A Tale of Two Churches

I visited two churches today, Sunday, September 23, and the contrast could not have been more stark. For obvious reasons, I will not name them. What follows is not for them, but for churches and pastors who could benefit from what these two have to teach us.

One had 91 in attendance, the other half that. The first one has a stable pastor with a great attitude and a winning personality. He loves the Lord, is committed to the Word, and has a genuine affection for the people. The other church has no pastor and hasn’t for some time.

The first church is on the upswing; the second church on the decline. The Upswing church relocated less than a year ago from a neighborhood that had rapidly changed around them to the point that none of their members lived nearby. They purchased the campus of a church of another denomination that had gone out of business in post-Katrina New Orleans, not more than 2 miles away. The “new” plant is lovely in every way, located in the heart of a solidly middle-class neighborhood, a perfect reflection of their membership. In leaving behind their old neighborhood, they turned over their plant to the mission congregation which is just like the people who live around them.

There is an adage in church-growth that a congregation will reach people who are like themselves. That’s why an elderly membership has trouble attracting young folks, an Anglo congregation has difficulty reaching African-Americans, traditional churches are usually unable to attract post-modernists, and so on. The African-American congregation of the mission church is reaching their neighborhood and this “new” Anglo congregation is reaching the people in their adopted area.

Meanwhile, the second church, the Downswing congregation, is struggling to stay afloat. They are an older generation and absolutely wonderful people, but are declining numerically and running a financial deficit every month. The leaders are investigating various avenues to survival, from sharing their buildings with another congregation to reverting to mission status under the supervision of a stronger church.

I was delighted to see that both churches received new members this morning. The Church-On-The-Upswing also dedicated several families with small children toward the end of the service. A gentleman introduced himself and told how he and his wife had just joined the church, and that he will be baptized soon. The pastor’s wife said she knows another couple who plan to join next Sunday.

Both churches are Anglo, both are in middle-class respectable neighborhoods with attractive buildings and lovely green lawns, and both are made up of the kind of people who would fit right in with just about any Southern Baptist church in the country.

So, why is one on the upswing and the other in trouble?

There are a dozen contrasts between the two churches. Downswing Church has an old decor that appears unchanged from the 1950s, while the Upswing Church is bright and cheery and fresh. The Upswingers burst into applause when the new members were presented; at Downswing, I started the applause and noticed only a handful of people joined in. Joy reigns in one but not the other. Spontaneity in one. Hope. Life.

I’m going to venture here however that the difference in these two churches is all about one thing: leadership. One has it, the other hasn’t had it for some years.

Take the Church-on-the-Downswing. When I came into this associational position over 3 years ago, I met the pastor for the first time even though he had been at that church several years. He had rarely attended anything with the other pastors and few of us knew him. I quickly found out why.

He had an attitude problem. “I don’t want to sit around with a bunch of preachers bragging about what a great day they had Sunday,” he scoffed in my office. I assured him our monthly pastors sessions were anything but that, although we’d love to have something to brag about. That day, before he left my office, that pastor told me a joke. A dirty one. He said it and walked out the door, leaving me standing there, stunned that such had come out of the mouth of a man of God.

Only later did I find out his attitude and filthy mouth were symptoms of deeper problems. Reports came in indicating that he could be found regularly at local casinos, and the owner of a restaurant told one of our pastors that this preacher always ordered alcohol with his meals.

Not like any Baptist pastor I’ve ever known!

Someone remarked to me, “He’s not a Baptist.” And he named the denomination that pastor came from. (Again, it will go unnamed. This is not to slam anyone else.)

Even then, that church was declining in every measurable way. Some of the leaders asked me to meet with them and the pastor in order to negotiate his departure, which everyone wanted, including him. I’ll not belabor those discussions except that the preacher’s main consideration at all times seems to have been for himself, never for the church. He left just before Katrina hit, moved to another town, and we hear he is serving a church in his original denomination. Meanwhile, the congregation that desperately needed visionary and faithful leadership during his pastorate has continued to suffer from his failure in that area.

After his departure, the Downswingers named their part-time assistant pastor as interim. It was not a good match and they basically marked time for the next two years, while continuing to hemorrhage money and members.

The story of leadership in the Upswing congregation involves the pastor and several key laymen. When they found the church campus they presently occupy was for sale, they began to work on several levels. They got the congregation to praying, they began negotiating with the denominational leaders who had placed the plant on the market, they brought in their mission pastor to see if his small congregation would be interested in taking over their present buildings, and they invited the associational leadership (that would be Freddie Arnold and me) to review all these aspects of the relocation and to make suggestions.

What impressed me most about these men is that when the mission congregation checked into every source for financial help they could identify and could locate only half the money the church was asking for the property, these men recommended that the congregation sell the plant to the mission for half the asking price. They said, “The Lord has been very good to us and we want to be faithful to Him.” Having dealt with churches and laymen in leading positions in churches for nearly half a century, this attitude was remarkable and refreshing.

