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4 Ways Your Church is Failing at Outreach

There’s little doubt something fundamental in Western culture is shifting. And there’s no doubt it’s having and will continue to have a profound impact on the church.

Some opinions (like this study profiled by CNN) have gone so far to suggest that the changes are so deep that religion (in Canada, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Australia, Switzerland and other countries) may become extinct within 100 years. The U.S. isn’t exempt; the researchers simple say they don’t have the right kind of data to predict the outcome in America.

Even if that seems a little extreme, we have all seen emerging trends around us, (trends we have talked about before in this space):

People who attend church are attending less often. Unchurched people are changing. The churches that are making an impact 10 years from now will probably be quite different.

It’s important that you have a strategy to respond to the changes. But what if your attitude is even more important than your strategy?

When cultural shifts happen, I’ve seen church leaders approach the issue from four principal viewpoints:

1. Blame
2. Justification
3. Resignation
4. Repentance

One response is helpful; the other three essentially lead nowhere good.

The blamers point to the rise of sports on Sunday, wide-open shopping malls, the attraction of the beach in the summer and ski hills in the winter. They also point fingers at people: The families who have left just weren’t loyal. Unchurched people have it all wrong. They’ll even take aim at the nearest megachurch and blame it for the struggles of their church. Some of them blame the government. Essentially, a blamer points to anything and anyone that moves that isn’t them. The future is rarely built by people who blame.

The justifiers explain why our demise is inevitable. They sound a lot like the blamers, but they’re not as angry. Some of them sound quite scholarly, actually. They have 1000 well thought out reasons why the church is struggling, and will gently point out that resistance is futile. No one can make it in this economy, they point out. And the reason they’re not growing has nothing to do with them.

The resigners are the least fiery of the bunch. They have reduced blame to the occasional passionless remark. If you push them, they’ll explain why things aren’t working. But mostly, they just go about their day without a vision for the future. Decline and demise are inevitable, and their job is to ignore the signs around them and pastor a few people until it’s time to finally close the door. In a post-modern, post-Christian, pluralistic world, they feel they really can’t compete. So they don’t.

The repenters are the rarest group. They see the problems and the cultural shift, but rather than point blame outward, they assign responsibility inward. They confess the sins not of the culture, but of the church. Or more specifically, they confess their own sins. They realize the problem is that when we have a sacred truth that isn’t connecting, the problem isn’t with the sacred truth, but with those who bear it. They pray, fast, weep and then they do something even more remarkable. They change. They reform. Did you ever notice the Reformation started first with confessing the sins of the existing church? People repented, and out of repentance came renewal.

When you adopt the posture of repentance, anything and everything can change. If you start with repentance, it never ends there. Repenting releases fresh possibilities. I believe a church that confesses will be around 100 years from now.

A repentant church might even reverse the trend completely.

What do you think the predominant response of the church has been to our pending “demise”? Where are you in your attitude, and where do you need to be?  

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Speaker and podcaster Carey Nieuwhof is a former lawyer and founding pastor of Connexus Church, one of the largest and most influential churches in Canada. With over 6 million downloads, The Carey Nieuwhof Leadership Podcast features today's top leaders and cultural influencers. His most recent book is “Didn’t See It Coming: Overcoming the 7 Greatest Challenges That No One Expects and Everyone Experiences.” Carey and his wife, Toni, reside near Barrie, Ontario and have two children.