidentally or allow others to choose it for them.
Clarity about this is essential for a congregation to have a vibrant future. Those churches that define and differentiate themselves in a healthy way will be the ones that have a chance to manage the challenges of the 21st century successfully.
Those who do not will probably not survive past mid-century.
When it comes to our primary purpose for being, it has been helpful for me to observe churches and try to understand what it is that resides at the center of their attention, focus, funding and shared vision.
I’m into my fifth decade of local church ministry and have had the privilege of walking alongside many, many congregations and faith communities from a wide array of traditions as they seek to be faithful to their calling.
This pivotal question – “What is your primary reason for being?” – has emerged as my first question for assessing the health of a congregation.
In alphabetical order, here are eight common scenarios I’ve observed, and one that I can only hope will continue to emerge as a healthy alternative.
Please know, this is simply an exercise in hyperbole; no church fits neatly into any one category, and there are many more categories than listed here.
Some congregations have come to see their facilities as their primary identity and reason for being. Every decision is run through a filter that assumes the primacy of the facilities.
Nothing can be considered without taking into account how it will impact facilities or the campus. The church eventually exists to care for its facilities, and its mission is dictated by its building or buildings.
This type of church is waning and rapidly disappearing, due to the implosion of denominational organizations of every type. Its primary task is to play out the role and programs that its denomination tells it to.
Very little original thought or local initiative is required to be this sort of church. Like a chain restaurant, the church simply serves up whatever the denomination sends them or tells them to do.
At the heart of this church is a rigid adherence to some faith confession or doctrinal stance.
This can be a very conservative and strict church that tolerates little deviance from a shared doctrine, or it can be a very liberal and permissive church that tolerates little deviance from a shared doctrine.
Both types of churches are marked by smug intolerance, demeaning of those who differ and a lack of humility, compassion and basic love for the people God places around them.
This church places its primary authority in its lay leaders and guards that authority aggressively. Clergy and staff are seen as hired hands who are simply passing through and are tolerated and often relegated to observer status.
The laity defines the church’s mission and vision, and it often ends up looking like a self-designed church that mirrors its creator’s biases, prejudices and preferences.
This congregation is mostly concerned with money. With a scarcity mindset, they make the money question the first and most important consideration when seeking to make their way into the future.
These folks often blame others for their debt or their shortfalls and often fail to practice biblical stewardship themselves. Their frugality chokes off creativity and innovation, and they descend into a death spiral of hoarding and active resistance to a theology of abundance.
This congregation believes their pastor is the answer to every question or challenge the church faces. Nothing is decided or done without pastoral approval.
They often adore their pastor and believe he or she is the reason for their success. Conversely, when the church begins to wane, a pastor-centric congregation is quick to turn on their pastor and place the blame for every difficulty at his or her feet.
This love/hate relationship can turn quickly. Pastors who willingly step up on this pedestal often learn the hard way how painful the fall from a pedestal can be. Churches that succumb to this temptation often fall the fastest and the hardest when the beloved pastor is no longer on the job.
This church believes the answer to every challenge is a new program. Its people tend to be exhausted and jaded from being sold multiple bills of goods by pastors, consultants, denominational bodies and so on.
This church believes it must “try harder” and that the secret to their future is a program that can be bought or a book that can be read.
These churches come to believe they exist primarily to pay the salaries and benefits of their staff. Staff members are expected to do the vast majority of ministry that takes place, and the congregation believes its role is to serve as judge and jury regarding their abilities.
Staff members who accept this deal come to believe they are indispensable and unreplaceable. This model seldom ends well.
Finally, a healthy alternative: mission-centric.
This church seeks to align every part of their congregational life with the mission of God for his church. Jesus was clear when asked what our reason for being is: To love God, to love our neighbor and to make disciples.
When the Holy Spirit raised up the church in Acts 2, we are told that worship, evangelism, missions, community and discipleship were the ways those first Christ-followers chose to live out their common life together.
Those remain our missional marching orders. When we distort or confuse them, we do so at our own peril. When we refocus our congregation around them, amazing things happen.
I believe these churches of every size, shape and theological persuasion are the key to our future. May their tribe increase and quickly.
Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Healthy Churches (CHC) housed at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. His writings also appear on the CHC blog. You can follow him on Twitter @BillWilson1028 and the center @ChurchHealthy.
Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Healthy Churches (CHC) housed at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee.