5 Questions to Consider Before a Church Merger

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Church mergers have become an important part of the church revitalization conversation. Stories of new life and community impact are beginning to emerge as more struggling churches consider partnering with another church.

As one might imagine, mergers can be delicate situations, too. Ample times of joint prayer, question-and-answer sessions, conversation and learning have resulted in greater success in the journey, as well as right decisions for a course of action. Remember this is a spiritual decision first and foremost, not a pragmatic one. Therefore, seeking the heart of God through prayer and study of the Bible cannot be overemphasized!

Be aware that if both churches are currently struggling, the odds of a successful merger are very low. Generally, the best mergers occur when one church is prevailing and the other church is absorbed into that church’s identity. There are many theological, cultural, procedural and polity questions that must be addressed over the course of time.

Here are five kinds of questions to ask for initial conversations around mergers:

  1. Why?
    Are we merging merely for survival or for true Great Commission impact on our community and beyond? This question is the most important. Churches that merge just to survive rarely do, much less thrive. The Lord’s Church stays on mission. Both churches must honestly answer this question.
  2. What?
    What is the new church’s identity? Will it be one new church, or will it retain the name, location, etc., of one of the current churches? Are the core beliefs of the two churches compatible? The merger may result in very little theological or polity change, but it may be significant.
  3. Who?
    Who will be the leadership? Will both staffs merge? Will the lay leadership merge? Do the leadership structures align? Does one church have deacons and the other have elders? If both churches currently have pastors, one must be willing to yield to the other or leave altogether.
  4. Where?
    Is one location going to be used or both? Which location is most strategic for reaching the lost and making disciples?
  5. When?
    Set as long a timeline as possible. The merger may be driven by desperate circumstances on the part of one church — such as running out of finances to keep the lights on — but this desperation should not lead to haste. (See question one above.)

Of course, there is one big question that varies based on the answers to the above questions — how? It is tempting to start with how, but that needs to wait until the why question is clearly answered and all of the others are at least considered.

Recommended Resources:

Better Together is the gold-standard in research and stories of church mergers. It is long, but worth it.

There is a shorter e-book from the North American Mission Board called Mergers that may also be helpful. It is more focused on a church plant merging with an existing church.

Two fact filled articles: “Church Merger Challenges and Costs” and “Top Ten Church Merger Facts.”

Shaped by Mission

Photo Credit: timtom.ch via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: timtom.ch via Compfight cc

Should the church shape the mission or should the mission shape the church? It sounds like a “chicken and egg” comparison, but if you are a Christian your answer will determine your trajectory as a disciple of Jesus.

Christopher Wright reminds us that, “It is not so much the case that God has a mission for his church in the world but that God has a church for his mission in the world. Mission was not made for the church; the church was made for mission–God’s mission” (The Mission of God, 62).

In other words, mission should define church. Church should not define mission. In The Forgotten Ways, Alan Hirsch puts it this way: “Christology determines missiology, and missiology determines ecclesiolgy…It is Jesus who determines the church’s mission in the world, and therefore our sense of purpose and mission comes from being sent by him into the world” (142). We must start with what we believe about Christ, which determines what we believe about our mission, which in turn should determine how we form and practice church.

Consider these words of Jesus about our mission:

“As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21).

Consider these words about Jesus and our mission:

“So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured” (Hebrews 13:12-13).

Not only should mission define church, it should shape church. Conventional churches conform the mission to the shape of the church. This looks like hosting evangelistic events and expecting the spiritually unconvinced to come, like that trunk or treat scheduled for later this month. It looks like encouraging (or shaming) church members to bring their unconvinced friends to the building, campus, or event. It looks like a visitation program that fits evangelism into the church schedule at the convenience of the church member with little consideration for the schedules or privacy of the one visited. It looks like a calendar so filled with campus-located activities that members never have margin to be around the people that Jesus went outside the gate to die for! This is a church-shaped mission.

