Digging in the Dirt with Leaders & Churches

by Grady King –  

It’s my life to be helpful to leaders and churches. It’s both blessing and burden.  Prayerful, humble listening, observing, and analyzing goes with the territory. So does “speaking the truth in love” (Eph 4.15)—passage about relationships, character, maturity—of growing up in Christ. It’s not always comfortable and there is plenty of room for both hope and anxiety.  I believe in the power of the gospel; of a kingdom vision of “heaven on earth.” I do care about my tribe in Churches of Christ and am grateful for the godly people who have shaped my faith and given me the opportunity to learn, grow and minister. I am staying with my tribe in the spirit of restoration.

As a kid I loved digging in the dirt—the textures, the smells and life giving possibilities. In 2017, I have walked along and dug around in the soil of thirty-three churches and nearly two-hundred leaders. Sometimes it’s been hard soil and other times, good, rich, fertile soil.  Jesus, of course, was right about soils, sowing seed and the nature of the kingdom.

Here are a few of my observations from digging in the dirt with leaders and congregations this year.

Living by the numbers as a primary indicator of a healthy or mature church is problematic. It  falls along a continuum between shallow contentment and serious denial.
  1. Leaders are scrambling for answers, mainly, quick fixes to long term problems. Leaders watch, interpret, discuss and make decisions by numbers. It is, more times than not a source of anxiety. The perennial measurement of a church too often boils down to “nickels and noses”—giving and attendance. It seems that as long as giving and attendance is good, then, church is doing well. Living by the numbers as a primary indicator of a healthy or mature church is problematic. It  falls along a continuum between shallow contentment and serious denial.
  2. In declining churches, leaders often wait too long to reach out. For some, it is magical thinking that things will change if we simply work harder, find the right preacher or program. For others, pride and a refusal to take a hard look and count the cost is avoided. The steady decline over years takes a toll on energy, willingness to serve and in many cases, tired leaders who simply want a quick fix to a long term decline, or worse, just want out of leading.
  3. Church hopping calls into question what it means to be a community of faith—a church belonging to Jesus Christ. Congregational commitment, life and participation according to worship style, preferences, and/or traditions become normative and formulaic. It is only a matter of time before such conditioning runs counter to someones idea of the “perfect” formula for being church. Increased numbers from another church brings untold challenges. It is certainly not growth in the spirit of sharing the gospel.
    We cannot expect to work through any conflict if we have not taught, modeled and expected what it healthy and mature.
  4. Many churches and leaders lack the skills to engage in difficult conversations in rational, respectful and God-honoring ways with those who hold differing positions. Hard conversations about doctrine, ethics, and immature behavior are improbable with people who have been conditioned by personal comfort and preference.  Rationality fades as emotional reactivity rooted in fear, loss of identity and/or tradition is threatened.
  5. The need to define what is healthy and mature for leaders and churches. We cannot expect to work through any conflict if we have not taught, modeled and expected what it healthy and mature. The consistent message of the New Testament is the person and character of Christ defining community and maturity. There are times when those who cultivate fear, gossip and reactivity simply need to be told, “Stop it. This behavior is unacceptable and not how we act around here.” Hard? Yes. Necessary boundary? Absolutely.

Part 2: What Do Healthy, Mature Churches Look Like?

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