Dr. Charles Revis, Executive Minister of the ABC of the Northwest

Are you familiar with the acronym, S.W.O.T.? It refers to an assessment matrix that examines these four areas: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. It was developed for assisting in the planning of a project or organization. SWOT is sometimes used in evaluating churches. S.W.O.T. critics say there are strengths and weaknesses to the tool. But, it’s not my purpose to dwell on that. I want to take a moment to think about the “T”, the Threats in the environment that could cause trouble for your church. First, some background.

The move towards reforming the church along missional lines has elevated the concept of the Kingdom of God in our theological reflection. We understand that the Kingdom of God is greater than any one church, denomination or parachurch organization. Some would go so far as to say the Kingdom of God is more essential than the church, with the church owing its existence ultimately to the Kingdom. Whether or not you agree with that, most who engage in the discussion would say that neither Church or God’s Kingdom are coterminus, yet they overlap and are at times interwoven.

One important insight that has emerged from Kingdom thinking is the idea that all churches are on the same team. Rather than being in competition with one another there’s a growing awareness that every church is needed to advance the Kingdom of God. Because each church has a unique thumbprint each is able to reach certain people that other churches cannot. One church will reach a certain kind of person, the next church will reach still another kind of person. If we accept this premise then we can approach the church next door not as our competitor but as a co-laborer with us in God’s field. This Kingdom mindset frees us to reach across the aisle and work with adjacent churches in collaborative ministries.

But, hold on. Is this really true? I can point out numerous places where a new, modern church with an aggressive style and a cookin’ band dramatically vacated the ranks of many of the surrounding smaller churches. They were like a giant, church-member Hoover—sucking members and attenders out of all the less jazzy churches in its immediate vicinity. Is it honest to say that the Hoover Church is not our competition? I think the answer is somewhere between “yes” and “no.” That is, the Hoover Church is ONE competition, or at least, one threat to an older, traditional church’s existence. While at the same time, it could be that God is using Hoover style churches to shake up established churches and move them out of deep ruts that perpetuate ministry that is no longer relevant or productive.

Let me come at this directly. There are indeed external threats to churches. The T in SWOT is alive and well—churches should wake up to their existence and respond proactively. These threats, if unrecognized and unaddressed, can undermine a church’s stability.  

I’ve identified one potential threat, the nearby, start-up church with fresh vision; relevant biblical preaching; and cutting-edge worship style. If your church is just down the block, watch out! There is a good chance you will lose attenders to the new start-up. Or at the least, if you were hoping to attract younger people, don’t bother, they will pass right by you on the way to the new church designed to connect with the younger crowd. In this scenario, the threat IS the church down the block. (There is a constructive way to respond to this threat, but I will address that in a moment.)

Other external threats may include a shift in the surrounding demographic. Many older churches wake up one day to discover they are surrounded by a sea of ethnic diversity and their ministries are not designed to connect with all the new people that have “moved into the neighborhood.” Another threat might be the sudden closure of a large company which provides jobs for many in the community. When it relocates to another city so do the jobs. A good number of church attenders will disappear with the company and suddenly the church is on rocky ground.

Some of the greatest threats to a church’s health are internal. Consider these examples:

·        If the church has little training in conflict management and a major disagreement erupts.

·        A retired pastor stays in the church and develops a personal following while subtly undermining the new pastor’s leadership.

·        A small group of disenfranchised people leave a church and join a nearby church in mass and just happen to have a pet ministry they insist that their new church adopt.

·        The largest giver in the church goes through a period of personal crises and he acts out his frustration by suddenly insisting that things be done his way in the church.

So, how does a church respond to potential threats, whether internal or external? Let’s take the example of the new Hoover Church that threatens to pull members from your congregation. If you haven’t experienced this yet, you will! It’s just a matter of time.

I would recommend a pro-active response. This is where being aware of your church’s lifecycle comes in to play. Churches on the upside of their lifecycle have little to worry about from an upstart, hip church. On the other hand, if your church is on the downside of the lifecycle then you have reason to be concerned. You could easily lose people if a start-up church launches next door. Why? Because churches on the downside of their lifecycle feel tired and listless. There is no vision and little excitement. People are just going through the motions, keeping the church institution alive. There is no sense of momentum. These factors make it extremely hard for a church on the downward lifecycle to retain people, especially when there is an exciting new church starting up next door.

But it’s a different story for churches on the upside of their lifecycle. They have vision and momentum. People are excited to be a part of the church’s ministry. Volunteers are easily recruited and new people are showing up each week. A new church down the street is no threat to the church in a healthy lifecycle. In fact, they may be great partners in mutually shared outreach endeavors. The key components that result in a healthy lifecycle also help to fend off internal threats.

So what are these key components that result in a healthy lifecycle? For a moment think of a car. When a church is on the upside of its lifecycle Vision-Leadership is behind the driver’s wheel and People-Relationships are alongside in the front passenger’s seat. Programs-Ministry and Management-Systems are in the back seat. The church is clear about its direction and purpose. It knows who it is attempting to reach, and new people are its priority.

By contrast, a church in a declining lifecycle has lost vision and it serves long-time members first. Management (read, “maintenance”) is in the drivers seat. Vision and People are relegated to the back seat, or the side of the road. There is a deep sense of fatigue and growing despair with survival being the main focus. It doesn’t take much for a threat to push a declining church beyond the tipping point into a death spiral from which there will be no recovery.

The best way to fend off threats is to be proactively healthy. And, the best approach for promoting church health is to keep Vision alive through DNA clarity. Add to that a concerted effort to reach out to new people by developing new relational connections. Programs-Ministry and Management-Systems support the attainment of the Vision but neither of these drive the organization.

One redemptive purpose in acknowledging threats is to find motivation for renewing the church. Of course there has to be more than negative motivation for renewal to find long-term traction. But recognizing Threats, whether imagined or real, is one way to shock the system into wakefulness. They can cause an organization to assess its overall health, and if found to be lacking can lead to positive steps of rediscovering purpose and outreach possibilities. Every organization, and especially established churches, would be wise to regularly test itself in respect to its current Lifecycle and make adjustments according to the findings. If a threat causes this renewed focus on DNA and relational connection then such threats may serve a constructive purpose for the overall health of the church.

[Follow up resources: 1) Contact the Region office for George Bullard’s materials on Lifecycle Stages 2) Church Unique by Will Mancini 3) Kicking Habits by Tom Bandy] 4) ABCNW assessments routinely test for Lifecycle positioning and offer prescriptions for improvement.]