I want to offer 5 ways for you to experience replenishment in the next 30 days. If I could, I would give each one of you a miraculous, instantaneous, supernatural injection of energy. Since I can’t do[...]
I still remember the first train set I had as a kid. It was a simple oval. For a while, I absolutely loved it and would play with it for hours, watching the train go round and round. But over time, I learned that trains were actually capable of—and built for!—a lot more than going in an oval. That was when I started adding switches.
When you add switches to a simple oval track, it’s like a new world opens up. You can build new shapes, discover new patterns, and take the train to places it never could have gone before.
The same thing happens when a paradigm-shifting idea finds a place in our view of the world. We realize that, although it was nice for a time, we’ve only been going in an oval, oblivious to the potential we’ve been missing out on. I love it when pastors and church leaders experience the breakthrough of a paradigm-shifting idea. It’s one of the reasons I do what I do!
My latest book, Future Church, begins shipping on December 1. As you can imagine, I’ve been talking about the book and the concepts in the book a lot lately. I’ve spoken with local church pastors, denominational and network leaders, podcasters, church thought leaders, and representatives of different media outlets. Through that process, similar themes have consistently come to the forefront, especially considering the disruption local churches have faced in 2020 and will continue to face into 2021.
In taking some time to process these consistent themes that connect the concepts of the Future Church book to the specific and significant challenges pastors are facing head-on right now, I want to share what I’ve come to see as the 5 Ways for Pastors to Win the Cultural Moment in 2021. These are essentially switches that need to be added to our church leadership tracks—and when we flip these switches, we’ll realize there are new ways to make disciples, new ways to be the church in 2021 and beyond, new ways to make a difference in the world for the cause of Jesus, new ways that will take us places we never knew we could go.
Some pastors have already flipped some of these switches. My prayer is that we’ll all jump on board and increase the momentum of the movement Jesus founded. Are you ready to flip the switch?
When we flip these switches, we’ll realize there are new ways to make disciples, new ways to be the church in 2021 and beyond, new ways to make a difference in the world for the cause of Jesus, new ways that will take us places we never knew we could go.
#1 - Flip the switch from remaining defensive to harnessing discontent.
I know many pastors have already made this switch and had actually made it before COVID-19 arrived in early 2020. One of the key ideas from Future Church that consistently connects with pastors and local church leaders is an articulation of the core problem we face in the church in North America. It’s this:
The functional Great Commission of most churches in North America has become, "Go into all the world and make more worship attenders, baptizing them in the name of small groups, and teaching them to volunteer a few hours a month." But that's not the mission Jesus gave His life for.
Some pastors become slightly (or greatly!) defensive when challenged with this idea. They say things like, “Lots of people love our small groups and have grown a lot.” Or, “Are you saying that you don’t think worship attendance is important?”
But the majority of the pastors I’ve shared this idea with don’t get defensive … because they know it’s true. They may not have been able to put those exact words to it, but they feel it every day. The paradigm for church we’ve embraced—that has arisen as a result of the last 40 years of church history in North America—is perfectly designed to produce the limited results we’re getting.
The paradigm for church we’ve embraced—that has arisen as a result of the last 40 years of church history in North America—is perfectly designed to produce the limited results we’re getting.
Our churches primarily produce worship attenders who attend a small group Bible study (well, maybe 50% of our worship attenders attend a small group) and who serve in one of the ministries of the church (and most of the serving opportunities focus on making the worship experience happen—worship, tech, greeters, ushers, preschool, kids, students).
I’m not saying that worship services or small groups or serving in the ministries of the church are bad things. I’m saying that unfortunately, the regularly scheduled programming in most churches does not automatically or consistently produce a growing number of whole-life-transformed, living-on-mission kinds of Jesus disciples. We don’t produce disciples primarily. We produce attenders.
I don’t know of any pastor who originally felt called by God to just make worship attenders.