What if we conformed church to the shape of the mission? This would be unconventional church. What if we looked at the culture and the context of the people we are trying to reach and tailor our mission to living among them – just like the missionaries we send overseas do? What if we stopped inviting people into our buildings and started inviting them into our lives? What if we started introducing them to the truth of Jesus on their turf instead of trying to get them onto ours?

What if, once they embraced the claims of Christ, we planted the church among them? What if this new church was shaped by an ongoing mission to reach deeper into their culture instead of ripping them out of their mission field and assimilating them into our programs? What if we stopped spiritually neutering new believers by busying them in our buildings instead of equipping them to bear fruit in their own communities?

What if we, in the words of the author of Hebrews, got outside the camp? That’s where Jesus is!

What if we, in the words of Jesus, lived as if we were sent by him into the world? That’s how he told us to live!

Here’s my confession: Lately I’ve let the conventional church encroach on my mission. No more. By God’s grace, I vow to let mission shape my view of church.

What would that look like for you?

Doing Evangelism Differently

I live in a small subdivision in the suburbs. In an effort to stay informed and communicate with one another, our community has a Facebook group. Three times in the past three months there have been posts on our Facebook page about strange people going through our neighborhood. In each case words like “beware” or “heads up” were used to alert us to the danger of these people, letting us know how they were dressed and that they were carrying books that looked like Bibles, and that they were probably “religious.”

 No Soliciting
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk via Compfight

In the last of these instances, earlier this week, my neighbor politely asked them to leave because our neighborhood has a sign clearly posted at the entrance that says “No Soliciting.” The visitors were, by my neighbor’s account, very rude to him. It turns out that these visitors were Jehovah’s Witnesses canvassing our neighborhood with invitations for an upcoming event. [Read more…]

What’s your excuse?

“If you’re not doing church this way, then you better have a good excuse.” This is a powerful and provocative statement from Alan Hirsch. Alan drives right to the heart of our theology and practice in the church. Here’s the bottom line: We are to embody the gospel “in the flesh” among our neighbors, truly loving them by walking as Jesus walked. So, what’s your excuse?

You can purchase the whole message at the Verge Network Store.

How to Love Your Neighbors Without Them Hating You

Proximity means risking intimacy. Last week I shared about the importance of loving our actual neighbors. This does not excuse us from loving ALL peoples and treating everyone like our neighbor, but I think that in many ways it is harder to love those who live near you. It is good to love those across town or around the world (I try to do both), but when you serve in those contexts you eventually go home. When you invest in your neighborhood, you are home! That means you have to risk rejection on a more personal level.

A little over three years ago my family relocated to a new state and a new neighborhood. Brandie and I were convinced that we had not loved those in our last neighborhood well. We repented of that sin and committed to doing our best to live out the gospel among our neighbors. We weren’t sure what that meant, but we knew we wanted to glorify God by living differently. Our journey is going to be a long one here, and we’re still learning lessons of what it means to have genuine community, but here are five of the very simple principles we have learned that I hope you will consider adopting in order to fall in with love your neighbors:

1. Pray: “Give me my neighbors or I die!” When we moved, I wanted to have the same burden for my neighbors that God has for them, namely, to see them come to repentance and fall in love with Jesus. I wanted to share the gospel with them but I wanted to do it out of devotion and not duty. I had to ask Him to give me that burden. During those early months I read about Scottish reformer John Knox. Knox was so burdened for the souls of his countrymen that he prayed, “Give me Scotland or I die!” So, I began to pray that prayer for my neighbors. As I started praying John Knox’s prayer and substituting the name of my subdivision, the Holy Spirit started to melt my heart until I meant the words of the prayer. I can honestly say that God has given me a sacrificial love for my neighbors. I love them so much I don’t want to see them separated from eternal life in Jesus Christ. As I have gotten to know many of them that love has truly increased. Which leads to point number two.

