One of the most common complaints I run into from Adventists who want to see their local church do amazing things is this: "No one cares."
In other words, optimizing the local church is exhausting because they are the only ones who are pursuing this goal. Everyone else is content to just sit there and do nothing (best case scenario) or constantly get in the way of progress (worst case scenario). Over time, these passionate Adventists burn out and give up. It's just way too hard.
But allow me to give you a bit of perspective. Before I do I have a question. If you lived to be 80 years old, how many weeks of life do you think you have left? Think about it. Say the number out loud. Or write it down.
According to Facebook Analytics, the vast majority of Adventists engaging the conversation on church optimization are millennials. So lets go with someone 28 years old. If they lived to 80, that's another 52 years of life (even if they lived beyond 80, a persons influence usually starts to drop significantly by then). Now multiply those 52 years by 52 (the amount of weeks in a year) and you will arrive at 2,704.
In other words, if you are 28 years old today, you only have 2,704 weeks of life left. Half of it is spent sleeping.
Go back to your original answer. Was it anywhere near close? Maybe, maybe not. But here is the point. You don't have a lot of time. If you are older than 28, your have less weeks. And if you are younger, you don't have significantly more. In fact, a baby born today will only have about 4,000 weeks before they turn 80. Our life is, as the Bible says, "a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away" (James 4:14).
The question is, what will you do with that time? How will you invest your vapor of a life? Will you make a difference in God's kingdom? Or will you allow the negative attitudes of others to stop you from doing what you have been called to do?
I hope you choose the first option. However, here is where I need to introduce a challenge. When I joined the Army at 18 years of age, I quickly learned the following phrase: "Work smarter, not harder." Solomon the wise put it this way:
Sadly, many church members and leaders I know who want to optimize their churches do not know how to work smart. They have a passion to see God's church grow into a relevant and world-changing movement and they go in, full steam, only to be met by opposition. So they tackle and blitzkrieg their way through. Sometimes they succeed. Most of the time they fail. All of the time, they burn out.
As church optimizers we need to learn how to work smart, not hard. We have to sharpen our axes so that cutting the tree down requires less strength. Below are 12 tips I have picked up along the way that have enabled me to make a difference in the churches I serve without burning out.
1. Find the Pain-Point
Here's the thing. Everyone has a pain point. Its human psychology. All of us have one. And the number one way to find support in a local church is to find the pain point of that local church. What is it that hurts so bad they are willing to do anything to fix or prevent it? You can tell a church "change or your youth will leave!" or "change or the church will die!" and they wont even bat an eye. So you assume these people just don't care. Not necessarily true. The problem is that "youth leaving" and "church dying" are your pain-points not theirs. Those are the things that motivate you to act. But they don't motivate them. So if you want support, you have to start with their pain-point, not yours.
How do you do this? You have to sit down with people and ask them the right questions. Listen to their stories. Ask them how they became Christians. Ask them how God has led them. And ask them what they fear the most for our church. That final question will give you an insight into their pain point. Then, after you have heard a few stories, craft your invitation to church optimization as a solution to their fears and pain-points. Not yours.
2. Get an influencer on board
As you work to discover the pain-point in the church, identify who the main influencers are in that church as well. You don't need everyone on board. You just need the main influencers. If they buy into the church op. process, everyone else will follow. So make sure you get close to them and build strong relationships with them. Once they are on your side, the rest of the journey is super easy.
3. Become a sniper
Snipers are some of the deadliest and most feared combatants in the modern battlefield. They can take out an enemy a mile away without ever being spotted. The job of a sniper is simple, to take out one target at a time. They are never focused on more than one. They focus, shoot and then move on.
If you want to optimize your church you need to become as focused as a sniper. Dont try and do too many things at once. Develop a road map. Put your end-of-the-year goals down under December and then work your way backward. How will you achieve those goals? Every month of the year should have no more than 3 goals that will lead you toward your main goals at the end. Focus on those 3 goals month by month. Sort them out, and then move onto the next. Do not try and do too much at once. At times you will feel like progress is slow. But trust me, slow is good.
4. Ask them why
This one is easy. Try and have a conversation with everyone at your church. If it is a large church, aim for those most central to the movement of the church. If it is a small church, aim for everyone. Ask them this simple question, "Why does this church exist?" And write down their answers. Once you have visited everyone you will realize that 1) no one agrees on why, 2) if they do say the same answers they tend to be cliche and 3) most people will sit there for a while and think before answering which means they are basically making it up as they go. Make sure you record those answers.