Originally, the Upswing Church had planned to get the entire amount from the sale of their old property and not have to borrow any money for the new property. Once it became apparent the mission church was seriously limited in its resources, these men led their church to cut the price, then to borrow the remaining funds so they could complete the purchase of their new plant.

Every time I have seen the pastor of the Upswingers this year, since they made the move to the new location, he has been bubbling over with reports of better attendance, great attitude, new members, and other positive signs. What the pastor of the Downswingers called “bragging,” we recognize for what it is: a shepherd reporting the blessings of the Lord. What goes unsaid in my visits with this pastor is that I know the church he served before moving to the Upswing Congregation a year ago. He would have loved to have had such glowing reports to turn in there. So, it’s not bragging; it’s pure joy.

So much depends on the leadership of a church–particularly the pastor and a handful of the most influential laymen (and by that, I mean laywomen too).

If I could write a description of the lay leader “to die for,” meaning “the kind every church wants,” it might look like this.

“WANTED: a man or a woman who is solidly Christian with excellent mental health, who thinks clearly, listens well, speaks carefully, loves the Lord, knows his Bible, and wants the people of the Lord to do well. He supports his pastor until the day he does something unethical, unbiblical, or immoral. He seeks no glory for himself, does not need to chair a committee to be an effective member of it, and is as faithful a follower as he is leader. His personal life is beyond reproach, although he is thoroughly human and enjoys telling a great joke or funny story. His family is a reflection of his godly values. The bulk of his spiritual life is lived in private, with the part seen in public only the tip of the iceberg.”

How does that old line go–“Give me a handful of men (and women) like that and I will change the world.”

A final word.

Perhaps after reading this, you identify yours as a Church-On-The-Upswing with faithful and godly leaders. Consider clipping out the above paragraph identifying leaders “to die for.” Then, the next time you’re at church, hand it to one of those leaders. Tell them (he, she) what an inspiration they are to you and thank them for helping to make your church healthy.

Say that and walk away and I guarantee you he (she) will stand there stunned.

No one ever tells them. All they hear are the complaints.

Be the first.

6 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Churches

  1. Churches are a business and should be run like a business. When the leader falters they should be replaced. To build a powerful church or business you must create strong leadership. If that is missing, being a man of God or posessing strong faith won’t be enough.

  2. Great article and I am sorry to say, Downswingers do not have to go through Katrina to be revealed. Also, there are many Upswingers who are determined to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, as the old saying goes.

    As leaders, I wonder if we are bold enough to recognize what kind of leader we are. Some are content to lead a church to an envigorating life where others apparently are unconscience of their death march, probably due to their own death march. The pain in my heart is that every church who has the wrong kind of leader is always in trouble and termoil.

    In John Maxwell’s book, 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, the first chapter is entitled the Law of the Lid. A synopsis statement of that law is very simple and you would think all would know it. An organization (church, business, The Elks Club, etc.) will only go as far as its leader. The point where the leader becomes the “Lid” is where the organization stops growing and becomes stagnant. All leaders in churchs have a divine responsiblility to recognize their own “Lid” in their church and then unselfishly move on and make way for a new leader. Churches are also responsible for this recognition and for the proper response.

    Finally, there are abundant examples of Leaders who either are constantly bursting through the Lid or who are content to live with their Lid. Gideon is a great example of a “Lid Buster”. Read Judges 8:22-24. An example of a Leader crushed by his own Lid is King Saul. Read 1 Samuel 13:5-14.

    Just a thought. WB

  3. This breaks my heart. That the pastor would tell you a dirty joke after talking about other pastors bragging. The problem is not just in leadership but in not dealing with sin in the church. Perhaps churches need to practice Biblical discipline in love when it first happens instead of letting the body of Christ hemmorhage.

    May the Lord break our hearts for this sister church. I love how we used to pray for different pastors and churches when you were at FBCK. Seems to be a great need today!

  4. I am a member of the upswing church and I can tell you that several years ago we were close to the downswing church in many ways. The difference for us was a willingness to accept change as God led us and a determination not to give up!

  5. I, too am a member of the upswing church. Not too long ago I was a member of a church in another state, and it was very much on the downswing. It was depressing to go to church and especially staff meetings. It is a joy now to go to church. Our pastor IS a wonderful man and a great leader. Between him and the willingness of those laymen(and women) to put the church and God’s will before their own, I have seen a mighty difference in this church in the past two years. It only goes to prove, if you change your heart you will see change. If you look to God for guidance, he will guide.

  6. Speaking from experience (both upswing and downswing), good leadership is certainly necessary for a church to be effective. Two things about the description of a lay leader. First, since not all pastors are effective leaders (George Barna confirms this), I’d want a lay leader who doesn’t just blindly support an ineffective leader/pastor, but supports the pastor to find a position/role where his skills are effectively used. Second, I’d add that a lay leader should have a passion for being transformed into Christ-likeness, for themselves and for those they lead.

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