Five Foundational Questions Church Leaders Need to Ask

A recent article in the Atlantic cited 17 questions every college should be asking. The point was that “we need a serious conversation about the future of America’s universities.”

They’re right.

We do.

And the questions they posed were good ones, including:

  • What is quality, and how should it be measured?

  • If we were building from scratch, would we make almost every program the same four-year duration?

  • We are witnessing the emergence of high quality, low-cost ways of learning online. How should we think about hybrid curricular options—that is, the mixing of new forms of pedagogy with old—that might be available to us? How will this affect the residential model?

  • Will most extant institutions survive the coming ed-tech disruptions in roughly their current form?

In the same spirit, what questions should every church be asking if there were to be a serious conversation about its future?

There are so many that could be asked that would reflect bleeding-edge issues in culture, but for the church, it has to begin with the most foundational questions.

Five come to mind, along with what I would argue the answers should entail:

1. What is the purpose of the church?

To use marketplace terminology, understanding our purpose is understanding what business we are in. What is the business, or purpose, of the church?

From the earliest biblical portraits of the church in Acts, in light of the settled teaching of the New Testament, it is clear that there is a five-fold purpose for the church: evangelism, discipleship, ministry, worship and community (e.g., Acts 2:42-27). Put more actively, we are to evangelize the lost, assimilate the evangelized, disciple the assimilated, and unleash the discipled for ministry and evangelism. This is what the church does.

Of course, churches too often lose sight of this. Rather than worship or evangelism, a church can fall prey to thinking that its purpose is keeping up a tradition, holding a particular event, meeting a budget, or maintaining a building. These activities may flow out of a purpose, but they do not make up the purpose of the church itself.

As a result, the foundational purposes of a church must reign supreme. When they do, renewal flows. According to a study of faith communities in the Executive Summary of a Report on Religion in the United States Today, congregations with a clear sense of purpose feel vital and alive. A purpose-driven mentality is able to look to the future, as opposed to clinging to feelings of unity based on heritage (the past).

2. What is the church’s mission?

Think of the church’s mission in military terms. It is one thing to know the purpose of a particular military unit, such as being an infantry division. It is another to know the specific “hill” the unit is trying to take as that infantry division. This has to do with mission. A church might understand its purposes but not know what it is trying to accomplish through those purposes. If the biblical purpose of the church involves evangelism, discipleship, ministry, worship and community, then the mission question is simple but profound: What specific objective is the church devoted to accomplishing through those purposes? In other words, what is the church trying to do through evangelism, discipleship, ministry, worship and community?

Jesus made many statements that spoke to how He desired the various purposes of the church to come together in a singular mission. The most well-known is often called the Great Commission (Mt. 28:18-20). According to this passage, the mission of the church is to reach out to nonbelievers and develop them, along with existing believers, into committed followers of Christ. This is the mission that the purposes of the church are intending to accomplish.

Yet I am not the first to observe that many churches have other missions in mind for those who walk through their doors, such as wanting people to “believe like us” doctrinally, to “behave like us” morally, to “have an experience like ours” emotionally, to “become like us” culturally, to “support the church like us” institutionally through time and money, or to “participate with us” sacramentally through baptism, confirmation or communion. These goals are not in and of themselves wrong. The problem is it would be possible to realize most of these goals within a life and still not be a Christian. In other words, they have little to do with the actual mission of the church.

Even more disturbing are those surveys that find that the vast majority of church members believe that the mission of the church exists to take care of their needs—as opposed to win the world to Christ.

3. Whom are we trying to reach for Christ?

The most common answer to this question is “everyone.”  That is not a good answer.

In truth, no single church can possibly reach out with equal effectiveness to every conceivable person. The more focused a church is on whom it is trying to reach, the more effective it will be at reaching them. So no surprise that from the earliest days of the church, as recorded in the New Testament, it has seemed to please the Holy Spirit to birth a wide variety of churches in order to reach a wide variety of people. Churches, therefore, are wise to examine such issues as geographic location, demographics and culture.

The implications of such an understanding are far-reaching. Once a church knows whom it is trying to reach, it gains enormous insight into how to go about achieving its purposes and mission. As anyone in the marketplace will tell you, once you know who your customer is, you know what it is you are offering, whom you are offering it to, how you should go about offering it, and where you should offer it to them. Knowing whom it is you are trying to reach affects not only what you do but also how you do it.

But there is one demographic from which we are to begin our segmentation. If the mission of the church is to turn nonbelievers into fully devoted followers of Christ, then the primary target of a church should be those who are nonchurched nonbelievers.

4. What determines whether the church is alive and growing?

Once a church recognizes its purpose, its mission, and whom it is trying to reach, the next foundational question—one that is notoriously overlooked in the life of many churches yet is essential for rethinking—relates to the definition of success.

You say, “We are not called to be successful, but faithful.”

