Would You Recognize Inward Drift in Your Church?

All organizations tend to lose their focus and forget their original purposes over time. I call this almost imperceptible movement “inward drift.” The attitude becomes one of protecting the way we’ve always done it rather than looking back to the original purposes and reasons for existence. Numbers of stagecoach businesses failed, for example, because they thought their primary purpose was to make stagecoaches rather than to provide reasonable and rapid transportation.

The primary dangers with inward drift are twofold. First and foremost, the organization can forget the very reason it was created. Second, the drift is often imperceptible. Many organizations don’t realize there is a problem until it’s too late.

When Inward Drift Comes to Church

Local congregations are not immune from inward drift. To the contrary, the vast majority of churches in North America are likely in crisis because of the negative impact of inward drift.

Some of the labeling of congregations is unfortunate. Particularly, when we speak of “traditional churches” or “contemporary churches,” we rarely come to consensus on a clear definition. My son, Sam Rainer, popularized the term “established churches,” a term I prefer to use today. An established church is simply a church that has been in existence for a few years and is thus susceptible to inward drift. Indeed most any church three years or older will likely begin to experience some of the symptoms of inward drift.

When an organization such as a for-profit business begins to experience inward drift, it will change or die within relative short order. The marketplace will not buy its goods or services if the company doesn’t address the needs and the hearts of the consumers.

An established church, however, can exist for years and even decades with inward drift. The church may not be making disciples. It may not be reaching the community and the nations with the gospel. But it continues to exist more as a religious social club than a true New Testament church. Its members and constituents are willing to fund the congregation since it meets their perceived needs and desires.

Signs of Inward Drift in Established Churches

The signs of inward drift in an established church are clear even though the members don’t often recognize them:

  1. Most of the ministries and programs are focused on meeting the desires and needs of the members.
  2. The budget of the congregation is directed primarily at funding the projects and even comforts of the members.
  3. Conflict in the congregation is not uncommon since members are more concerned about getting their perceived needs and desires met.
  4. There is little to no focus on evangelism, reaching out to the community, and getting the gospel to the nations.
  5. Leadership is weak and reticent to address the problems, because that leadership emphasis could disrupt the status quo.

Addressing the Issue of Inward Drift in the Church

I recently drove through my hometown. I lived in the same house and the same town for my first eighteen years of life. But it had been more than a decade since I visited the town. I was shocked. Businesses on the main street were closed. Some were boarded. Many of the homes I knew and loved had deteriorated greatly. The major industries had exited and left large vacant buildings. It was almost a ghost town.

Someone who had never left the town, though, told me that things were really going well there. They were serious when they said it had not changed much since I left. For me, the change was stark and shocking. For him, it was slow and imperceptible. When we fail to see the deterioration that is taking place, we will not see the need to make changes to reverse the course.

Such is the crisis in many of our established churches today. And it is that imperceptible inward drift that often makes it so difficult to lead a congregation toward healthy change. In a future post, I will address some of the possible steps to lead an established church toward change without destroying it in the process. I hope you will join me then.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Thom Rainer

Thom Rainer

Thom Rainer is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources.  Prior to LifeWay, he served at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for twelve years where he was the founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions and Evangelism.  He is a 1977 graduate of the University of Alabama and earned his Master of Divinity and Ph.D. degrees from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In addition to speaking in hundreds of venues over the past 20 years, Rainer led Rainer Group, a church and denominational consulting firm, from 1990 to 2005. The firm provided church health insights to over 500 churches and other organizations over that period. Rainer and his wife, Nellie Jo, have three grown sons: Sam, Art and Jess, who are married to Erin, Sarah and Rachel respectively.  The Rainers have six grandchildren: Canon, Maggie, Nathaniel, Will (with the Lord), Harper, and Bren. He is the author of twenty-four books, including Breakout Churches, Simple Life, Simple Church, Raising Dad, The Millennials, and Essential Church.  His latest book, Autopsy of a Deceased Church, was released in 2014 by B&H Publishing Group.

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comment_post_ID); ?> I like it Mac and do agree with your opinions on the matter. Thanks much
 
— winston
 
comment_post_ID); ?> In this era, we have the opportunity of professional church staff today who utilize their gifting to shape the image and atmosphere of the church organization. But the 100% real impact on the church visitors is genuine evidence of changed lives by the gospel and the active growing discipleship (just as it was in the first century church). One demonstration is financially rich believers ministering equally together with poor believers (how odd, and incredibly miraculous; all humble and bow at the foot of the cross.). It is the awesome contrast of church members vocations, race, gender, age, maturity, gifting, humility that demonstrates to visitors "there is a Spirit in the place". That first-time guest list of 10 are "physical excuses", not spiritual excuses. Those don't tell the story. The condition of facilities and publicly greeting people have zero to do with it. The power of God in and through believers lives dedicated to impact other people with their relationship bridge-building of acceptance of the lost around them. Empowered believers are infectious, loving, helpful, giving, self-less, dynamic, compelling, bold, Christ-filled. As I have been in many church settings domestically and internationally, the facilities can be poor, and yet the fellowship can still be rich. We need to operate with first church humility. People come to Christ on His terms, not on our human abilities of hospitality. A huge catastrophe in a community, disaster relief brings lots of people into churches – many come to the church in those terrible conditions no matter the physical condition of the local church. Off the condition of facility, and onto the condition of God's people (living stones).... and everything else will grow.... and the other physical issues will be corrected by the staff.
 
— Russ Wright
 
comment_post_ID); ?> "While I understand the intent behind this phrase" Expound please. What do you understand to be the intent behind that phrase?
 
— Ken
 

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