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Imagine a long line of church attendees outside your office. You invite them in, one by one, to sit down in front of a soul x-ray. The special gadget has the extraordinary ability to reveal the main reason each person calls your church “home.” For the first time, you see with crystal clarity what really nourishes and sustains their deepest connection to your church.

What would you discover?

Maybe the better question is, “What would you hope to discover?”

After a decade of coaching church leaders, I propose the best answer is “vision.”

Think of your church’s vision as its identity-based trajectory. Your church has a unique DNA and culture. And as a result of this culture, you are going somewhere for God, taking new ground as you engage the mission of Jesus in the world.

The vision God has given to your and your church is the indispensable element for connection, retention and engagement.

When talking about connection and retention, too many times the question is “How do we assimilate people into the life of our church?.” That question keeps us focused on the myriads of best practices and tactics. The deeper question-- “How do we assimilate a God-given vision into the lives of our people?”--creates a new conversation.

To guide some thoughts on how vision can inspire connection and spur engagement, think about the metaphor of nourishment, with a God-given vision being healthy food. The leader’s role then is to ensure proper nourishment for the church body. Two practices become essential:

  • First, you must identify and call out the unhealthy, fast food vision substitutes that serve as a default diet for your people.
  • Second, to move from fast food to a healthy diet that nourishes people, you must invite them to taste and see the God-given vision for their church.

 The Two Places That Nourish Identity

To expand the metaphor, imagine two rooms in your church: a lower room where people come and go all the time; and an upper room with less traffic. The lower room is where people encounter all the “stuff” of church life. It’s filled with the provisions of God. Things like:

  • Place: the church facility
  • Personality: pastors and staff
  • Programs: events, services, groups and classes
  • People: relationships of familiarity and comfort

The provisions are obviously good things that God gives to fulfill the church’s mission. But they are not a church’s true essence. In fact, they are things that must change over time for the church to have an enduring legacy.

Conversely, the upper room is about vision, not provision. It’s about the timeless identity and direction of the church; it’s about God’s preferred future and the strategies that guide the way.

Where are people getting nourished in your church today? 

Here’s a hint. You automatically have a lower room. By default, it’s where people get their nourishment. Most of your people live in the lower room where it’s all about provisions--what they get--and not about the vision--what they get to do. Consider Jesus’ ministry. Thousands of people walked into His lower room. Thousands heard Him preach. Thousands filled their bellies with His miracle bread. But only 120 waited in the upper room of Acts chapter one. Thousands of people consumed Jesus’ provision, but only 120 assimilated His vision.

So if most people nourish their church identity in the lower room, how do we help them? The first step is identifying the problems of the unhealthy diet.

 The Lower Room Eatery

 The fast food favorites of the lower room are place, personality, programs and people:

 French Fried “Places” The places of our “God-moments” matter. But space itself has addictive features, just like your favorite fries. These are spots where we encounter God, whether it’s the carpeted stairs at the altar, the hip café where we get fed via live feed, or the intricately beautiful stained glass. Again, these places are important but in the absence of a vision, the space itself becomes the vision supplement. The primary use of the term “church” to connote place compounds the issue. Don’t believe me? Just throw the word “relocation” into the next church business meeting.

Big Mac “Personalities” Spiritual leaders matter to our people. I hope you have hundreds of people who think you hung the moon because of your walk with Jesus. But 90 percent of pastors I meet would never want their personality to be the primary connecting point to the church. Charisma is not vision.

Yet, year after year, pastoral transition results in attendance attrition. Numbers yo-yo around pulpit presence. For many churchgoers, their connection to their church is their connection to the pastor. Our survey work at Auxano reveals that 15-35 percent of people in any church feel most connected to the paid staff.

 Super-sized  “Programs” Programs are important. And methodologies for ministry should come and go. But most of them come and stay, and like sour milk they stay way past their expiration date. Why? When the program exists in a vision vacuum, the program defines the program leader’s identity.

