Tag: evangelism

The Promising Future of Small Churches Powerpoint

I have posted the PowerPoint presentation titled, “The Promising Future of Small Churches.” I gave this presentation at the BGAV’s most recent Small Church conference at Grace Hills Baptist Church in Appomattox, Virginia on August 25, 2018. I’ll be posting additional info on this in the future.

In addition, I have also created a new page on this blog titled, “Engaged Church Info.” I posted the slideshow on this page as well, and I’ll add other resources about churches engaging their communities in the future.

I really believe that the most promising future for small church vitality is community engagement. I’ll be describing, resourcing, and encouraging small churches to engage their communities in a variety of ways. A future conference on “engaged churches” is in the preliminary planning stages. I’ll keep you posted as that develops!

Interview: Russell Rathbun, author of ‘nuChristian’

Russell RathbunRussell Rathbun, pastor of House of Mercy, has authored a new book, nuChristian: Finding Faith in a New Generation.  Rathbun’s title riffs off Kinnaman and Lyons’ book, unChristian, both visually and topically.  Rathbun knows what he’s talking about because he is one of the founding pastors of House of Mercy in 1996.

Judson Press sent me a review copy, which I read with appreciation because Russell seemed to be writing to traditional churches, providing guidance on how to engage with young adults.  Rather than a book review, I asked Russell if he would respond to a few questions.  He graciously agreed, and here’s the interview:

Chuck Warnock: As I was reading the book, I could see our congregation, comprised primarily of older adults, really benefitting from your insights on how to connect with a new generation.  Who did you write the book for, and do you anticipate it being studied by established congregations?

Russell Rathbun: I wrote the book for churches, pastors and the folks in the pews who have  already begun to maybe have gotten a hint that there is something different going on that isn’t represented in their churches and are interested in exploring what ever that is (how is that for a nonspecific over qualified sentence?).  I really hope that it will be used as the beginning of a continuing discussion.

CW: I’m hearing  a lot about “authenticity” these days.  How does a church navigate between being authentic and making changes necessary to reach out to a new generation?

NuChristianRGBRR: That really is an important question.  And I think the answers are difficult.  I really would like to say that, if you are a church with no one under 50 years old, that the best thing you can do is figure out who you are, what you love, how God has called you to be the church in your context and do that—be who you are.  Don’t try to be something else, it won’t work and it won’t be true.  But, you know, by doing that, there is a good chance that you are not going to attract a lot of people under 50, which means the church wont be around in 25 years.  But on the other hand, what do I know?  I guess I do know that if we are honest, authentic, about what God has called us to do, beautiful things happen.  I hope people in churches like I’ve described really feel the gracious freedom to be who they are.

CW: Some of my members would have a problem with your statement, “Love people; don’t save them.”  In our church, most of our members “got saved” as the result of an evangelistic, revival-type meeting or message.  How would you help an established, traditional church that is accustomed to “crisis” conversions become open to a more gradual process of transformation?


RR: I don’t want to say that people have to change their understanding of the process of salvation (even though it might be different than mine),  maybe just refocus a little on some of the important ways that Jesus talks about making disciples and loving the neighbor, to maybe realize the Holy Spirit was able to speak to them in a way that compelled them to pursue Jesus and that the Holy Spirit is probably capable of speaking to others as well, so maybe we love and serve, and the Holy Spirit does the speaking.

CW: If your book was intended as a kind of answer to books like unChristian by Dave Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, what would you say are the key steps a congregation needs to take to connect with a new generation?  I realize you took a whole book to answer this question, but if you had to summarize in one or two statements, what are the core elements?


RR: Get know know them.  Ask questions you don’t already know the answers to.  Meet people you have never met before and enter into open relationship with them.

CW: You’re really doing this stuff you write about, and you use House of Mercy as examples of how you have reached a new generation.  What issues is House of Mercy facing now that present new challenges to you?


RR: We are facing the challenge of transitioning from a young, upstart community to being a church institution that has a youth group and volunteers to help with potlucks and all that stuff.  How do you become a church institution in a way that reflects who we are.

Thanks, Russell.  Check out reviews of nuChristian at the book’s website.

Churches adapt ancient models for the 21st century

For many of us who care about church, it is becoming increasingly apparent that church as we know it must change in order to maintain its mission in the 21st century.  This change will not be cosmetic.  This change will not be a debate about traditional worship versus contemporary worship, or small groups versus Sunday School.  The kind of change the church must adopt is transformational change — change that fundamentally reshapes how we think about church, and what church actually does.

Three ancient church models are gaining traction in the first decade of this new century:  the marketplace church, the monastic church, and the mission center church.  Each one of these church models existed in previous centuries, but now each has been reimagined for this new millennium.