2. Meet your neighbors. This sounds too elementary to list, but it’s easy to get so focused on your family that you forget to meet those around you. Learn your neighbors names and try to find out some of their stories.

3. Be faithfully present. We haven’t always done this well. Faithful presence means that you show up and make a commitment to keep showing up. Show up without any agenda but to build relationships. In missional circles, this is called being “incarnational.” It simply means to give flesh to something. We want to “give flesh” to the gospel by being involved in the lives of our neighbors. That means going to parties we may not normally go to. We don’t compromise who we are, but we don’t expect them to change who they are, either. It also means putting priority on being in the neighborhood over other good choices, including spending time at church.

4. Share your life. This includes our imperfections. The best compliment one of my neighbors has given me is to say that I’m “real.” We need to be genuine, even when we mess up.

5. Share the gospel. We don’t want to be silent on the message of Jesus. We cannot truly love our neighbors if we don’t share with them the hope we have found in Jesus. Some have embraced Christ, some have returned to Christ, and some are still wrestling with the claims of Christ. Our friends know where we stand, but more importantly they know we are sharing with them out of love, not as a task. I will write more on how we do this later.

In 1 Thessalonians 2:8, Paul reminds his friends that he didn’t just share the gospel with them but his very life as well. I have come to the conclusion that we really can’t share one without the other. We love God and we love our neighbors. It’s only natural, then, to want to introduce them. It really is that simple. We could be doing more to show our neighbors we love them, I’m sure. But we have taken a step into missional living and we can’t imagine going back.

So, how about you? Will you start to love your neighbor for the glory of God?

 

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

The Great Commandment. In it Jesus summed up the 600-plus laws of the Jewish people into two simple, yet profound commands from the Old Testament. The first, He said, was to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second, He added, was to love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:30-31).

Little Pink Houses
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk via Compfight

In the Gospel of Luke, the understanding of these two basic commands led a certain lawyer to ask Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus answered with the story that has been called “The Good Samaritan” (Luke 10:30-37) concluding that we are neighbor to those to whom we show mercy. This neighborly love transcends creed, color, gender, and even religion. The bottom line is that we are to be neighborly and show this love to ALL. Jesus used the polar extremes in his parable to emphasize the transcendent and inclusive nature of the love we are to show.

This focus on loving everyone regardless of differences is truly foundational, and it is necessary to push people outside of their comfort zones to love the unlovely and serve those least like us and most in need.

I have found it all too easy to neglect one group of people more than any other in obeying this command of Jesus. I don’t believe I’m alone, either, because I have spoken to many church friends who unconsciously overlook this segment of society, too. I’m not speaking of a social class or ethnicity here. The neighbor I neglect to love is…well…my neighbor.

That’s right. Ironically, in my attempt to obey the Great Commandment to “love my neighbor,” I have a tendency to overlook my actual neighbors! This is sad but true for me and too many of my church friends. We have been conditioned to look for others in need outside of our circles so much that we unintentionally ignore the people next door!

So, how can we love our actual neighbors? In the next post I will unpack some of the simple ways our family is seeking to love those in our neighborhood.

 

5 Sins of the Church

From time to time I come across stories that, though not out of my own experience, need to be told. Consider the case of Fellowship Bible Church in Jonesboro, AR. I don’t know much about the church, but I was impressed with a document I ran across last year regarding the church’s decision to start over in 2008. This is where the story gets interesting.

Image: Dan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

For several months the church leadership sought God’s direction to answer the question, “Jesus, how would you evaluate Fellowship?” This period of prayer and reflection led them to the cold reality that they were not effective at making disciples.

So, they repented. That’s right. They confessed their sin of ineffectiveness. Sounds harsh in our day. Fellowship decided the most obedient thing they could do was repent and relaunch with a focus on the Gospel, discipleship, and mission. Specifically, they confessed sin in 5 areas:

1. We planted programs before planting the gospel.

2. We taught our people great Bible content without calling them to follow Jesus on the mission of the gospel (i.e. discipleship).