Yes and no. Faithfulness is not always rewarded with what might be deemed “success” in the eyes of the world, but God is always wanting a church to strive and reach its full redemptive potential.

So here is a definition of success worth wrestling with: Success for a church involves fulfilling its purposes in such a way as to reach its target and complete its mission. In other words, are you reaching lost people and turning them into fully devoted followers of Christ? Most churches, at best, are successful at the back half of the Great Commission (discipleship), but in terms of the front half (evangelism) are failing miserably, growing solely from transfer growth or biological growth.

5. How will we accomplish the mission God has given to us?

As a younger man, I played organized basketball for years. After my playing days were over, I had the opportunity to coach part time while completing seminary. Both as a player and a coach, I learned that the key to success in a game was having a strategy based on what we knew about the opposing team. The game plan was not just getting together before a game and saying, “All right, boys, let’s go get ’em!” If that had been the extent of our strategy, we would have lost virtually every game.

One of the most important questions a church needs to wrestle with has to do with strategy. How will we accomplish the mission God has given us and reach success?

Unfortunately, this is one question I cannot venture a simple, concise answer. It lies at the cutting edge of much of my blogging and writing, conferencing and personal thinking/experimentation.

Yet it is through answering the first four questions that a church can begin to engage in the fifth. The church has a five-fold purpose, a unique and compelling mission that those purposes are to achieve, and the means by which to know whether it is being successful. Now we must develop a strategy for our day in light of those timeless, foundational anchors.

Then, and only then, can we say, “Now, let’s go get ’em!”

> Read more from James Emery White.


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James Emery White

James Emery White

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. He is the founder of Serious Times and this blog was originally posted at his website

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5 Hopes for the Future Church

There is a rising tide that the Church has lost its edge, and for some, even lost its way. In some cases, there is truth to that. But ultimately, the general conclusion cannot be that the Church is irrelevant.

I know the “irrelevant” message can be discouraging to so many of you who serve your church in positions of leadership. This post will encourage you and provide positive direction.

The Church was never meant to remain the same; change is part of its design.

As the Church changes, largely to adapt to the shifts in culture, it’s vital that we stay focused on the original purpose of the Church.

“His [God] intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Ephesians 3:10-11

This article is not written as a position of defense. It’s not a “how to” article to fix all the problems. It’s a clear reminder of foundational truths that help us all stay focused no matter the pressure or opposition, and practical helps to keep going.

The Church is a great force for good. The stories of salvation, baptism, and life change worldwide are too numerous to ignore.

Yes, some churches are ineffective, but the most ineffective church is more helpful than the person who does nothing.

Let’s jump into the reasons the church has a promising future.

5 Reasons:

1) An attempt to dismiss the Church is like an attempt to dismiss God.

The Church isn’t a building, and it’s not limited to one day a week. The Church is the Bride of Christ, the people of God, destined for the hope of eternal life.

We are sent out into our communities and the world to make a difference for Christ.

Currently, most churches meet in buildings and on Sunday. That may change, but what God set in motion won’t be dismissed.

In the last few years, there has been a great deal of meaningful and productive conversation about changes to the mega-church and the attractional approach to ministry.

The result has been re-focusing from a church service with an emphasis on drawing the people in to hear the message of the gospel to sending the believers out to share the gospel. It’s not an either or, but the shift is intentional and good.

I’m listening in on what changes smaller churches are anticipating they need to make.

(Leave a comment at the end of this post if you have an insight that may help.)

Regardless of the size of the church, God’s plan is still in full force.

2) The purpose of the church is not yet fulfilled.

The New Testament makes the mission of the church clear. From the well-known
Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20 to the passage in Ephesians 3 – I mentioned earlier, the purpose is communicating the gospel and grace of Jesus. With the clear end of making disciples of Christ.

God’s heart has always been for eternal life. For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live!” Ezekiel 18:32

In Gwinnett County (population of just under one million people) where 12Stone’s eight campuses are located, a suburb of Atlanta, hundreds of thousands don’t profess to follow Christ.

What would you estimate that number or percentage to be in your city?

There is much more for us to do. Let’s continue to help our churches get better so we can reach further.

3) The church is imperfect, but not ineffective.

As I talk with leaders across the country, I get to hear incredible stories of transformation and life change. It’s so inspiring.

At 12Stone Church we have begun casting vision for what is next and new — what God has in store for the next couple years.

One element is the transformation of families and how we are elevating Re-Engage, an approximately twenty-week marriage small group based on the gospel.

Each time Pastor Kevin talks about Re-Engage, people can’t hold back. They interrupt and tell their story of a stuck marriage, or one headed toward divorce and how it is now restored, healthy, and growing again!

It’s truly astounding. Transforming families is only one of three areas we believe God is stirring. The other two are transforming souls and transforming communities. The vision is huge and humbling at the same time.