As I mentioned above, most of the pastors I talk to about this don’t get defensive—they have made the switch from defensive to discontented. I don’t know of any pastor who originally felt called by God to just make worship attenders. Every single pastor feels called to make disciples of Jesus—to guide people to an ever-deepening experience of new life in Jesus that cannot be contained, that spreads to every corner of their lives, impacting everything they do.
Many pastors aren’t defensive anymore about a system and a paradigm that doesn’t consistently produce the results they were called into ministry to pursue. Instead, they are—some for the first time—openly expressing a discontent in the status quo and asking, “So what should we do?” That’s the essence of this first switch—and the essence of Future Church.
#2 - Flip the switch from recapturing the past to redesigning the future.
This switch is a natural outgrowth of the first switch, but, in many ways, has a stronger magnetic field that needs to be overcome. In general, recapturing the past has a much stronger pull for two main reasons—it seems easier and it’s what vocal members of your church are asking for.
Recapturing the past seems easier because you’ve done it before. You have systems in place for the processes of the past. People on your team know what they’re supposed to do and the people in your church know what to expect. All of those things make recapturing the past pretty attractive.
In order for you to truly recapture the past, all of the disruptions in culture would have to return to their former state as well—and that’s just not going to happen.
There’s a big problem with it, though. You’re not going to be able to recapture the past. We’re not going back. In order for you to truly recapture the past, all of the disruptions in culture would have to return to their former state as well—and that’s just not going to happen.
That’s why I’ve said that recapturing the past seems easier. But it actually won’t be easier, because you and your team will end up straining against a ridiculously strong prevailing wind. It will be like doing ministry for a culture that no longer exists. So you and your team (including your volunteers!) will expend a lot of time and energy on tactics that are no longer as effective as they used to be, which will lead to burnout and low morale.
For most of the pastors I talk with, recapturing the past is attractive because it’s what vocal members of their churches want. They want things to “go back to the way they were.” And, the truth is, some of these vocal members may be some of your strongest financial supporters, too, which can add weight to their opinions.
I’ve been urging pastors not to listen to the cries to “get back to normal.” This is an opportunity for you as a church leader to embrace the disruption. Don’t waste this pandemic! You have more permission to dream and redesign than you have ever had. Don’t try to go back to what you had before. Instead, invest time, effort, and energy into redesigning what your future can look like.
What should the future look like? Where do you start in designing ministry for this new reality? That’s exactly what Future Church is about. Obviously, when I had the initial idea for Future Church back in 2016 and when Cory Hartman and I started writing it together in 2018, I had no clue that a global pandemic would sweep through the world in 2020. Here’s the crazy truth. If I would have known … I would have written the exact same book.
The principles and approach I recommend in Future Church are precisely the same long-term recommendations whether it’s pre- or post-COVID. Gladly, even though I didn’t know … God knew. And my prayer is that Future Church will equip you with the tools you need to forge a better future for your church rather than simply trying to recapture the past.
What you can build in the near future, even though it may start with fewer people, will actually be better than what you had.
What you can build in the near future, even though it may start with fewer people, will actually be better than what you had. Don’t invest a ton of the time, effort, and energy of your team into trying to recapture the past. (From what I’ve seen many churches doing, you’ll end up recreating a version of the past that isn’t as appealing—a smaller number of people in a large room, less capacity in the kids ministry, a mediocre online experience because it was really designed as an in-person event that’s simply being captured on video.)
Instead, invest that same time, effort, and energy into developing and casting the vision for a better future to your key leaders (including the vocal proponents for returning to the past).
#3 - Flip the switch from glorifying busyness to prioritizing rhythms.
Soul care has never been more important for a local church pastor … and it’s always been important. The disruption of COVID, the racial issues in our country and in our churches, the political division in our country and in our churches, the financial strain—both individually and in our churches—and the increased pressure on every decision that needs to be made have left most pastors simply exhausted.
I wrote a blog post a couple of months ago called 5 Ways for Pastors to Experience Replenishment because I was watching as pastors around the country were struggling to keep up.
