Since I was raised in a tradition that not only valued but almost idolized congregational autonomy, I hesitate to suggest that a church might need help from outside in dealing with any concern. I concur with Alan Roxburgh’s idea that the Spirit of God is at work among the people of God to provide both direction and means to accomplish the missio Dei (mission of God). There are times, however, when an outsider might best facilitate healthy dialogue and discernment. Often church leaders and members are too close to a problem to help the congregation address it.
Usually we assume that a congregation needs help when its numbers (nickels and noses) are declining or people are shouting at each other in the business meetings. Numbers and lack of civil discourse are only the tip of the iceberg, however. If you want to recognize when your church is really in trouble, listen for these statements.
“A new pastor will fix all our problems.” One could wish that it were that simple. Seldom are church issues tied to one person; most often they are systemic. When a friend once told me that every pastor at his church had left on good terms, I suggested that he take another look. Five pastors in twenty years is about average but it is does not reflect a healthy church unless it is within 50 miles of a seminary and always calls seminary students to serve as pastor. The problem was deeper, and he finally admitted it. They needed help.
“We need to go back to the good old days.” Short of someone inventing a time machine, don’t count on this happening. We all remember how things used to be but often we remember them in our own way and with a certain rosy glow. I liked “The Andy Griffith Show,” but I realize that it reflected an ideal rather than a reality. If we tried to do things the way we did thirty or even ten years ago, we would be thoroughly disappointed with the results. When we are looking back over our shoulders rather than looking ahead, we need help.
“They are keeping us from moving forward.” When a congregation comes to the point of a division between “us” and “them,” the church has become extremely unhealthy. Although God’s people don’t always agree, they are all still God’s people! As Jesus said, “a household divided against itself will not stand” (Matthew 12:25). Nothing good can come out of a division between those who are “in” and those that are “out.” This is a sure sign that help is needed.
“We need to get more tithers in the church so that we can meet the budget.” I can’t remember Jesus ever suggesting that balancing the budget was a worthy basis for evangelism. When outreach becomes more about survival than about mission, members are talking more like corporate board members than followers of Christ. They need help.
“We are at the mercy of (some outside force)” When a congregation feels that it is no longer operating under the Lordship of Christ but is beholden to some outside entity—the denomination, the culture, the economy—it has lost its will to function. There are indeed outside forces that impact a congregation, but the church is called upon to face and overcome those challenges because that is what churches do. Jesus said that “the gates of Hades” would not overcome his church (Matthew 16:18). When a congregation feels that it, or ultimately God, no longer controls its destiny, it needs help.
Where can the church find help to gain clarity and regain its momentum? In the old days, denominational judicatories provided this help and in some faith traditions, they still do. Today, the help often comes in the form of an intentional interim pastor, a congregational consultant, or a wise “friend” of the church. Whoever the church calls upon for help, the members must always remember that the final decision about what they do is between them and God. An outside friend can pray, ask questions, and help to bring clarity but after the process is completed, the congregations makes its choices and lives with them.