In the Industrial Age, national and regional denominations had a religious monopoly, producing and providing programs for local churches. Pre-planned activities and structures, like gumballs, were placed in the chute in Nashville, Atlanta, Birmingham, Memphis, or Dallas, and they rolled all the way to your congregation’s door. Ministry was simple and stable.

Then, a cultural watershed happened. Our world tipped into a Digital Age with younger generations. Traditional ministries stopped working. Programs-in-a-box no longer fit new times or new needs. Mechanical methods didn’t serve living communities or causes. Consequently, denominations were stymied, and dependent churches didn’t know what to do next. Doing church “wholesale” waned.

But, many congregations are still thriving. They are thinking and acting locally. Is religion becoming increasingly “retail”? Interestingly, the same culture that’s closing old doors for denominations is opening new doors for local churches and their community ministry partners.

If. If those local churches face several challenges well. These varied “ifs” are easier to deal with in local contexts, a huge advantage for our churches.

Let’s explore seven local “ifs.” How can today’s churches respond to “if” and thrive?

IF FAITH OVERCOMES FEAR

Transitions are scary. They push us out of our comfort zones. When large-scale cultural watersheds occur and the familiar ends for us, our world feels chaotic. In our present era, change is constant, and fears have become contagious. It’s challenging to practice faith when fear has us by the throat.

We need local companions to shrink our fears and make our journey easier. God’s Spirit calms us and helps us move ahead, if we practice faith that’s stronger than our fears.

IF “OUT OF THE BOX” CREATIVITY BUILDS ON “INSIDE THE BOX” CLARITY

Struggling organizations often wander off course, becoming less and less defined. In their anxiety, they may simply flounder faster rather than stopping to find their “why” and “who.” As a result, they keep on doing “how” and “what” by rote and get more and more lost.

Clarity anchors churches. Clarity emerges when we look into our own mirrors and see ourselves “face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12). Local creativity can then be generated freely, if clarity of vision and direction is already established.

IF MINISTRIES AND MISSIONS ARE LAUNCHED IN NEIGHBORHOODS FIRST AND THEN TO NATIONS

Acts 1:8 guides us to minister to our neighbors first and then reach out to more distant needs. A century ago we did missions from a colonial mindset. We sent our representatives to the nations and called what we did missions to foreigners. We concentrated on the Great Commission and neglected the Great Commandment. Our churches cooperated globally, but we competed locally.

Now, in a more connected world, churches can begin nearby and then extend our outreach to faraway places, if we love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

IF LEADERSHIP BATONS ARE SHARED ACROSS GENERATIONS

For the first time in human history, six generations are alive simultaneously. But, we find few congregations with all generations worshiping inside their walls and serving outside in their communities. In fact, most congregations are led by older members. Gutenbergers still out-number Digital Natives in the majority of our church’s pews and planning groups.

Culturally speaking, top-down leadership is receding, and side-by-side leadership is ascending. Churches can enrich and empower our leader circles, if we bridge generations.

IF DIVERSITY IS EMBRACED

In traditional churches, “from here” members were typically valued more than “come here” members. We liked our own. We sang “red and yellow, black and white, all of precious in His sight,” but we didn’t practice our lyrics with energy.

Now, in a global world with many backgrounds, cultures, and outlooks, variety is everywhere — even at 11 AM on Sunday morning. Diverse ministries can become portals for redemptive relationships and innovative outreach, if we act on “God so loved the world.”

IF WHILE RECOGNIZING DIFFERENT CONGREGATIONAL SIZES, WE AFFIRM THAT GOD’S KINGDOM HAS NO LIMITS

In the old Industrial perspective, bigger was better. Large churches were lauded, and megachurches became ideal models. We sometimes forget that God’s kingdom focuses on obedience rather than numbers. We drifted away from the view that every size church is vital in God’s eyes.

“On earth as it is in heaven” calls us to value every believer and all churches. We can welcome God’s kingdom, if we say “yes” to God’s absolute reign in our lives and congregations.

IF TRAINING IS TAILORED TO LOCAL NEEDS AND OPPORTUNITIES

Denominational programs were “one size fits all” in earlier days. Those uniform resources have diminished.

Now, training for growth and discipleship can be customized to specific settings and needs, if we know our contexts and seize our opportunities.

THE POWER OF “IF”

“If” is a tiny word. But, “if” has huge ministry potential. It’s time to explore “if.”

Bob Dale
Robert (Bob) Dale, is an Oklahoma Baptist University graduate and former assistant executive director of the Virginia Baptist Mission Board. He is a noted author, consultant and coach has been a thought-leader in the world of congregations as they engage the question of health and vibrancy for nearly 50 years. Following a distinguished career as a pastor, seminary professor and denominational leader, Bob now turns his focus toward coaching. In that role, he is helping guide a generation of clergy and laity toward a healthier understanding of leadership and maturity. He is also a consultant for CHC.