By Peter Corney
In part one of these two articles I made the point that while we are in a difficult environment for growing Churches there are healthy growing congregations out there. It is only common sense that Christian leaders should be studying them to identify what makes them effective.
The following are the principles and practices adopted by healthy growing churches and their leaders. I have observed these across a range of denominations. This is not an exhaustive list and of course leadership, congregational health and growth are more complex than a list of principles and practices can fully explain. Nevertheless this is a very useful guide for action and reflection and for further research.
The leader is committed to the following fundamentals:
(a) A commitment to and a confidence in the Gospel; that if it is communicated truthfully, clearly and relevantly people will respond.
(b) A dependence on God expressed in prayer that under girds the work.
(c) A commitment to the authority of the Bible and teaching it in a relevant and applied way.
(d) A commitment to mission and outreach – evangelism and service.
(e) A commitment to the congregation by the leader that is expressed in a willingness to hang in for the long hall. Turning around congregations that have been in decline for some years is a long process, there is no quick fix.
(f) The leader is able to gather a core of voluntary leaders around them who are also committed to these fundamentals.
Leadership is required – the minister has to be a leader as well as a pastor and a preacher. The kind of leadership exercised must be “transformational leadership.”
Transformational leaders come in all sizes and shapes but they are all intentional and have a clearly worked out philosophy of ministry. They also possess or are prepared to acquire the following skills: how to cast a vision and inspire people and how to put legs on a vision by creating practical plans, achievable staged goals and the basic organizational structures to make it happen. They are able to empower and involve others through these means. Transformational leaders want to see people and organizations transformed. They have a strong desire to bring renewal and growth.
They understand the change process and know how to initiate change constructively. Putting legs on a vision inevitably means change. How much? How fast and in what areas first? These are critical questions. They know how to bring people with them, to consult and to involve others in negotiating the change rather than imposing it.
They know how to motivate, recruit and enthuse volunteers, how to involve others on committees and teams and projects, how to release their gifts and abilities. The local congregation is a voluntary organization, when it has been in decline and its resources of people and structures are depleted or have become irrelevant a key task is recruiting and envisioning a new generation of volunteers and leaders.
This is a people task and so people skills are paramount! Effective leaders have EQ or “emotional intelligence” as well as IQ. They know how their emotional responses to people affect their willingness to help, their involvement and their reaction to ideas and tasks. They have learnt how to positively manage their emotional responses to people and people’s responses to them. This is one of the keys to being able to form and lead teams effectively.
They have practical experience in starting new projects in a voluntary organization, creating committees or working groups and leading and chairing meetings towards effective decisions. These skills may have been learnt in previous voluntary work; youth or children’s ministry, in local community work or even in business. Such prior experience is invaluable but these skills can be learnt.
They have a good ability to communicate verbally.
The leader who is short on any of these skills needs to put themselves on a steep training and learning curve if they want to become a transformational leader.
The practices of healthy growing churches:
(a) They are committed to mission, outreach and evangelism. They have a holistic approach to mission. They contextualize their methods, which means they will vary from place to place, but all are outwardly focused. They develop groups and programs to interface with and serve their surrounding community. They have a commitment to mission beyond the parish and this is significantly reflected in their budget.
(b) They develop small groups and build community. They get smaller as they get bigger. In the early stages the minister may have to be the “group starter”. Using their skills and experience they begin a new group every six months and then as they are established move on and start another. Other forms of community building include parish camps or weekend residential conferences, family festivals, family working Bee’s, parish dinners, etc.
(c) They are intentional and plan well ahead for all activities.
(d) They have an “every member” approach to ministry and actively discover, encourage and release people’s gifts and abilities. They also regularly train and equip people through special courses and events. They actively develop new leaders. They have a “discipleship pathway” for new Christians and develop a strong view of membership.
(e) Their worship services are relevant and contextualized for the people they are trying to reach. They create regular special services that are aimed at and culturally accessible to their unchurched target group. (Where a group of existing members want to continue a traditional service without major change then provision can be made for that at another time. This avoids alienating people and the evidence indicates that adding services usually increases attendance.)
(f) Early additional staff appointments are usually made for potential growth areas, e.g.: Children’s or Youth ministry or an evangelist to run and follow up programs like Alpha.
(g) Their music is contemporary and the standard as high as possible, given the resources available, with the constant aim of developing the standard. Music is a key factor for contemporary people.
(h) The preaching is given a high priority, prepared well, is biblical and practically applied to every day life. The preaching program and teaching topics are planned at least six months ahead.
(i) There is a well developed and organized welcoming and incorporating system for newcomers and visitors. People are carefully followed up. Growth will not be sustained without this.
(j) There is effective children’s and youth ministry. If you want to attract young families you have to provide these. If there is no youth ministry then it is probably best to start at the junior high level first and establish a committed core group of young people before you tackle the harder senior high level.
(k) Pastoral care is organized using lay people in a pastoral care team. The leader meets weekly with the minister where contacts are allotted. This is for the basic care with the minister following up the more difficult or sensitive cases.
(l) An administration center is developed with basic office facilities, copiers, phones etc. A computer and data base with names and addresses needs to be developed early. Begin with volunteer staff at first then later part time people, gradually developing a more sophisticated operation as growth takes place.
(m) A team is developed to work with the minister. Initially this will be some key volunteers, e.g.: the leader of the pastoral care team, the volunteer office person, maybe a key lay leader who is a retired person, and later additional staff. This is a great support to the minister and sends a message to the congregation that ministry is a team thing.
(n) They constantly evaluate what they are doing to see if it continues to be relevant, is achieving their goals and that the standard of ministry and worship is rising.
(o) They regularly teach about the stewardship of time, abilities and money and have a variety of ways people can serve and a variety of giving mechanisms, e.g., Envelopes, cheques, cash, periodic payment, credit card.
(p) They ask the question: “Is there a new immigrant group in our area for whom we could start a new congregation?”
For growing congregations the mission is more primary than the denominational traditions and so they are willing to expand their thinking and push the boundaries of traditional denominational models and styles of church. This does not mean abandoning all denominational distinctives and traditions but it will mean adaptation and change and challenging traditions that are irrelevant, don’t work or are culturally inappropriate. Most people under 50 yrs today, and certainly all newcomers to church, are post denominational. The denominational tag is not the most important thing to them rather it is the quality, substance and relevance of the ministry.
These are the most common principles and practices of healthy growing Protestant churches in Australia today.