Ever feel like ministry is harder than it was a decade ago?
You’re not alone.
I am an eternal optimist when it comes to the church, but I agree that ministry is more challenging than it’s ever been.
Understanding why is key to figuring out what to do and how to respond.
You may or may not like the change in culture you see around you, but the fastest path to ineffectiveness in the church is to ignore the change you see around you.
The gap between how quickly things change and how quickly you change is called irrelevance.
So why is ministry a little more challenging than it used to be?
Here are 6 reasons…and a beacon of hope to guide us into a better future.
1. The automatic return to church is long gone
There was an assumption in ministry (it still lingers in certain circles) that although young adults who grew up in the church might walk away for a season, they’ll come back as soon as they have kids. I heard a church leaders say this as recently as last month.
The research shows that’s just not true.
Ditto the assumption that unchurched people will turn to the church the moment they hit a bit crisis in their lives. They are just as likely to turn to a meditation app or yoga class as they are to a local church.
Unchurched people think about church about as much as the average Christian thinks about synagogue—rarely.
Will you occasionally have people who turn to the church in times of crisis? Of course. Or young families who come back? Absolutely.
But the exception is never the rule. It’s the exception.
But if you treat the exception like the rule, you’ll be deeply frustrated with your inability to realize your mission of reaching people with the Gospel.
Leaders who are waiting for young adults to automatically return to church will wait a long time.
2. The gap between what Christians believe and the culture believes is bigger than ever
If you’ve sensed that the values many Christians hold are significantly different than the values our culture holds to, you would be right.
What Christians believe about sexuality, money, love, drugs, ethics and compassion are increasingly different from what our neighbours who don’t go to church believe.
So how do you bridge that gap?
Too many preachers just yell at the world for not believing what we believe. Ditto for Christians on social media.
Not only is that a mistake; it’s a terrible strategy.
Guess what? Christians are supposed to be different than non-Christians. It shouldn’t surprise us that it’s happened.
Sharing why we believe what we believe in love is so much better than yelling at the world in hate.
3. Christians are perceived as irrelevant
A few years ago I connected with a news anchor who has worked for the major TV networks in the US and Canada.
He was shocked that anyone under 50 attended church. He had no idea that there were still churches that were actually growing.
That attitude shouldn’t shock Christians, but it does.
I’ve been introducing myself as a pastor for two decades now. At first people seemed either impressed or dismissive. Some people were glad to see a younger leader in ministry. And many were open to checking out a church that was making changes.
There were always a few who showed disdain when I mentioned I was a pastor, often, I suspect, because they had had a negative experience with church.
Today when I introduce myself, I’m more often greeted by bewilderment or confusion than anything.
People just don’t seem to have a category for people who work at churches. It’s like people feel sorry for us.
Irrelevance is more difficult than relevance because it’s hard to find immediate common ground. You have to establish it from scratch, and often the easiest way to do that is to be interested in what they’re interested in, rather than asking them to be interested in you.
But it also provides opportunity. Imagine becoming known as the most radically loving group of people anyone has ever met.
4. Fewer gifted people are entering ministry
This one really bothers me.
I talk to leaders every week who talk about how hard it is to find great leaders to staff their ministry.
Naturally, you should raise up leaders from within, and we do that.
But the truth is fewer and fewer bright, capable young adults are considering full time church ministry as an option.
A century ago, the best and the brightest flooded into ministry as easily as leaders today float into business, law, engineering, start-ups and medicine.
Today, drop by a top tier school and tell them you’re thinking about ministry and people will stare at you in disbelief. Sadly, sometimes so will your parents.
Some people might say “Well, people just don’t feel called into ministry.” I get that, but I think it might be time rethink what it means to be called into ministry.
Similarly, I think many leaders who could make a huge contribution to ministry are in the business and start up space instead. I’d love to see more entrepreneurs enter ministry.
When you get the best leaders in a room, problems become easier to solve.
5. Contemporary churches are less rare than they used to be
In the 90s and early 2000s, churches that switched to better music, more relevant teaching and generally became more effective at what they did were few and far between.
Many early adopters who made changes like this would find themselves as the only church in their town/region/denomination that had adapted to a more contemporary form of church.
That’s not the case anymore.
Many churches that have adapted a contemporary form of worship or even a particular sub-style of church now find themselves in cities with other churches doing exactly the same thing.
When it comes to contemporary churches, what was once unique is now commonplace. What was innovative is now normal.
That’s not a bad thing. It’s just a thing. And it helps explain that what got you far a decade ago doesn’t take you as far today.
6. The internet happened
Just over a decade ago, there were no smart phones and a meaningful percentage of people were still on dial-up.
Today, anyone can listen to any preacher or worship leader any time, anywhere, on any device, pretty much for free.
Courtesy of the internet, the local pastor is not the sole voice in a congregation’s life.
You and I are being compared against people who are often far more talented that we are. And again, that’s not a bad thing. It’s just a thing.
There will always be a role for a local communicator and pastor who knows his or her people and loves them. A powerful role.
But many in your church now have a handful of pastors and leaders they follow. Maybe dozens.
It’s just different.
There’s Plenty of Hope
So, is it time to lament and console ourselves?
Not at all.
First of all, it’s Jesus’ church, not ours. God has more invested in the future of the church than any of us do.
The church will prevail because it’s His, not ours.
The first step in solving a problem is diagnosing it, and hopefully this helps get us up the field.
As I outlined in this post, great leaders never make excuses. Instead, they study the reasons things are the way they are, and then they make progress.
Where one leader sees obstacles, another sees opportunities.
I encourage you to see all of these as opportunities.
What does that look like? Well….
If you’re relying on the automatic return to church, stop that. Develop a strategy to reach the unreached.
Speak into the gap between what you believe and the culture believe with love, not with judgment.
If you’re seen as irrelevant, develop some common ground and even friendships with people who don’t understand why you do what you do.
Short leaders? Challenge some marketplace leaders to leave what they’re doing and serve full time in church leadership.
If lots of churches are doing what you’re doing and what you’re doing isn’t working for you, change what you’re doing.
Instead of feeling threatened by the internet, use it. We just completely redesigned our website at Connexus Church to become mobile optimal, added an online campus and made many more changes to reach the unchurched. Everyone who’s not in church is online. Go to them if they haven’t come to you.
That’s what I’m learning these days about some of the challenges facing all church leaders.
I address numerous practical solutions in my book, Lasting Impact: 7 Powerful Conversations That Will Help Your Church Grow if you want more.
In the meantime, what are you seeing and how are you responding?
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