The Church in America is in crisis. At least that is what we have been told. Every day it feels like there is another article or another statistic that corroborates some form of data that highlights the Church’s decline. And if we are not careful, as pastors and leaders, this can trigger our anxiety and anger in the midst of our exhaustion. We can begin to cave under the pressure of feeling as if we are rolling a boulder up a mountain—unsure that we will ever make it to the top without the boulder rolling back over us or even worse that getting the boulder to the top of the mountain might not even matter.
But what if what some are describing as a crisis is really an opportunity in disguise?
I have never been more excited about the changes I see happening across churches in North America than I do today.
What if the decline we feel is really more of a necessary pruning rather than a collapse? And what if the enormous challenges of the pruning process also carries with it the possibility to bear much fruit? I believe that it does. In fact, in all my years of ministry, I have never been more excited about the changes I see happening across churches in North America than I do today. But just because the pruning carries possibility doesn’t mean that we will step into it. In fact, when we are being pruned, all we really know for sure is that we are being cut—at first, it is hard to know whether we are being cut back or cut off. If we assume we are being cut off, we will at best simply lie on the ground; or worse, try to hide the reality by pretending everything is OK.
Naming the problem and facing the brutal facts head-on is so important; otherwise, any possible solution is really no solution at all.
This article is my attempt to name the problem and offer a pathway toward a solution that every church can begin to walk in the midst of the anger, anxiety, and exhaustion that so many of us are feeling.
The Crisis We Now Face
From working with churches of many different denominations, sizes, regions, and styles over the past 20 years, I have arrived at a firm conclusion.
Specifically, for the first time in our lifetimes, church leaders across every spectrum are facing the same problem, though they express it in different ways—we are not making disciples. This has left most churches in need of necessary pruning. The over-accumulation of programs has left the real fruit of discipleship underdeveloped. Even when leaders’ intentions are pure, churches spend huge amounts of time and energy that don’t produce more and truer followers of Jesus.
When you look under the hood of most churches, we are perfectly set up to make converts who become volunteers that serve rather than to make disciples who become leaders that are sent out on mission. We’ve replaced a true leadership pipeline with a volunteer drainpipe.
Unfortunately, this ministry paradigm has become impotent in the face of huge trends overtaking churches far and wide.
Participation frequency (that is, how often your regular attenders attend) has dropped too much to be ignored or explained away. This slide directly undercuts the metrics of attendance and small group participation, and it severely disrupts the volunteer structure that keeps a church running.
Even when leaders’ intentions are pure, churches spend huge amounts of time and energy that don’t produce more and truer followers of Jesus.
Younger generations are abandoning church participation in record numbers; but worse, growing numbers have never been in a church in their lives. Not only is there a steeply growing number of “nones” (those who claim no religion on social surveys), but many of them are “never have beens.” When these people look for spiritual guidance, going to church never crosses their minds. They are almost immune to conventional church outreach methods, which all involve helping someone walk into a church.
For that matter, more people aren’t walking into anything—movie theaters, stadiums, stores, even work. Entertainment, merchandise, and tools of many trades are accessible on any screen anywhere, so more people have more reason to stay home from everything, including church.
And all this happened before 2020.
The Covid-19 pandemic accelerated every trend that was already taking a toll on conventional ministry—the equivalent of jumping 10 years ahead in a matter of weeks. It also exposed and intensified clashing beliefs, values, and priorities within churches. When most churches weren’t meeting, it was never easier for an unhappy attender to hit the eject button and go elsewhere or nowhere. And they did—not only over what was already dissatisfying them, but also over leaders’ responses and non-responses to the pandemic, to racism, and to a bitter presidential election.
It’s all enough to drive churches and their leaders to the brink.
When problems like these rock the stability and threaten the longevity of the church we serve —when we don’t know what to do to right the ship or when all the corrections we thought were right are failing us—anxiety, anger, and despair rise to our throats. In the middle of our darkest, sleepless nights, we might even feel like we are losing everything.
Nevertheless, despite our grief, we must not miss the gift and opportunity right in front of us. The Bible shows that it is possible not only to survive but to thrive in a crisis like this, just as prior generations of believers rose to their historic moment. We don’t have to be paralyzed in our distress. Instead, we can seize our moment to invest in God’s intention for the Church in every moment.
The Solution We’ve Always Had
What we need has been right here with us all along. We don’t face our crisis alone—Jesus is with us to help us. We aren’t talking about the “Footprints” poem kind of presence, although that’s important. Rather, we are talking about the fact that Jesus blazed the path before us in his own life—he set the model for us to imitate. Jesus himself faced a mortal crisis that could have sunk his own ministry’s future, but he countered it with a move to keep it going to this day. In short, Jesus doubled down on mission, discipleship, and leadership.
