Is vision what keeps people at your church?

This is the second blog in a series: The Grass is Always Greener Where you Water it. As I write about the churches where I have served, I am using pseudonyms that will give me the opportunity to explore them a little more fully, without offending members or staff with my observations. Looking back now at the trail behind, I recognize that each celebration of a win, and each challenge (or epic fail) was directly related to how clearly the church understood its identity and calling.

I’m going to call the next church in the series, Metro Church. This church sits in the midst of an incredibly hip urban center, with a high value for the arts and style – not quite New York City, but cooler than Atlanta.

I want to talk about my experiences at Metro Church through the framework of what Auxano calls, The 4 P’s. These 4 concepts are the foundational source of attraction and stickiness of a church body when someone initially comes into contact with it. Everyone is looking for a defining, emotional connection to the church. We can not keep people from connecting to one or more of them. The essential question is, are they ever given the opportunity to connect with something more enduring?

>>p is for place
Metro church had a really great place. They were not exactly downtown, but close enough. They had a fantastic cutting-edge facility, great multi-use classroom environments, a top-notch cafe right in the lobby, super children’s areas, and even a skatepark out back. One of the core values of Metro Church was “Compelling Environments”, and they did it well.

When I first came to Metro, I resisted this value as purely attractional. It bothered me that there were so many people who attended because they were in love with the great environments, the musical style, the skinny jeans on the worship team, and the utter hipp-ness of the place. It definitely felt like you had to have a certain cool factor to attend Metro. They leveraged God’s provision of a great campus in every way they could – and to be honest, for a while, I struggled to find anything more meaningful than their focus on a relevant culture. In the sparse communication season of a deeper mission, people were definitely attached to the culture of the place.

>>p is for personality
This P happens when there is a particularly loved or charismatic leader on the staff at a church. People can easily attach the church’s identity and their sense of belonging to a staff member or communicator. Is it difficult to imagine the church being such a compelling place without that particular leader? Because the senior leader and communicator at Metro is so incredibly gifted, the spotlight on the vision had to shine so much brighter to keep it front and center as the identity of the church. If they had failed in that, the church’s identity would have revolved around the personality of a few key leaders. See Will Mancini’s article on Rick Warren’s health issues for a great example.

>>p is for programs
Metro Church did an exceptional job with this one. The culture of the church was one of change. Programs were always accepted as temporary expressions of the church’s mission. There were only a few rare exceptions where people invested their identity and commitment in one of the amazing programs at Metro. There was always very little fallout when a program was cut, or transitioned into another program. The staff really did a great job of making sure that people knew the programs were tools in support of the church’s vision.

>>p is for people
This is the trickiest of the 4, and happens to be the one that was the biggest challenge for Metro Church. When people become the central source of identity (a person’s emotional connection to a church at the deepest level), they experience severe angst when people they are personally attached to leave. We want people to experience true community in our church body. But when the people we are relationally connected to leave, our ties and commitment to the church should not dissolve. The purely sociological phenomenon of comfort and belonging that occurs when 10-20 people know you and miss you should never trump our attachment to God’s vision for the church.

Metro was constantly in a state of leadership flux because the relational attraction of the micro-communities at the church created stronger ties than people’s connection to the church’s vision. As the pastor that led discipleship and spiritual development, I was guilty of unintentionally reinforcing this by using small groups to strengthen these ties without dripping the vision as the motivating purpose behind the small group communities.

The 4 P’s are not bad. They are all good things. They are part of God’s provision to us, as His church. Tragically, it is easy to raise these 4 areas to a place of primacy over the vision without even realizing it. Because we want to leverage God’s provision to make the most of what He gives us, we reinforce people’s love and value of the place God has given us, the quality of our leaders, the excellent programs we use, and the people who help us connect. The problem is that even in the absence of a clear and compelling vision, the 4 P’s have enough power to drawn and retain people, masking the gaping hole in our purpose and mission.

I am thankful for Metro Church’s continual focus on the vital, unique vision that God called them to. I learned so much about the seductive danger of a church that could have continued growing just by been great at the 4 P’s – yet continually called people to refocus on God’s mission for His people in that time and place.

>>Which of the 4 P’s does your church struggle with? How do you keep your missional focus?

2 thoughts on “Is vision what keeps people at your church?