And, let’s be honest, pastors are not known for being good at this. Many of us don’t have healthy rhythms for personal replenishment, and we’ve learned to live that way. And some of us have even worn our overwork and busyness like a badge of honor. Maybe you could live that way before and get by, but you can’t anymore. Just because no one taught you how to do this or modeled it for you isn’t a good enough excuse to continue in unhealthy patterns.
One of the Laws of Real Church Growth in Future Church is The Law of Leadership: Real Church Growth Is Led by Calling, Not Celebrity. You probably don’t think of yourself as a celebrity—most pastors don’t. But if the most important thing you do each week is standing up in front of a crowd and speaking for 35-40 minutes, then you’re leading based on celebrity.
If you want to lead based on your calling, you have to do the difficult work of really understanding your calling … and where your capacity to lead actually comes from.
If you want to lead based on your calling, you have to do the difficult work of really understanding your calling … and where your capacity to lead actually comes from. Your capacity to lead comes from God—not from your ability to communicate with charisma and passion, not from your ability to exegete a passage with insight and deliver an alliterated outline. Your capacity to lead comes from God—from His calling of you and His Spirit living in you.
This understanding forms the foundation on which a priority for soul care is built. If you are relying on your ability to communicate and inspire people or your ability to lead and organize rather than drawing your ultimate strength from God’s Spirit living and working inside of you, you will flame out. This has always been true (and we’ve all seen it way too many times either in our lives or in the lives of others), but the disruption and strain of 2020 has cranked up the volume on this issue.
What are the rhythms that replenish your soul? On one level, these are slightly different for everyone. On another level, there are things that apply to all of us—a daily rhythm of time alone with God, a weekly rhythm of taking a break from work, consistent habits that promote physical, emotional, relational health, and consistent rhythms of extended time away from work. Don’t miss all of those activities that may not seem that spiritual but are dynamically a part of refueling you as a whole person. For example, a mountain ride or a half day of fishing can do wonders for my spirit!
Every pastor needs to make this switch to prioritizing soul care in order to be healthy and effective in 2021 and beyond.
#4 - Flip the switch from teaching the crowd to training the few.
Am I saying you should never preach? Of course not. I’m talking about where you invest your time, energy, and passion. And I’m talking about from where you derive your identity.
Most pastors, based on the paradigm for church we’ve inherited or implemented, spend a significant chunk of time every week on the weekend message. They block off time for it. The team knows they are unavailable during those times. Nothing is allowed to encroach on sermon prep time.
Not only that, but staff teams and volunteer teams invest hours every week in planning for and developing the weekend experiences for all ages. Have you ever added up all the time you’re investing into your weekend programs? I’m talking about sermon series brainstorming, graphic design for sermon series, worship planning and rehearsals, technical and production teams, kids production, worship, and teaching teams, students production, worship, and teaching teams, greeters, hospitality, parking crew, etc.
Unfortunately, our paradigm for doing church can look more like a production company than anything else.
Unfortunately, our paradigm for doing church can look more like a production company than anything else. If any training is happening in all of that activity, it’s training toward the skills needed to make the programs happen … not the skills needed to be more like Jesus outside the walls and ministries of the church.
In Future Church, Cory and I examine how Jesus created experiences for the crowd while simultaneously creating the opportunity for a transformative switch in the lives and minds of the twelve disciples. The perfect example is the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus fed the bellies of the crowd while simultaneously feeding the minds of the disciples. Jesus included the twelve at every step in the process. If Jesus’ goal was simply to provide food for the crowd, he could have done that without any help or input from the disciples.
Instead, Jesus involved them. He asked them questions. He gave them tasks to do. In some ways, the account of the entire experience in John 6 focuses on the experience of the disciples more than the experience of the crowd … almost as if the real focus of the entire miracle was the switch in the minds of the twelve.
Many pastors struggled at the beginning of the COVID disruption (or are still struggling today!) because they derive their identity from standing on a stage, communicating a message, and interacting with the “crowd” on the weekend.