That sentence needs to be unpacked because “mission, discipleship, and leadership” might sound like a tired platitude. You’ve heard it all before, and so have I. But the key word in that phrase isn’t mission or discipleship or leadership—it’s the word and.
If you’re trying to level a three-legged table, you put a bull’s eye level on the tabletop and ad- just the legs until you get the bubble in the center of the circle. To center the bubble, you have to extend the leg that’s too short. But if you only pay attention to that leg, making it longer and longer without keeping the others in mind, you’ll overcompensate and push the tabletop the other way—it still won’t be level.
“Mission, discipleship, and leadership” might sound like a tired platitude. But the key word in that phrase isn’t mission or discipleship or leadership—it’s the word and.
This is what the North American Church has done with the three legs of mission, discipleship, and leadership over the past four decades. It recognizes that something is missing, it raises awareness about the need, it makes the weak element the center of everything and ignores the rest, and it replaces one sort of lopsided church with a church that’s lopsided another way.
In the 1980s and 1990s, “leadership” became the hottest word in pastoral ministry. Megachurches were proliferating, and as churches became more complex organizations, pastors strove to rise to the challenge. Thinkers in the business world had just begun replacing the concept of “manager” with “leader,” and pastors of middle-class, suburban churches attended by managers-turned-leaders began adopting the concept as well—Bill Hybels typified the trend, but he wasn’t alone. Leadership Journal, a popular, influential publication for pastors, launched in 1980. After a while, “leader” came to be used interchangeably with “pastor” or “minister” and in some circles replaced it almost entirely.
Then around the year 2000, an array of thinkers and ministry practitioners challenged the fixation on leadership by emphasizing mission. Of course, leaders had been placing a high premium on having a mission, stating the mission, and being driven by the mission. But the new voices alleged that these mission statements fed the organizations but didn’t flow from the mission of God. They proposed decentralized, organic movements of Jesus-followers dispersing into the world with the gospel. It was the birth of a missional reorientation that changed many minds. But leaders often struggled to stimulate, sustain, and spread such movements on the ground in such a way as to transform ministry far and wide.
Later, in the mid-2010s, another critique arose, this time from the angle of discipleship. These critics were by no means opposed to mission, but most didn’t come from the missional conversation. Some were founders of parachurch ministries built to train believers in Jesus’s way. Others were church leaders who were tired of the lack of discipleship fruit borne by the worship/small groups/volunteer service ministry model. Under their influence—and amid a series of scandals in the subculture that cast severe doubt on evangelicals’ holiness and faith—a rising tide of leaders are now pointing at discipleship as the Church’s greatest need. In fact, we’ve never seen more church leaders with a heart for disciple-making than we do today.
The problem is that each of these movements lifts up something missing without integrating it with the rest. In a local church, it often plays out in the string of pastoral hires. If you look at one church’s history, you may see a couple of leadership-focused pastors followed by a mission-focused pastor and most recently a discipleship-focused pastor. If your church has multiple pastoral staff, you may have all three represented, with today’s biggest influence coming from your most recent personnel addition. And most likely, your heads of leadership development, mission, and discipleship each basically oversee separate ministry departments with different philosophies and priorities.
All Three Are Needed
Each thrust is legitimate, but it usually plays out as an overreaction to the overreaction that preceded it. Leaders gravitate to the one they’re naturally good at, overgeneralize it, and stand on it to critique the one that came before. But leadership, mission, and discipleship don’t work well when they stand alone or with their backs to each other, or when one stands over the others.
Wherever leadership stands over mission and discipleship, leaders establish an empowered elite who measure the mission with solely organizational metrics and deliver the goods and services to everyone else.
Wherever mission stands over leadership and discipleship, leaders send people out without adequate support or training, and they go out and fail—or if they manage to survive with their faith intact, they swear never to go out on mission again.
Wherever discipleship stands over leadership and mission, leaders prepare people for mission, but the preparation never ends and mission never starts, because leaders never get convinced that people have been prepared enough to be entrusted with the mission.
We need leadership, mission, and discipleship—all three. Whenever we don’t have them, we substitute volunteerism for leadership, service for mission, and participation for discipleship. At worst, we make participants who volunteer to serve instead of making disciples who lead on the mission.
Today’s rising emphasis on discipleship is both a welcome opportunity and a dangerous distraction. It could turn out to be a launchpad or a fad. As crucial and badly needed as discipleship and disciplemaking are, pushing hard on them isn’t going to solve the Church’s problems and rescue it from its current crisis by themselves. Long-term, faithful success hangs on whether the Church can integrate mission, discipleship, and leadership development into a coherent whole—a self-reinforcing ecosystem. That’s what Jesus did.