  1. I enjoyed reading your blog post.

    I once attended a church that had a scripture on their weekly bulletin that claimed “Without vision, the people will perish.”
    That church leadership was always asking: “How can we make things better? If money were no object, what would the be the best ideas for our church?”

    Sadly, most suggestions were limited in their view. I remember hearing some of the members excitedly suggesting valet parking and shuttle services. Fun things indeed, but lacking the driving motivation behind the programs. Without vision, they were just attractive accessories for a flashy ensemble.

    There is great importance in having a unified, specific, intentional and relevant vision.

    As I ponder these unique concepts and principles, I still find myself struggling with one thing. If I am honest with myself, I get an uneasy squirm in my stomach as I read the title of the blog post. While it is important to have a unified and informed vision and mission, I struggle to place the importance on keeping people at MY church. (I read this at a time where my entire idea of “church” materializes in doing intentional life with others in the community.)

    It is true that each group needs a specific and passionate direction that God would bless and be honored through, that members can come together to accomplish and that folks in the surrounding community can recognize as a defining niche (if you will). I just fear that too much talk of such isolated and focused motivation may inadvertently be contributing to further isolation of church groups within a community. If this were not such a destructive image for God’s people in a world of catchy marketing, manipulative slogans and self-seeking mentality, it could and would serve to CREATE unity and empowerment of God’s people across denominations and beliefs.

    I realize that it seems naive and idealistic of me to think that we could place the importance on fostering a unity of vision for an entire community of church groups. Still, my hope is for that greater unity to be accomplished for God’s people.

    This is just a thought and a personal passion for the potential of God’s people to one day realize! Perhaps it may come through organized direction and leading of entire communities by the brilliant, seeking, motivated, hardworking and discerning Auxano staff like yourself! 🙂 Your passion and vision can start with individuals and individual church groups, and spread to entire communities and eventually entire peoples. Changing one church group CAN change the entire community of believers, since we are all members of one body.

    I value the work you are doing.

  2. That’s a very good assessment of the challenges that churches face:
    Just like every individual in a church is a complete body, with all their body parts functioning, each one still has a particular gifting and unique set of strengths. The direction of their life and how they serve the kingdom of God and the larger body of their church is dramatically impacted by the unique nature of how God has designed them, and developed them through their life-history.

    Now imagine that model applied to The Church. Imagine churches in an area as a body, using the same model that Paul proposes for individual church bodies. Each church should have a complete body with all their body parts functioning (with Christ as the head), each church still has a particular gifting and unique set of strengths. The direction of their ministry calling and how they best serve the kingdom of God and the larger body of local churches is unleashed when they can articulate the unique nature of how God has designed them and developed them through their church history.

    When churches can articulate and live function within their uniqueness and calling, it actually reduces “competition” between churches. I want people to be attached to our church at the deepest level because of the vision that God has planted in us – not because we have the best programs, personalities, facility, or because they’re comfortable with the people they go to church with. When people are attached to those 4 “P’s” there is incredible competition among churches, because those things are constantly in a state of flux. We may have a better kids ministry for the next decade, but what happens when we go through a major staff transition or budget cuts and now our children’s ministry is simply adequate? Suddenly we’re competing for membership with the church down the st that has a dynamic, growing children’s ministry. Conversely, when the well-known pastor at the megachurch suffers a health issue or moral failure people disappear like water in a bucket with a hole in the bottom. Statistics consistently show that church attendance see-saws on who is in the pulpit (2 hours on a Sunday).

    When every church in a community is not trying to be the specialist in every area, but know their ministry strength and live within it, it frees up the foot to be the best foot, the eye to be the best eye. Just like you function in every part of what it means to be a human, but have unique strengths and calling – every church should function in every part of what it means to be a church, but have unique strengths and calling. When churches in a community have uncovered and live with this vision clarity, they are free to have the unity of a larger body with different specializations instead of a group of churches all trying to be everything to everyone. So the people that I want to keep at my church are ones who are far from God, and ones who are called to the vision of our church. The ones who aren’t – I want to help them find a church with a vision that resonates with them.

    Yes, all of this is idealistic. It is a complex issue applied to a simple model, so there are tensions to manage and illusions to dispel, but I am convinced this is a significant step in God’s intended direction…and tragically, the status quo is a broken, fragmented mess. Clarity isn’t everything, but it changes everything.

    And thank you for the encouragement!

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