Many pastors struggled at the beginning of the COVID disruption (or are still struggling today!) because they derive their identity from standing on a stage, communicating a message, and interacting with the “crowd” on the weekend. Delivering a message to a video camera drove pastors crazy—they weren’t getting the immediate feedback or energy from the congregation.
Instead of ONLY trying to figure out new and better ways to get your sermons to the largest number of people, make the switch to training the few. Who are the people you are intentionally training in what it means to follow Jesus? I’m not just talking about the teaching team who you are training to deliver a sermon. I’m talking about those few members of your staff and/or key lay leaders who you are consistently investing in—guiding them to discover their unique calling and purpose, challenging them to think and act in ways that reflect the new life they have in Jesus, and celebrating with them when they see God’s Spirit work in their lives.
If you don’t immediately have a list of at least 5 specific people, let me challenge you to make this switch. If you truly want to multiply disciples of Jesus rather than being content with adding more attenders, this switch must hit your calendar. Who is God calling you to invest in today? Keep in mind that you probably have a position of influence where these 5 people will easily and quickly say, "Yes!" when you ask.
#5 - Flip the switch from what’s been lost to what’s most important.
The biggest challenge for pastors right now is the amount and scope of loss that people are feeling. People in your church are feeling the loss of a paradigm of church that they were used to and that they liked (for the most part). Other people in your church are feeling the loss of security at work or in their finances. Everyone is feeling the loss of our normal pre-COVID patterns of shopping, eating out, and hanging out with friends.
People have lost more of what they consider “normal” than at any other time in their lives.
People have lost more of what they consider “normal” than at any other time in their lives. That sense of loss produces grief, anger, and the desire or need to blame something (or someone) for the loss they feel. Misunderstood loss is what drives the spread of online conspiracy theories. Misunderstood loss is what drives people to rail against government control and claim religious persecution. All of these are direct manifestations of the amount and scope of loss that pervades our society and our churches.
As a pastor, it will be your job in the months ahead to redirect the attention of your team, your leaders, and your entire church away from what they’ve lost and to refocus on what’s most important.
As a church, you still have what matters most. You have everything you need for life and godliness. You have the presence and authority and mission of Jesus. You have the power of the gospel. COVID-19 didn’t take any of this away.
At the beginning of Future Church, I share an image of the Lower Room and Upper Room that exist in every church. The Lower Room consists of four elements—place, personality, programs, and people. These are the things that initially attract anyone to your church. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with these things. But they become destructive when they become the emotional center of your church.
The Upper Room is about your purpose as a church—why you exist at this specific time in this specific place with these specific people. It’s what I’ve talked about and written about for 20 years—the unique expression of your church's DNA captured primarily in your mission, values, strategy, measures, and vision proper. While everyone in your church is initially attracted to the Lower Room elements, over time, they should become more emotionally connected to the Upper Room identity.
This is why the loss of the Lower Room elements due to COVID has caused such a disruption for so many churches. It revealed what has been true all along—most of the people who call your church “home” are emotionally connected to the Lower Room of place, personality, programs, and people, not the Upper Room of purpose.
The challenge—and opportunity!—you currently have as a pastor is to lovingly, intentionally, and consistently build a staircase that connects the Lower Room to the Upper Room. You need to create pathways that invite, encourage, and motivate people to become emotionally connected to the core purpose and mission of the church … which really has little to do with in-person attendance at a large group gathering every weekend.
People don’t resist change; they resist loss.
People don’t resist change; they resist loss. In order to move people to the Upper Room, you need to paint a picture for people of how life in the Upper Room is better than life in the Lower Room. You will need to demonstrate through stories and experiences that no matter what Lower Room elements have been lost, what is most important about the church is alive and well and a reimagined future that’s centered on a shared Upper Room purpose will ultimately be BETTER than what they had before.
I know this year has been foundation-shaking for many pastors. My encouragement to you is this: maybe we needed to experience that shaking to drive us to leave where we’ve been for a future that’s better. As painful as the process has been, let’s not waste it! Let’s embrace this time of disruption as a gift from God—an opportunity to forge a better future than the one we were headed to before.