The marketplace church. This is the church that is a coffee shop or an art gallery or a clothing consignment store during business hours, engaging its community through the medium of the marketplace.  A good example of this is Knox Life Church in Knoxville, Tennessee which operates Remedy Coffee, and then gathers for worship on the weekend. The old Celtic Christian abbeys maintained farms which engaged the local population, generated income for the abbey, and provided employment for their neighbors.

The monastic church. This is the church where community, a committed community, is the core value.  The monastic church might do good in their neighborhood, or they might share table fellowship with each other on a regular basis, or both.   Participants in the monastic church community do not necessarily live together, but they share a rule of life that mimics that of the ancient monastic orders.  Gordon Cosby’s Church of the Savior is probably the oldest and best-known example of this type, but Shane Claiborne’s group might be a more recent example.

The mission center church. The all-time winner of this category, and the sole occupant of this slot for decades, is the Salvation Army.  Their mission work overshadows the other things they do like worship.  A good example of a local church that is a mission center is Solid Rock United Methodist Church in Olivia, North Carolina.  Solid Rock UMC died as a struggling storefront church, and was reborn as a mission with a mission.  The Celtic abbeys also were mission centers in the midst of great need.  One abbey fed over 1,000 people a day.  Most abbeys gave refuge, cared for the sick, welcomed the stranger, and provided food, shelter and clothing to those who needed it.

These ancient models are with us again because all three — marketplace, monastic, and mission center — express the vision of their participants to be a new expression of church built on a specific approach to being the people of God.  Some churches combine all three, and more, of these models to become “the church as abbey” that I have written about previously.  I think this is the wave of the future for church, and that any or all of these expressions are legitimate and effective ways of engaging the world with the gospel.  Notice that none of these models emphasizes worship as the connection with the surrounding community.  More on that later.

A new commitment to the old story

photo5I led a couple of seminars at the Billy Graham School of Evangelism this week, but we’re the ones who received a blessing by being there.  Everything about the week was encouraging to the participants, including Debbie and me.

The School of Evangelism staff was wonderful.  This was Tom Bledsoe’s last SOE, and he’s been directing these schools for 39 years.  Tom’s gracious hospitality and gentle spirit set the tone for the staff team.  From the housekeepers to the restaurant hostesses to the program personalities, gracious hospitality was the hallmark of the event.

The Cove setting is magnificent — perched on the side of a mountain near Asheville, North Carolina — with postcard views of Blue Ridge Mountain vistas.  The design of each building blends appropriately into the natural scenery.  Wood, stone, glass, and ironwork give you the sense of rustic luxuriousness providing the perfect backdrop for relaxation and reflection.

The soaring chapel steeple punctures the blue Carolina sky, drawing your attention to the glory of God’s natural creation.  But under all this beauty, The Cove is equipped with the latest in video, audio, and internet technology which facilitates teaching and learning.

We learned that the SOE staff and other BGEA staff members pray for each presenter and each participant by name, before and during the School.  The setting, the surroundings, the facilities, and the staff all blend to produce a content-filled, encouraging and inspiring three days.

I was challenged again to give new energy to telling the Old Story.  Our church has done a good job of engaging with our community in several large projects.  But, we also need to bring alongside our social engagement, a renewed commitment to the good news that Jesus brings.  Heaven knows our community needs some good news, and we have it.  We just need to tell it in ways and on occasions so others can hear it and receive it well.  I’ll be sharing more about how we’ll go about that in the next several weeks.  Stay tuned.

This attitude toward small churches doesn’t help

I started to let this go. First, because you can’t comment on everything you read in blogs; and, secondly, I could not believe I was actually reading it.  But, I can’t let this go.  Here’s why:  Small churches deserve better than Bill Easum’s recent response to Tony Jones at Emergent Village.  

Easum critiques the emerging church community because most of its churches are small.  Tony Jones asks Easum to explain why he is critical of small churches, and here’s part of his response:

“You have to put this in the context of my experiences with small churches and my understanding of evangelism. Small churches are usually small because of their small, petty attitude. That attitude can be negative, it can be elitist, it can be mean-spirited, or it can be just plain content with the status quo. But I have never found a small church that has been small for many years to be a healthy environment.”

Ouch and wow!  Okay, I’ll try to keep this rational and courteous, but for the life of me I can’t imagine why anyone, much less a leading church consultant, would make that statement.  Almost 90% of the churches in America are small churches.  Are all those churches “negative….elitist….mean-spirited..content with the status quo”?  The answer clearly is a resounding No!  