3. We equipped people for our world (the “church” world) and NOT for their world (everyday life).

4. We assumed people knew more about the gospel than they really did–beginning with us as leaders.

5. We were more concerned with filling our services than filling our city with people who live and love like Jesus.

When I read their list I was brought to great conviction myself. Many churches–too many churches–are guilty of the exact same sins. Somehow we’ve taken our eye off the ball in the life of the church. We have traded Gospel goals for institutional ones.

I have a ton of respect for Fellowship. They had the courage to get to the heart of the matter. Unfortunately, I believe many churches would be more inclined to talk about a “new vision” or “new purpose” rather than confessing their lack of attention to God’s design as sin. But that kind of spiritual brokenness is the only place where real awakening can start.

So, what about your church? This post is not just for pastors, it’s for whoever is a part of the Bride of Christ. If you were intellectually honest about your church’s effectiveness at making true disciples what would you say? Do you have the courage to ask Jesus to evaluate your church’s ministry?

Read the whole story of Fellowship.

 

Why should we go?

Tomorrow I leave in a group of three for a ten day mission trip to Indonesia to participate in conferences encouraging and equipping pastors. I am thankful for the opportunity and amazed at the doors God continues to open for global discipleship. The thing I’m excited about the most is getting to learn from the people I will meet.

Image: twobee / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Indonesia is the world’s third-laregest democracy and over 80% (186.7 million) of the people are Muslim. Nonetheless Christianity is a recognized religion and Christians have the freedom to worship there. Some, even some Christians, may wonder why I would travel over 24 hours and spend ten days away from my family in a context I’m not familiar with to participate in this conference. Here are just a five of the reasons why I go, and why I think every believer should seek to go.

  1. Christ commands it. The last command Jesus gave while on earth was for His disciples to be His witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8). I believe that command to witness globally is still valid.
  2. Stewardship. God has afforded those of us who live in the West tremendous opportunities for education and equipping that many pastors in other places do not have. Many Sunday school teachers I know have larger theological libraries that do most pastors in Asia. Part of the responsibility that comes with this investment is the obligation to invest in others.
  3. To encourage these church leaders. According to their denominational leadership, there is great discouragement among the pastors in Indonesia. Being a pastor anywhere can be a lonely vocation. I want to be a part of spurring these men on to love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24).
  4. For my own encouragement. Whenever I travel overseas and see the church in a different context, it helps me get a more accurate picture of God’s true church. I am always humbled by the faith I see in believers who are persecuted or marginalized due to their confession of Jesus as Lord. I know I will learn more than I will teach.
  5. So that God will be glorified. The chief end of missions is that God will be glorified among all the nations and peoples of the earth (Psalm 96). When people do not know the name of Jesus and are not given the opportunity to confess Jesus as Lord, then God is robbed of the glory that is rightly His.
And so, I go. Please pray for us. Pray for the pastors we will be spending time with. Pray for the preaching opportunities that we will have along the way. Pray for our families as we are separated. Most of all, pray for God to be glorified among the nations!

Learn more about praying for Indonesia at Operation World.

Shifting from Ministry to Mission

As a part of my role as a ministry consultant and strategist with my denomination I am frequently visiting congregations on Sunday mornings. A couple of years ago my wife and I were visiting an adult Sunday school class at a church. They did not know who we were or what our spiritual condition was. We entered the room and the teacher introduced himself and one of the two couples seated in the room did the same. We sat down in one of the rows of chairs later to discover that we had taken someone’s seat. Slowly the room filled up with people carrying on their own conversations, catching up with their friends with little notice of us. In fact, we were seated between two ladies who actually had a conversation “across” us. We could have predicted the rest of the visit because we knew what to expect as “professional guests.”

