Pastors: Are We Connecting With The Future?


“In 1982 our church had a chance to purchase the lot next door for $20,000,” the lay leader said. “The church board thought it was too expensive. Now an apartment building is on that lot. Our attendance gradually declined, and we have no way to solve the parking problem.”

Most churches focus more on conserving past traditions than on building a positive future. This is the major reason approximately 55 percent of mainstream congregations are smaller than they were five years ago and another 25 percent are plateaued in membership. (In the more evangelical denominations those figures are reversed: Approximately 25 percent of their congregations are declining in size and 55 percent are plateaued.)

A church governing board’s most important question seldom appears on its meeting agenda; What should our congregation do this year in order to be alive and thriving in the year 2027? Today is tomorrow’s history. How will people in the future read the history that we are writing this year? What will 2027 say we should have concentrated on this month?

Every congregation is unique, so no prescription can address every aspect of its future. Yet the evidence indicates that the
following four-point game plan connects with 2027 in a dependable, positive way.

1. Churches with a future have effective pastoral leadership. Most discussions of clergy competence tend to center on the importance of one part of the pastor’s work. The implication: If he or she does this well, the other parts take care of themselves. Parish reality is never that simple. This complex role resembles a diamond whose many facets all contribute to create a satisfactory sparkle. One way to overcome oversimplification is the reminder that “effective pastoral leadership” is (a) effective, (b) pastoral, and (c) leadership. If one of those qualities is missing, the other two cannot compensate for its absence.

Effective means that the pastoral leader fits this congregation’s ministry needs at this time in its history. Just as good people can
find themselves in a mismatched marriage, pastor-people combination sometimes work out that way. Some effectiveness qualities:

A theological focus that fits this congregation.

Spiritual enthusiasm that includes optimism about the congregation, its leaders, and God’s plans for its future (the Bible calls this hope).

A joyful attitude (people are not attracted to churches whose CEO’s demeanor always resembles a marine drill instructor).

A high energy level (low-energy pastors often become ecclesiastical morticians).

Preaching skill.

Personal integrity, which includes remembering promises, functioning responsibly with tasks that are not necessarily enjoyable,
serving without demand for public recognition, exhibiting behavior morally consistent with Christian norms (what clergy are outside the pulpit influences whether people listen to them in the pulpit).

Positive appearance, which includes neat apparel, shined shoes, and well-kept hair (good grooming does not bring people into the
Kingdom of God, but if the communication package is shabby, people may not examine its contents).

Pastoral means that the effective leader practices indiscriminate caring (the kind of acceptance and forgiveness despite imperfections that God gives each of us). Some pastoral qualities:

Timely attentiveness to constituents’ hospitalizations, illnesses, and personal crises.

A good listener to personal concerns (people want a pastor who seems to have time to talk with them).

Praise-full and cynicism-sparse conversational patterns.

Leadership means that the effective pastor skillfully the congregation accomplish its ministries. Some leadership qualities:

Spiritual vision sensitive to congregational perspectives and traditions but not held captive by them.

Persistent determination that keeps on ticking toward ministry goals despite all obstacles.

A coach who walks the fine line between Lone Ranger-withdrawal from the team and dominating over-control of the team.

A disposition toward delegation (good leaders coach the team; poor leaders try to play all the positions).

Openness to consider new ideas on the way to formulating final plans.

Balanced time use that avoids riding one hobbyhorse until everyone wishes it would drop dead.

Effective pastoral leaders skillfully execute all three roles. They are effective.. They are pastoral. They are leaders. Congregations
that have such a pastor will thrive and connect with 2027.

2. Churches with a future maintain a positive relational climate. Within the first 120 seconds of entering a church sanctuary or meeting room, most first-diners develop one of two opinions: They sense that this is either a warm, friendly church or a cold, non-welcoming group. What causes this phenomenon? Body language! Communication happens in ways other than words. When two people converse, they send positive and negative signals through posture, gestures, and facial features. Groups of people also exhibit body language. No stream of friendly words from the pulpit, the newsletter, or pastoral-calling conversations compensates for cold congregational body language.

