The 3 rules of survival that will do us in

October 12th, 2016

I’ve never heard a denominational executive say these words before: “You were called by God to serve the Kingdom. So do that. Don’t worry about the institutional church.” He stood before some 40 clergy colleagues at a recent clergy orders retreat I led. The room was quiet, stunned.

After years of paying attention to the three rules of survival, he was inviting these pastors to play a different game. Rather than insure the survival of the institutional church, he was inviting them to transcend that worry and reconnect with the life-giving joy of their call. He was right on. The more we pay attention to survival, the more likely we are to die.

I want to share with you the three rules of survival that will do us in. And three rules that just might set us free.

The game of survival is all about keeping the church afloat, alive, open another day. It’s one of the strategies we’ve been busy employing as numbers have gone down, membership and worship attendance has dwindled and doors have closed. Here are the rules of this game and how they do us in:

  1. Keep the big givers happy. When we put money worries first, what we’re left with is worries. Every new idea, every decision, every ministry has to be judged by whether or not it will upset certain givers. That limits our ability to do ministry. The truth is that God alone is our source, not any particular giver. Limitless abundance is available to us. But that rushing river of abundance slows down to a trickle when we think it can only come through one person or another. While churches do need money to pay bills, fund ministries and advance visions, keeping the big givers happy is the wrong way to go about it. It keeps us small by putting personalities before principles. Jesus didn’t say, “Go and make givers of all nations,” but disciples. Worry doesn’t generate miracles; disciples do.
  2. Don’t rock the boat. The culture of most churches these days is harmony-seeking, stability-oriented, and internally friendly. On the surface, these seem like the most positive of attributes for a church. They are positive. But prioritizing these behaviors over momentum-oriented visions leads a church to stay stuck. Stuck eventually spells death. Churches that insist on things staying the same will find that the one thing they don’t want to happen — decline and death — becomes inevitable. 
  3. Don’t change anything. When I was beginning pastoral ministry, the common wisdom was, “Don’t change anything for a year.” I look back and wonder why. Yes, getting to know the people as they are, and the culture as it exists, is important. But sometimes churches don’t have a year. If we wait a year to change a dynamic that suffocates life, we may have waited a year too long. A few key funerals is all it takes for a church to slip from maturity into decline. A colleague of mine is so inundated with funerals right now that he feels he can’t help the church envision a new future. Without a new vision, though, and the changes that come with fulfilling it, the church will continue to shrink. 

There you have it. These are the three rules of survival that will do us in: Keep the big givers happy; don’t rock the boat, and don’t change anything.

But they’re not the only rules we can play by. Try on these new, forward-thinking rules to see what new life they might bring:

  1. Put ministry before money. Let the vision of the Kingdom and the ministry it inspires in you lead the way. You’ve heard it said, “Do what you love and the money will follow.” It’s true. Imagine how true it is if what we love is also what God loves! Then certainly the money will follow. Jesus and his apostles brought new life to the world without a budget, an endowment, or memorial gifts. They kept the Kingdom in mind, and God supplied the rest—through all sorts of unexpected ways. 
  2. Make waves. Leaders are called to lead change. That means making waves is part of leadership. Learning how to ride them is what helps a church experience new life. Do you long to challenge injustice, advocate for others, deepen the prayer life of the church, reach out to new and different kinds of people? How about trying new forms of worship or a single-board governance? All of this will rock the boat. And make the good kind of waves. Waves are good because they necessitate movement. I remember from my biology classes that all living things have one thing in common: the ability to move. What will help your church keep moving? 
  3. Speak up about problems. Every church has them: problems. You may have problem relationships, problem committees, or problems in the community. Not talking about them won’t make them go away. Dealing with them is messy. But ultimately hopeful. It means health can return to a system. Do speak up about problems in a way that is direct, invitational and solution-oriented. You’re not the only one that has noticed them. Be a leader by addressing them. 

Look, I’m not saying any of this easy. Each of these new rules requires courage, skill and deep reservoirs of faith. But what’s the alternative? If all we do is try to protect the status quo — even that will slip away. These are the days to be bold and of good courage. Take it from one visionary, institutional top dog: “You were called to serve the Kingdom. Do that. Don’t worry about the institutional church.”

Not sure how to make these changes, or how to stay sane in the midst of the fear and anxiety change can cause? Please contact me; I’ve got your back. I empower church leaders to accelerate vitality and interrupt church decline through creating a culture of renewal.

Rebekah Simon-Peter blogs at She is the author of The Jew Named Jesus and Green Church.

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