12Stone is an imperfect church that is being used by God to change thousands of lives.

Your church is imperfect too, but no church needs to be ineffective.

Don’t let the difficulties, problems, and setbacks of your church discourage you; they are part of life. The Church has always faced difficulties and solved problems.

Personally, I love solving problems when they are attached to a purpose greater than myself!

This simple plan may be helpful to you:

  1. Be honest about what needs to be improved.
  2. Prioritize the list.
  3. Select the top three problems that must be addressed. (Set the others aside for now.)
  4. Commit to solving those three problems in the next six months. (Or the appropriate time-frame.)
  5. Measure your progress against pre-determined goals and celebrate what God does!

4) People still intuitively head to the church when in need of help.

I briefly mentioned a point similar to this one in a recent article offering seven reasons why I stayed in ministry for thirty-seven years. You can read it here.

Marriage breakdowns, spiritually lost or confused, wanting a positive environment for kids, health concerns, lonely and hungry for meaningful relationships, these are just a few of the reasons why people still seek the church. I meet them every week.

The church, Christianity, or God himself never promises to remove trouble and difficulties from a person’s life, but they do show us a better way to live our lives with resilience and purpose.

5) Personal growth and strategic innovation continue to be objectives church leaders strive for.

The church is never stronger than its leaders.  First, pray for them! Ask God to grant them wisdom, favor, stamina, and clear vision.

The leaders I know are passionate about personal growth; they are truly hungry for it. They change, get better, and increase their capacity to improve the church.

Healthy and growing leaders lead healthy and growing churches.

What is your plan for personal growth?

Healthy and growing leaders are also passionate about innovation. They never settle for the status quo.

Innovation is not about change for the sake of change, and it’s not merely making something different.

Positive innovation embraces practical change that makes a measurable difference directly connected to your vision.

What one or two innovative improvements are you making to your current ministries that will increase the effectiveness of your church? I pray this article encourages your love and commitment to the future of the church.

> Read more from Dan.


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Dan Reiland

Dan Reiland

Dr. Dan Reiland serves as Executive Pastor at 12Stone Church in Lawrenceville, Georgia. He previously partnered with John Maxwell for 20 years, first as Executive Pastor at Skyline Wesleyan Church in San Diego, then as Vice President of Leadership and Church Development at INJOY. He and Dr. Maxwell still enjoy partnering on a number of church related projects together. Dan is best known as a leader with a pastor's heart, but is often described as one of the nations most innovative church thinkers. His passion is developing leaders for the local church so that the Great Commission is advanced.

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comment_post_ID); ?> Amen!!
— Scott Michael Whitley
comment_post_ID); ?> Thank you so Much for this great article. It has open my eyes on where we have faltered and the things we need to work on. God can never indeed be the problem. It's us.
— Bertille
comment_post_ID); ?> Thanks for this information. It helps me begin to look at the church in a different light.
— Faith Jackson

Clarity Process

Three effective ways to start moving toward clarity right now.

5 Ways to Lead Your Church to Thrive

Need some hope?

It’s easy to get discouraged about the future of the church.

While the world seems to be falling apart, so does the church.

Attendance in many places is shrinking, not growing. Even committed Christians are attending less often (here’s why). And young leaders aren’t exactly flocking into ministry.

And often we shoot ourselves in the foot, with everything from Pharisee-like self-righteousness to downright stupid things Christians do (here are 5).

Yet it’s not all gloom and doom. I’m an optimist.

You can always find the opportunity in every obstacle.

As you think about the future and how you need to change as a church, here are 5 principles that can guide you and your team.

1. Fill The Relational Void

The truth about our culture is this: thanks to an abundance of technology, we have never been more connected as a culture before, and we’ve never felt more disconnected.

As our lives have moved online, and as people have become more mobile and even (in growing numbers) location independent, people have never felt more lonely.

We know our neighbors less than we ever have before. It’s really hard to love someone you don’t know.

Our social media feeds give us the illusion of community. But read between the lines and you’ll see intense loneliness and even the re-emergence of tribalism where we only (virtually) associate with the people who agree with us.

When I talk to people in my community and around the world who are working through life issues, I always ask them “Who are you talking to about this?”

The number one answer? Nobody.

People may have friends, but few have deep friendships, friendships that can carry the weight of life and faith and hope and meaning and existence.

The church hasn’t done a great job of community in the past. We claim to be friendly, but that usually only means we’re friendly to each other.

And catching up on what happened this week and talking about sports or the weather is hardly what Jesus had in mind when he told us to love one another.

But the truth is the real mission of the church is relationship. It defines the vertical nature of our faith (love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength) and the horizontal essences of Christianity (love your neighbor as yourself).

If anyone can get relationship right, it should be the church.

So ask yourself as a church leader: what are you doing to forge the deepest relationships you can forge in this life?

