If Your Church is Honestly Mediocre offering sharper ecclesial infotainment won’t turn it around

Are your singers regularly off-key or flat? Do you have musicians who struggle to keep up with chord changes?

What about poor sound, poor lighting and a mediocre team running it all?

A lame website? A church sign that’s advertizing out of date events?

Yep, you got it… YOUR CHURCH SUCKS!!!!

Well, at least that’s according to an increasingly infamous blog post doing the rounds at the moment. In his article, 7 Signs Your Church Is Honestly…Mediocre, Canadian pastor Carey Nieuwhof identified a series of key indicators of church averageness. It’s not quite 50 shades of grey. More like seven shades of suckiness.

According to Niewhof, some of the fault for a church’s mediocrity is down to sloppy admin and IT and a talentless worship team, but most of it is down to your mediocre pastor. He/she is responsible for two of the seven reasons. Niewhof says that in mediocre churches the pastors are (a) resigned to mediocrity and (b) too afraid to change. (I know they sound like the same thing, but, hey, these listicles have to have seven points so we might as well give pastors a double serving of shame).

And to think people regularly accuse missional thinkers like me of being too critical of the church!!

In fact, central to the missional vision is a belief that every church has within them all the resources they need to become all that God wants them to be. Far from shaming churches about their mediocrity, we are regularly affirming their God-given potential.

My friend Alan Hirsch says that within every spirit-filled believer there resides the potential for a church planting movement:

“I believe that every believer has the potential for world transformation in them. If you think that is such an overstatement then think of this: every seed is a potential tree and every tree is a potential forest. All the potential of a forest is contained in that one seed. In the same way, every believer has the potential for world transformation. There is an ‘ecclesia’ in every one of us and in every ‘ecclesia’ there is a potential for a movement. When we begin to see the church this way, everything changes. It is a massive shift in the way we see ourselves as God’s people.”

That’s pretty empowering, isn’t it?

What, I hear you ask, with no musicians? No website? No excellence in production values?? How could that be possible??

Missional thinkers and practitioners like Alan Hirsch are completely committed to helping congregations recognize that all the potentials of movement are actually latent within them. In other words, the seeds of our future are already contained in the womb of the present.

Unlocking that potential won’t involve distinction in platform ministry.

Let’s face it. You can hire musicians and web designers and sound and lighting crews. But mobilizing a missional movement will involve unlocking the missional imagination latent in every single believer.

Sadly, those still committed to the attractional church growth model are putting all their eggs in the church marketing basket, as though you could entertain people into mission. It feels like the biggest challenge for these pastors is to address congregational boredom. And so much of it seems to be driven by an anxiety that Christians will up and leave for somewhere better.

Christians have been fed a diet of infotainment wrapped up in ecclesial event management. No wonder we’re passive consumers.  Breaking that spell won’t be easy. But you’ll never unleash the missional imagination latent in every church unless you do.

Here’s a few suggestions for how to do it.

Awaken people to the mission of God:

Don’t hire staff to lead the mission. And don’t make the mission all about the church. It’s about the glory of God. As David Bosch once wrote, “At its heart, the gospel is news about God’s action and his reign, not his institution”. I believe all Christians share a desire to serve God, use their gifts, and make a difference in the lives of others. Awakening them to this need, by reminding them that mission is about alerting others to the reign of King Jesus, and by stimulating a personal search for their own calling to that mission, affords them dignity and respect through giving them responsibility for their faith. No amount of production values can compensate for a congregation of passive attenders.

Don’t build an audience, foster a missional community:

We have a responsibility to ensure that people are not isolated but have the opportunity to explore their search for their missional vocation with caring, supportive sisters and brothers within their community. We only discover our gifts and callings in relation to others, never alone, and never just in an online survey.

Use an action-reflection model of learning:

Don’t put all your hopes in the sermon. The most effective contact with others will include learning through doing. Indeed, experiential learning is the most effective kind. People will believe more in knowledge they have discovered themselves than in knowledge presented to them by others.