Once you have all the answers, present them to the church or leadership team. Show them how no one knows why the church is there. Create charts from them if you like (10% say this, 20 % say that) and stress that if we don't know why we exist, there is no way the lost people around us will know either. This will motivate the church to develop a clear and simple mission focus they can all unite on.
5. Ask them to grade themselves
Present the following quote to your church:
Every Adventist loves this quote. Next, break the quote down into its verbs:
Reach (Evangelism) > Mingled (Fellowship) > Showed (Worship) > Ministered (Ministry) > Bade (Discipleship)
Ask the church to grade how they, as a local church, do in each of these areas using a scale of A to F. If they are honest you may end up with a pretty shocking grading scale. Ask them if this is OK. Once you are done, invite them to enter a season of prayer repenting before God for the way in which they have failed to fulfill his will for their church.
This step is not to be taken lightly and it is not to be treated as some gimmick. This is real, heart-wrenching stuff and only through the agency of the Holy Spirit can it be accomplished. So pray. A lot.
6. Get your ducks in a row
One of the worst things I have witnessed in church is when young people passionate about moving the church forward come up with an idea and present it to the board without having their ducks in a row. Church boards have a lot of stuff to handle, so if you are going to pitch an idea to them, it needs to be well thought through and ironed out.
Start by telling them how this idea will benefit God's kingdom. In other words, "What is in it for the Kingdom?" and make sure you get your main benefit across from the get go. Then, add a personal story that highlights why its important to you followed by a brief description of your project. The #1 thing you want to do when you describe your project is address their fears. For example, if your church is really scared of new trends that they fear will lead the youth astray, stress your commitment to the Bible and the values of your local church. Alleviate their fears and answer their questions before they ask. Finally, transition by addressing finances. How much will this cost? And how will the money be managed? This needs to be well thought through. End by confirming the value of your project and highlighting how it will positively benefit the local church.
Most board pitches I have seen start with a personal pain-point the board doesn't feel, and then proceeds to offer some solution that raises more questions than answers and ends by asking for money. This might work in some churches where the joy of seeing youth involved outweighs everything else, but it wont work in all of them. The sad part is people walk away feeling that the church doesn't support them, when in reality they simply made a proposal that caused more fear than hope. Whenever you pitch to the board, pitch hope.
7. Go with the flow
Remember that the SDA church has a structure for governance. The most powerful meeting at the church is the business meeting. So if you want to make a massive difference, make sure you have followed at least steps 1-5 above and then present your ideas at the business meeting. If you have gained the confidence of your church, you wont have any problems. Recall also that officers are elected via the selection committee which appoints the nominating committee which in turn nominates the new leaders. If you posture yourself as a leader, chances are you will be nominated for a leadership position. So go with the flow.
8. Light a fire
The best way to light a fire in a local church is to start a small group. Find those passionate about church op. and gather together. Start a Friday night program or mid-week meeting and use it as an opportunity to read through a book or do some training on how to revive your local church. Be careful not to allow a negative spirit to dominate the group. Some complaining may be healthy as people get their disappointments off their chest, but quickly turn to solutions and the hope that we have in Jesus.
As you do this, the members of the group will light up and the fire will spread.
9. Create Memories
The key to intimacy in a church is the same as everywhere else: memories. You have to create memories. That's how people grow close together. So organize events, camps, leadership retreats etc. Have birth day parties for your older members, baby showers for the new moms etc. Making memories is the key to crafting an intimate church family.
10. Preach deep
If you have the opportunity to preach, go deep. Seriously, Adventists are a people of the book. It is in our DNA. Our tribe will never be compatible with the "motivation speech" or "positive thinking" approach to preaching. That stuff can be in your sermons. But make sure they are not the center. Adventism is about pursuing God's heart. And if you go deep, people will respect you.
11. Add, don't subtract
Never see your work as subtracting from what previous generations have done. See it as adding to their legacy. They have gotten us this far and its time we built on their foundation. You are not there to subtract. You are there to add.
All of the above tips will only work in a church that is relatively healthy. They may be dead or dying, but the people are still courteous and reasonable. This stuff wont work in a church hijacked by fanatical leadership and ideologies. If that is your case, check out episode two of the podcast here for some tips. If that doesn't help, you may want to consider moving on. If you have gathered a support group then explore the possibility of planting another church.
Whatever you do, don't give up. You only have about 2,000 weeks to work with. Make them count.