Nobody should be able to out-community the local church.

2. Broker Meaning

In the same way that our lives are awash in hundreds or thousands of half-real relationships thanks to our phones, we are also drowning in a sea of information.

Never in the history of humanity has so much useful and useless information been available to so many so quickly.

And we have no idea what to do with it.

The current and future crisis is not a crisis of information, it’s a crisis of meaning.

You’ve felt this every time you’ve scrolled through your social media feed and thought “there is nothing of value here at all”.

In fact, on some days, the constant rants, drivel, trivial observations, bragging, self-promotion and complaining has made you think about giving up social media altogether.

The challenge for leaders moving forward is not to produce more content. The challenge is to provide meaning. 

I believe the future belongs to leaders who broker meaning in the sea of endless content

It follows, then, that the key to providing meaning isn’t more, it’s better.

More content will simply get lost the constant chatter.

More without meaning will make you less relevant. You become yet another unhelpful voice.

Better is not nearly as easy as moreBetter requires thought, reflection, digestion and ultimately resonance (it’s resonance that tells you your content is connecting).

This provides a huge opportunity for church leaders. Who better to provide meaning than the leaders called to share timeless truth in an era starved for meaning?

And for business leaders, the opportunity to stand out with your customers, your peers and your clients is right in front of you.

Just know that the race to produce more will compete with the need to produce meaning.

The meaning-brokers will win the race.

Leaders who read widely, digest, think, and above all publish content that actually helps people find meaning will become THE leaders in their field.

3. Embrace Selflessness

Narcissism is a rapidly growing problem in our culture.

You feel the pull to make your life all about you. I feel the pull. And we see it all over our culture.

The Gospel offers a powerful counterweight to selfishness; it calls us to die to ourselves.

When Christians do this, amazing things happen.

A life defined by generosity and service to others (especially those in need) is increasingly attractive to a world suffocating on itself.

A life devoted to the Kingdom of God stands out in a world devoted to the Kingdom of Self.

The church is just as guilty as the culture when it comes to narcissism. We can get obsessed with ourselves as easily as anyone.

But the opportunity to live generous lives of service to Christ and to others is a tremendous opportunity. Those disciplines put flesh on love.

The more Christians sacrifice their own wants and needs for the sake of the Kingdom, the stronger the church will be.

There’s even a promise in that. When you die to yourself, something greater rises.

4. Deal Hope

You know what’s missing in the cultural dialogue these days? Hope.

We seem to do a great job focusing on the problem and pointing out the shortcomings and sins of others and very little time pointing toward a preferred future.

We’ve read to the end of the story. We know how this ends. Love wins. Faith wins. Hope wins.

Christian hope isn’t a pie-in-the-sky that floats above reality.

It’s as gritty as the incarnation, the crucifixion and the resurrection of the dead.

Which means our message and lives need to get into the grit of addictions, conflict, brokenness and the utter fragility of life and fight for hope.

As Bruce Cockburn said decades ago, you need to kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight.

Hope that’s divorced from reality isn’t hope at all.

But hope that goes into the darkest places and cracks open a thin wedge of light that eventually floods the room is exactly what we need.

So deal hope. Real hope.

It’s what our hope-starved world craves.

5. Make Your Mission THE Mission

So where does that leave you and me?

It probably leaves us changing our churches. Cutting through the junk of who we are. Tearing away the parts that don’t work and replacing them with an authenticity and power than do.

This is true whether your church is 50, 500, or 15,000. It’s true whether it’s growing, flat or declining.

Radical change outside the church demands radical change inside the church.

Just because you shouldn’t change the message or the mission doesn’t mean you shouldn’t change the methods.

If you don’t change, irrelevance is a hairbreadth away.

An unwillingness to change is what’s fueling the decline and stagnation of 90% of all churches in North America.

Here’s some hope for churches that are willing to have the tough conversations and undergo a radical transformation: the future of THE church is secured.

Because the church is Jesus’ idea, not ours, the future of THE church is guaranteed.

The mission belongs to Christ, not to us. And he has more invested in the future of his church than all of us put together.

If you make your mission THE mission you will always have a future as a church.

> Read more from Carey.


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Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is lead pastor of Connexus Community Church and author of the best selling books, Leading Change Without Losing It and Parenting Beyond Your Capacity. Carey speaks to North American and global church leaders about change, leadership, and parenting.

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What say you? Leave a comment!

Recent Comments
comment_post_ID); ?> Amen!!
— Scott Michael Whitley
comment_post_ID); ?> Thank you so Much for this great article. It has open my eyes on where we have faltered and the things we need to work on. God can never indeed be the problem. It's us.
— Bertille
comment_post_ID); ?> Thanks for this information. It helps me begin to look at the church in a different light.
— Faith Jackson

Clarity Process

Three effective ways to start moving toward clarity right now.