Appreciate the whole person:

People are responsible when given responsibility, dignified when given dignity and respectful when respected. As pastors come to understand their congregation’s life situation and respond from an awareness of their physical, emotional, mental and spiritual capabilities plus the constraints of their social environment, it will give them a greater sensitivity and appreciation of their readiness to pursue the mission of God. It will also allow bespoke structures to emerge that are suited to your specific community.

Challenge people to think:

As an educator I’m convinced that it is more desirable to have people confused and working toward understanding than for them to think they know it all. People who think they know it all are the most fixed people I’ve met. Learning about life and mission is more effective when it is an active rather than a passive process. People can be trusted to think for themselves and the Spirit can be trusted with their growth as missional disciples. You don’t have to spoonfeed them simplistic bullet points. You have to stimulate them to grow and encourage them to put themselves in challenging situations. Good leaders enable new futures to emerge by disrupting patterns through the appropriate use of conflict and uncertainty; whereas traditional leaders create knowable futures by minimizing conflict and eliminating uncertainty.

Your church band might be pretty average. The website might look tired. The sound and lighting crew might not know what they’re doing. But you can fix all these things and still have a congregation of passive, un-missional people.

As Alan Roxburgh and Scott Boren write,

A missional imagination is not about the church; it’s not about how to make the church better, how to get more people to come to church, or how to turn a dying church around. It’s not about getting the church back to cultural respectability in a time when it has been marginalized…. This [missional] imagination turns most of our church practices on their head. It invites us to turn towards our neighborhoods and communities, listening first to what is happening among people and learning to ask different questions about what God is up to in the neighborhood. Rather than the primary question being, ‘How do we attract people to what we are doing?’ it becomes, ‘What is God up to in this neighborhood?’ and “What are the ways we need to change in order to engage the people in our community who no longer consider church a part of their lives?’ This is what a missional imagination is about.

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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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13 thoughts on “If Your Church is Honestly Mediocre offering sharper ecclesial infotainment won’t turn it around

  1. Amen!

  2. A brilliant article!! – Having recently moved to a very ‘traditional’ style church as the result of some changing circumstances, I have found myself in awe of just how missional this little church is and how their heart is not for, or about, itself but for others and those in the communities in which they serve and do life with and how they treat and connect with those who are in need of real encounters with the saving grace and everlasting love of the saviour. It has shaken me up a bit to find in the walls of this very ‘normal’ (some might even erroneously say average or mediocre) little church such a depth of what Christ’s Love in community is all about.
    It’s not that their band is bad (as most weeks it’s really pretty good) or that their AV and lighting are really only functional and not a lot more or that even that the preaching is not so excellent or whatever (because it’s actually pretty solid)… it’s just that in this place ‘show’ and attraction are not the focus – they are real people loving God in their everyday life to the best of their capacity and in very purposeful ways.
    My past sojourns into an organised style church were in a church that was chasing the ‘non-mediocre highly polished’ route where following a formula, looking and sounding right, and attracting people had become more important than right relationships between the people within the church, pastoral care or anything missional that was quietly done and without fanfare and high vis… so I headed to a very ‘non churchy’ church – one of those very real and honest and grassrootsy churches where structure and details and striving were very low on the agenda and being real was more important than being polished or attractional – being deeply missional was very much the focus, at least for a time… so I somewhat dreaded returning to a more organised structured model of church again – esp one which I knew had a bit of a reputation for being a bit old school no-less – but what I have found is that here, far more than the church that was chasing the dream was a church that was both structured and real and missional – and very faithful… it seems that ministry here is about serving the word, serving our Lord and serving one another not about taking a ‘come hither’ or ‘how would you like us to respond next’ approach… and that has reminded me about what the point of church is – to come together – to be in relationship, to break bread and to worship and learn and grow together… to be the place of celebration, development and learning and connection for people so that we are then equipped to go out and to reach with a greater capacity and more open arms those that need to know the love and the grcace that is found in becoming a follower of Jesus.