Image: Tom Curtis / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Unfortunately, my wife and I are conditioned to be treated as outsiders. We realize that most groups merely tolerate the presence of outsiders. Yes, people are generally polite and there is typically at least one person who, hopefully out of genuine interest, but perhaps out of a sense of obligation or guilt, will make conversation, tell us about the church and make sure we feel welcomed. I understand that many groups such as these have deep friendships forged over time. I also know that I have been guilty at times of making outsiders to my group feel like…well, outsiders. I fear that the class I described is an accurate reflection of the state of community in most churches in North America. It is community devoid of a clear mission.

A community that loses its mission begins to believe that the community is its mission. The group becomes closed off and is satisfied to perform ministry to each other within the group with little regard for their real mission. Of course the mission for the disciple is to make disciples. Discipleship does not happen within the community that has lost its mission. True discipleship only occurs as one is on mission with their Master, Jesus, making disciples of others. In his book,The Forgotten Ways, Alan Hirsch, describes the difference between “mission” and “ministry.” He distinguishes mission as the church’s orientation toward “outsiders” and ministry as the church’s orientation toward “insiders.” He says, “Experience tells us that a church that aims at ministry seldom gets to mission even if it sincerely intends to do so. But the church that aims at mission will have to do ministry, because ministry is the means to do mission…By planting the flag outside the walls and boundaries of the church, so to speak, the church discovers itself by rallying to it–this is mission.”

So, how does a group or class move from ministry to insiders to mission to outsiders? It isn’t easy. In fact it may be close to impossible to move some long-standing existing groups to orient around mission. Those groups that choose to live in disobedience to the call of discipleship should be dissolved because they are leeching energy and resources from the body. However, groups should be challenged to orient themselves around mission. If you are a leader and you are convicted in your own heart that you need to lead your group, then think and pray through such a shift. You may be called, like my family was, to start from scratch with a whole new group of friends. But if you are sure you are where you are to lead change, the process to shift from ministry to mission should include:

1. Study the Gospels together and focus on the life of Christ. Observe where Jesus went, who He ate with, how He treated those far from the Father. Pray and process.

2. Read about missional communities in books by guys like Alan Hirsch and Neil Cole and at places like The Verge Network and the GCM Collective. Pray and process.

3. Spend plenty of time together loving the group where it is and challenging them to move to where they need to be. Be patient because it will take lots of time. You must shift values before you shift behaviors.

4. Share your life with your group and share your learnings with them at the same time. Pray for your group to see what God is helping you see.

5. Ask your group to define its mission/purpose for existence. Move to clarity that their mission/purpose should be making disciples who make disciples.

6. Ask your group to describe what behaviors of the community are contributing to accomplishing the purpose of making disciples who make disciples.

7. Ask your group to describe what behaviors of the community are keeping you from accomplishing the purpose of making disciples who make disciples.

8. Ask your group what changes the group would need to make to accomplish the purpose of making disciples who make disciples. Begin to reshape your group based upon the discussion.

9. Pray for those far from God around you by name.

10. Share your life with those around you who are not a part of your group. In other words start living on mission.

So, what is your small group/class like? Are you focused more on ministry or mission? What steps are you willing to make to change?

The First Question You Should Ask in Making Disciples

Since Jesus’ command to us is to make disciples, we probably ought to know what it is we are making. In other words, the first question we need to ask is, what is a disciple?

Without a clear picture of what a disciple is, your church strategy will be impotent. Your attendance may rise due to some attractive programs or events, but you will not be making disciples who make disciples. Certainly, God’s Spirit trumps man’s plans and wherever His church preaches the gospel some disciples will always be produced, but without a clear picture of what you are making, disciples will be made in spite of your programming, not because of it.

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In fact, I believe most, dare I say all, problems in the church boil down to a discipleship issue. If you have fights over worship, it is a discipleship issue. If people don’t share Christ, it’s a discipleship issue. If people aren’t generous, it’s a discipleship issue. [Read more…]