But, Easum quotes scripture, or at least refers to it, to make his point…

“My experience has been if the church is faithful to the Gospel it grows—period. I could say the same thing about a house church or small group. I base this on the Book of Acts—it is about the growth of Christianity and suggests to me that God wants the church to grow and spread. Read the story—it goes progressively from addition, to multitudes, to myriads of growth.”

Of course, if Easum had read Rodney Starke’s book, Cities of God, he would know that Christianity actually grew at about 3.4% per year for the first 300 years.  So, Easum overstates the growth of Christianity, and fails to note that many of the gatherings of Christians in the book of Acts were small gatherings.  

But, more disturbing is Easum’s contention that there is something wrong with small churches by virtue of their smallness.  In The Way We Will Be, John Zogby, of the global polling firm Zogby International, writes…

“The church of the future will be a bungalow on Maple Street, not a megastructure in a sea of parking spaces.  It’s intimacy of experience people long for, not production values.” -p 215.

Small churches thrive with the attributes that many people seek — intimacy, hands-on ministry, an opportunity to participate, and the ability to know other members.  It is the kingdom of God whose growth we seek, and for God’s kingdom to grow each community of faith plays a different and vital role.  I’ve seen more church pathology in churches who value growth at any cost than I have in the small churches I’ve encountered.  

Easum owes small churches, small church pastors, and members of small churches an apology.  Or at least the opportunity to hear our stories, walk in our shoes, and witness first-hand the effectiveness of ministry in America’s small churches.  What do you think?  Am I wrong, or do you have a different perspective?

Changing the story

Seth Godin has an excellent post on marketing in a recession. His point is this:

“When times are good, buyingSeth Godin things is a sport. It’s a reward. The story we tell ourselves is that we deserve it, that we want it and why not?

When the mass psychology changes and times are seen as not so good, the story we tell ourselves changes as well. Now, we buy out of defense, to avoid trouble. Or we buy because something will never be as cheap again. Or we buy smaller items for the same sense of reward.

Of course, the two different extremes can lead you to buy the very same thing. It’s not the thing so much as it’s the story.” — Seth Godin

What does this have to do with church? We’re in the story business.   We need to tell the story of God so those who hear it change the story they tell themselves about God. Dan Kimball’s book, They Like Jesus But Not The Church, has some clues for us.  But here are some examples of how we can help others change the story they tell themselves:

  1. Their story: “The church doesn’t respect other points of view.” Change this story by actually getting to know some non-church people, not to get them to come to church, but just to be their friend. Listen to them, treat them with respect, back off on the hard-sell, and hear what they are saying. You don’t have to agree, but you do have to listen until you can understand their viewpoint.
  2. Their story: “The church is only interested in me for my money, time, etc.” We are guilty of this often. We see people as prospects, potential church members. What if we saw and related to them as people? Period. What if we served with no thought of anything that might benefit us or our ministry?
  3. Their story: “I don’t need God. I can handle life on my own.”  Here I would tell my story. I’m glad they can handle life, but I find God’s direction, guidance, and purpose to be essential to living my life. No argument, no debate — just two people telling their stories to each other.

The old approach to evangelism was a sales pitch — present the gospel, ask for a commitment, overcome objections, close the deal.   A better way is for the other person to change the story they tell themselves; then, they’re open to finding a new story. Maybe the one you’ve found. What do you think? Is this too indirect? Any experiences to share with helping people change the story they tell themselves?

3 Things Churches Must Do in 2008

Now that we’re 8 years into this millenium, here are the 3 things I think churches must do in this pluralistic, postmodern, post-christendom world —

  1. Tell the story.  Read both the Old and New Testaments and the constant practice that emerges is that God’s people tell God’s story.  The great story for Israel was the Exodus.  Still is.  The great story for the church sweeps from creation to recreation witnessed in the person of Jesus.  I am convinced that we need to tell the story of God over and over.  We need to tell it in our worship, our teaching, our daily living.  I’ll say more about this later this year, and I’ve created a new category, The Story, just for that purpose. 
  2. Invite others.  This is called evangelism, outreach, and witness.  But the kind of inviting I’m talking about is not invitation to join the church or get baptized or even make a decision for Christ.  It might include all those things, but has a unique perspective on the mission of God.  And, I’m convinced if we learn how to really tell the story, then inviting others will not be the struggle that evangelism, outreach, and witness are now.
  3. Bless the world.  God called Abraham and blessed him to be a blessing to all the nations.  Service to others, visiting the prisoners, healing the sick, doing justice for the poor, being peace to world in strife — these are ways of blessing the world. 

Simple, Biblical — tell the story, invite others, bless the world.  That’s what I’ll be doing in 2008.  That’s what I’m going to lead my church to do.  I’ll post our progress — successes, and failures — during this year.  For me, these are the basic practices any church should do.  What do you think?