This is who we are. This is how we do things.

Avoid frustration and confusion by providing clear definitions.

Last month I wrote about the importance of identifying your top ministry priorities. Archie Poulos has written on a similar point, and the importance of saying ‘no’. Approaching a new ministry year, I am more and more convicted of the need to do less, and be more focussed.

Today I want to write about the benefits of articulating the specifics of how your church operates.

I think this is particularly useful for people who join your church after attending a different church (as opposed to people who become a Christian at your church, or have been there since it started). Every church does things differently, and based on their previous experiences,  people usually bring their own expectations of what church life should look like. This often clashes with their new church, and they find themselves butting heads with the leadership, trying to realise their own expectations.

Let me give you an example.

A new person starts attending a church and has these expectations based on their previous church experiences:

  • Singing hymns.
  • Meeting up weekly to be discipled by the pastor.
  • A 20-minute sermon.
  • Regular input into the direction of the church.
The reality of how things work at their new church:
  • The church sings songs that have been written by members of the church.
  • Discipleship is done by primarily the small group leader.
  • The sermons go for 60 minutes.
  • Most church members have minimal input into the decisions of the direction of the church.

Obviously, there’s a big difference between the expectations and the reality! By clearly articulating the details of church life in advance, new people are informed and are offered a choice:

  • Accept that this is the way things are done here and get involved without complaining, or
  • Find a different church that meets your expectations of how a church should operate.

There isn’t a third option to ‘Join the church and try to change everything about it to suit your own preferences’.

This might sound harsh, but I think it’s important to avoid frustrations on both sides. This isn’t to suggest that a church shouldn’t ever change or do things differently from how they are done today. But once the details are carefully and prayerfully considered, a church cannot change every time a new person joins and has a preference different to the current approach. Not only is this impractical, but the continual butting of heads over these issues is frustrating and draining.

Let me offer a solution – set clear and detailed expectations up front, and ensure that acceptance of these is connected with joining the church.

What kind of detail could be articulated? Here’s some ideas (in no particular order):

  1. This is the kind of music we play (e.g. hymns/Hillsong/music we write ourselves/Christian classics etc.)
  2. This is how many songs we sing (e.g. 2/3/4/5/6 songs).
  3. This is the volume of our songs (this might seem small but is important given how many people say “it’s too loud”, or “it’s too soft”).
  4. It’s ok/not ok to raise your hands/move when you sing.
  5. This is how you will be discipled (by the pastor/by your small group leader).
  6. This is how decisions are made (e.g. by vote across the congregation/by elders).
  7. This is the length of sermons each week.
  8. These are the requirements for serving in a leadership role.
  9. These are the obligations for belonging here (serving, giving, attending etc).
  10. This is what we believe about women preaching and teaching.
  11. This is how we talk about money, and how often we talk about money.
  12. This is our approach to local and global mission.

What would you add to this list?

Mars Hill Church have put together a guide to the church.
Here’s what they say about ‘Worship‘:

“Mars Hill music is loud, mostly rock and roll, and always about Jesus. God has blessed Mars Hill with talented musicians who love Jesus and serve his church through original music and fresh takes on old hymns. But more than just entertainment, our music is part of the way in which we prepare our hearts and minds to hear the word and to respond to that word. Also, as part of our worship, we take communion together and give offerings to support God’s work at Mars Hill. All in all, the atmosphere is casual, reflective, and open to all.”

With this explanation, no one is going to be surprised at the volume or style of music at the church. If it’s not their cup of tea they can either adjust to it, or find a different church. But they can’t (or hopefully won’t) come each week and complain that the music is too loud and question why the church doesn’t sing ‘Shout to the Lord’. The expectations have been clearly set.

Or take this explanation about Community Groups:

“As the church, it’s the duty and responsibility of Christians to not rely on a handful of pastors and paid staff to fulfill the church’s calling to make disciples. Rather, we believe it’s important for all Christians to take ownership of their role in the church’s calling by participating in making disciples and growing as disciples.

Community Groups are active groups. More than just a Bible study or a prayer group—though those are elements—members take the initiative to challenge our inclination to apathy by actively caring for one another, building friendships with one another, participating in serving the city through various charities and outreaches, and learning more about the Bible and Jesus together.

This moves the traditional dynamic of church as one of attendance to one of participation. And this leads to real and lasting change both personally and in our families, communities, and cities.”

These definitions could be articulated on the church website (as is the case at Mars Hill), or in a membership or ‘Belonging course‘ (as we do at Church by the Bridge’). They can then be reinforced via other church communications channels, and particularly by the lead pastor.

This isn’t to say that everyone will always be happy (we’re not in heaven yet!), but clearer articulation will go a long way to removing unnecessary frustrations and getting people focussed on the main game.

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