Build a ministry team of relationally skilled people who serve in the parking lot and at the entryways before and after all church
events. In the worship service, schedule three minutes for people to mill about and greet each other. At the end of the service, expect people to engage in the three-minute ministry of greeting and talking with one person they do not know before they talk with someone they know.

Neither good preaching nor good programming can make up for a cold psychological atmosphere. People look for churches that are caring places, not just teaching spaces. Congregations that provide a warm body-language climate will thrive and connect with 2027.

3. Churches with a future provide meaningful experiences for people at every stage of physical, psychological, and spiritual
development. A survey by the Gallup Organization indicates that the U.S.’s more than 200,000,000 residents, age 18 and over, fall into four religious categories: 12 percent are deeply committed Christians; 28 percent are church attenders; 45 percent are unchurched but receptive; 15 percent are New Agers, adherents of other religions, or atheists. Churches that plan to be around in the next century will program in ways that speak to people in all four categories, not just one or two of them.

Research reported by Hoge, Johnson, and Luidens in Vanishing Boundaries (Louisville: Westminister/John Knox) indicates two
influences on whether people move toward church involvement as adults: (a) religious beliefs formed in pre-college years and (b) adult decisions based on current needs and social relationships. What needs do effective churches meet for adults? Four are especially important:

Religious education for children–which includes moral and character education alongside learning about the Bible and church
teachings. (What Sunday school and youth programs offer cannot be purchased elsewhere, except in five-day-a-week religious schools.)

Personal support and reassurance–especially in settings where they can speak openly and honestly without fear of rejection (small groups of various kinds can provide this).

Social contacts and a sense of community–a need that is strongest in urban settings where family and friendship ties are weak,
especially for newcomers.

Inspiration and spiritual guidance–which means that they want worship to be uplifting, empowering, and encouraging (especially the music which sets the emotional tone for all other elements).

Congregations that meet those needs will thrive and connect with 2027.

4. Churches with a future maintain ministries that connect with people living within fifteen minutes’ driving distance of their
building. Significant percentage changes in socioeconomic class, ethnic composition, or skin color within this population base can amputate a congregation’s future. The only positive responses to the situation are (a) relocating the building or (b) major changes in worship service style, outreach focus, and ministry content.

An old story tells about a man who took a job painting yellow lines down the middle of a highway. On his first day he painted a mile, and the foreman said, “You did well. Keep it up and you’ll get a raise.”

The next day, the man painted one-half mile and the foreman said, “Well, one-half mile isn’t as good as a mile, but keep up the good work.”

The following day the man painted only one-fourth mile. The foreman called him in and said, “First you did a mile, then you did
one-half mile, but yesterday you only did one-fourth mile. You’re not getting the work done, so I have to fire you.”

The man protested, “But it’s not my fault. Each day I keep getting farther away from the paint can.”

Churches disconnect from their future in proportion to the distance from their mission field. That distance can happen in several
ways. If their members move to the suburbs, the distance is geographic. If the community around the church changes its ethnic, socioeconomic, or racial composition, the distance is cultural. If the leaders strongly resist the changes in worship style or programming required by young-adult attenders, the distance is psychological and spiritual.

Congregations willing to move their paint cans will connect with 2027 in a thriving way.

The Future Is Now

The year 2027 sounds far away; actually, it is next door. (Do you remember what you were doing in 1967? The next thirty years will come at the same speed that the last thirty years went.) Take another look at your governing board agenda. Does it focus primarily on issues that connect your church with its future or its past? When 2027 arrives, which of these two statements are the church board members likely to make: “They weren’t thinking when they let that opportunity go by.” Or “Our ministries are strong because the leaders who preceded us paid attention to the future.”