Today, most pastors can identify a program or ministry that needs to be cut, but are unwilling to have the conversation. Take your pick from A to Z--from Adopt-a-Pet outreach to the Zebra-Spotting small group. (Give me a break, I wouldn’t want to mention a program we would never cut like Awana, BSF, Beth Moore Bible Study, Adult Handbells, Financial Peace University, Monday Night Visitation, Men’s Fraternity, Stephen’s Ministry, Griefshare, FAITH, Class 401, MOPS, EE or Mr. Smith’s Sunday school lecture!)

 Apple Pie “People” Of course the church is about people. So why would I connect “people” to the poor nourishment of the lower room eatery? Perhaps the greatest substitute for healthy church identity is the group of people at church who “know my name.” I am not slamming “community” itself.  I am identifying “community without a cause” as an unbiblical yet common source of identity for the churchgoer. This reality is easily tested in two scenarios. Just mention changing service times, and people protest because you’re essentially reshuffling the cards in the relational deck. Or just ask an Adult Bible Fellowship or a small group to multiply. People don’t want you messing with their relationships. 

In the end you can’t sustain a vital connection to people based on a “lower room diet.” The lower room keeps people trapped with a consumer mindset. As soon as the church down the street builds a better building or finds a gifted preacher, folks jump ship.

The Upper Room Eatery

 The solution to the lower room diet involves setting a new table and inviting people to a different place to eat--what I call “the upper room.” In the upper room, leaders serve people a healthy diet of vision that builds a deeper connection and sense of identity with the church.

The primary work of nourishing people with vision is discovering and communicating that unique identity as a church. Many leaders photocopy a vision from a conference or book and then wonder why more people don’t flock to the upper room. Do your people really want a “brown and serve” vision based on another church’s values? Never forget that God is always doing something cosmically significant and locally specific in your church.

A nourishing vision requires five courses. As you deliver the five-part meal, you’re really addressing the irreducible question of clarity people need.  If you have not thought through all five aspects of your church’s vision, people won’t be able to really access it.

The five questions play out as follows: At our church…

  • What are we ultimately supposed to be doing?
  • Why do we do it?
  • How do we do it?
  • When are we successful?
  • Where is God taking us?

If you asked these clarity questions to the top 40 leaders in your church, what would they say? If they don’t have a clear, concise and compelling answer that’s the same answer, its time to go to work.

 The Upper Room in Action

Three Methodist churches in the Houston area where I live have grasped this upper room mentality. Each church opens the upper room by seriously engaging the first question: “What are we ultimately supposed to be doing?” Rather than regurgitating a generic, useless statement, they help people capture their unique culture and corporate strength as a church.

  • Faithbridge United Methodist Church is about growing more and stronger disciples of Christ by being a bridge of faith to people every day. This fast-growing suburban plant emphasizes an external focus and vibrant personal evangelism.
  • Chapelwood UMC’s mission is to embody God’s grace as we receive it, to those who need it. This older suburban church has a distinct strength of recovery ministry.
  • St. Luke’s UMC passionately believes, We are gathered by Jesus to enact faith in love. This red-brick, white-column church is the oldest of the three yet combines a traditional and progressive flare, to impact the city community from its trans-urban location.

Richard Kannwischer, senior pastor of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian in Newport Beach, Calif., is another leader who takes people to the upper room. In the church’s membership process, he used to ask the question “What do you like best about the church?” As potential new members responded, it reinforced a lower room connection with people emphasizing the preaching and programs. Now Kannwischer shares his church’s values first-- the “Why we do what we do.” Afterwards he invites potential members to share which core value excites them most. The simple, game-changing question begins to connect people on deeper level.

A final illustration of the upper room in action is a large church spearheading the concept of missional communities in Austin, Texas. Austin Stone recently opened a unique facility designed first as a city reaching tool and then as a church gathering spot. At a time when most churches’ members would leverage a new facility to reinforce their lower room identity, the church keeps people in the upper room with a compelling vision. In answering the question “Where is God taking us?” Austin Stone has developed the “100 People” initiative—to send 100 people from their congregation to an unreached people group for two years.

Are you inviting people to the table in your upper room? Take time with your team to answer the five irreducible questions of leadership I referenced above. Then throw open the doors to your upper room and nourish people with a God-given vision. It is the indispensable element for connection and retention.