    I no longer think it’s the vehicle that’s the thing that gets us there… it’s the heart and the hope that we hold out to one another in the journey and an ability to be honest with ourselves and one another in purposeful community – that deep searching of what we are and. Slur most at the core and in being kind, treating one another gently and lovingly in the process of community, being respectful, reflecting God’s heart to those we encounter, not leaving people lonely in a crowd and taking responsibility for our choices, that helps us become the church Christ calls us to be everyday, everywhere… no matter what it looks or feels like on a Sunday.

    1. Thanks for sharing that. It was so helpful.

    2. Thank you Jenna. I would like to think you are describing my Church family; small, aging, somewhat traditional, but trying to love the Lord and one another and our community with the gifts and talents God has given us. Not big on programs (can’t be); but committed to prayer, to loving the world, and to walking together in God’s love! We don’t just appreciate our seniors, we honor them and pray that God will send us more. They bring wisdom, experience, inspiration and stability. We are not convinced that the future of the Church is the youth but the remnant of God’s faithful, both old and young! We are behind in our adoption of technology for sure, but some of that is intentional. Our mission is deeply relational, and technology can easily deflect, distract and deceive. The gospel has power to transform lives when the means serves the end!
      I wouldn’t trade my Church for any of the new and more modern facilities recently erected in our community. But I guess that’s the way it should be, right?

  3. Why don’t seminaries and Bible schools offer up-and-coming church leaders classes like: “Stagecraft and Production Values”, “How to Wow ‘Em With Lighting and Sound”, “The Art of the Twenty-Minute “Message”, and “Filling Their Tanks Week After Week”? That’s what too many of our aspiring church leaders find out really matters in today’s church culture. Instead, they muddle along trying to learn on the fly by copying “successful” congregations and integrating the latest marketing insights. Somebody needs to prep pastors and missionaries for the “real” world they are going to encounter!

  4. my church is catholic. i am the sacristan. most of the people are over 70. pray they all die?

    1. Bobby Gilbert, you do make an important observation. Sometimes “missional” seems to be translated as meaning “young,” “activist,” “entrepreneurial” and the like.
      I am over 70 and no longer have the health, stamina or energy for many things, but I can and do pray. I can and do live together, as I am able, with my neighbors and quite a bit more.
      The Kingdom of God is not limited to millenials. We over 70 folks know a thing or two about endurance, the humility that all we have done was just for the time of our being and that what is yet to come is fully out our hands.
      It might be a useful perspective for those at earlier stages of the journey.

      1. Some of the most missional people I know are over 70.

  5. I loved this! Well done! I have been on board ever since I read Shaping of things to come that you and Alan wrote when it first came out. I was pastoring a large church at the time and had begun to feel from the Lord that I was not to continue down that path. I had not read anyone at that time and decide to go to a counselor to figure out what the Lord was saying. I then bumped into “Shaping” it confirmed to many things, and I consider it timeless. While I no longer pastor I have fully embraced my apostolic calling to see as many “Bilbos” get out of the Shire live!

  6. Refreshing read.
    I want to share this with some fellow church leaders and discuss.

  7. It doesn’t seem necessary to beat up on Pastor Nieuwhof and his ideas. His thoughts regarding the band, IT and website were useful as are your thoughts about what makes a church work for lost souls. Instead of denigrating his article, perhaps it would be beneficial to God’s Church here on Earth to find common ground. The Gospel of John, chapter 17 addresses this issue.

    1. Didn’t “beat up” on him. Disagreed with him. It’s entirely possible for there to be disagreement without disunity. In fact, if Christian unity can only be maintained at the expense of people holding divergent views it’s a cult not the beautiful new way of being human that Jesus taught us.

  8. Well. May sound cynical from this perspective: it’s CAN $ 247 per online course he offers… 200 bookings.

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