Kevin DeYoung recently listed ten distinctions between vibrant, robust churches and their squishy evangelical counterparts. It is worth reading the whole article and carefully reflecting on the ten distinctions he delineates. For pastors and church leaders, it would be valuable to evaluate our ministry in the light of these considerations.
I wish to add another distinction to the list: decentralization. I would contend that a vibrant, robust church will move unstoppably outward from the center, rather than drawing others into a static middle. This was certainly the example of the early church, and should continue to be so today. A healthy church ministry will decentralize in three key areas especially.
When the church is functioning poorly, the pastoral staff and perhaps a few key volunteers do the overwhelming majority of the ministry. Most of the congregants come and spectate at ministry events. Ministers do not equip the saints for works of service (Ephesians 4:11-12); instead ministers teach about works of service and then perform them themselves—works like evangelism, visiting the sick, counseling every person who comes to the church. In addition, the senior or solo pastor will make the majority of decisions himself, centralizing the authority as well as the ministry. Elders serve merely as board members, unable to teach (despite 1 Timothy 3:2), but offering secular business counsel to a pastor who probably has little training in that area. A vibrant church, contrarily, will have a strong group of elders committed to sharing the leadership, teaching, and equipping ministries of the church. These godly men will mobilize the entire congregation for ministry, training deacons and volunteers to coordinate and perform a variety of ministry tasks according to their gifts and passions. As one wag observed, most church services are like football games, where 22,000 people badly in need of exercise watch 22 men badly in need of rest. A church performing as it should will ensure this is no longer the case.
Time (and Space):
When a church has lost the decentralizing vision in ministry, it will necessarily have to bring people into its central location. That is, if only one person is doing the lion’s share of ministry, everyone else will have to go to that one person in order to be ministered to. Church leaders who seek ungodly primacy in the local congregation (cf. 3 John 9) will want to have people in the church building as often as possible to maintain control over them. The church itself becomes the focal point for all ministry. Instead of Jesus’ “Go and make disciples,” discipleship-evangelism becomes strangely Israelite in its approach: rooted to one location, attracting occasional passers-by to its stunted glory. Any church that seeks to have its members under its roof several days a week has probably lost its sense of the commission. Conversely, a vibrant church, having equipped its members well, will send them out to do ministry in their spheres of influence (neighborhood, workplace, home, school, etc.). Instead of inviting people to church, evangelistic congregants will visit their homes; instead of attending a teaching session or extra service, godly men and women will lead their own small groups—for their colleagues, the neighborhood moms, classmates, or whomever. The church building functions as a launching pad for a host of smaller ministries, guaranteeing that most of a congregant’s time will be spent outside the building.
If a church has succumbed to centralized ministry demanding an inordinate amount of time spent within the church building, it will probably spend the majority of its resources on itself. That is, if the goal of ministry is to draw people into the central space, that space will have to be as comfortable, appealing, even luxurious as possible. The sound system will be top shelf, the décor will be classy, and many of the accoutrements will be manifestly unnecessary (except to attract passers-by, of course). Centralized ministries will receive tremendous financial support so as to attract still more members to attend and participate. Easily more than 90% of the budget will go to the church itself, with the small remainder set aside as a token support for missions and compassion ministries—funds that leave the church and do not directly benefit it. A vibrant church, however, will devote a substantial portion (ideally even a majority) of its resources to ministries occurring outside the church. The goal is to build for the kingdom, not the local church. (The two do overlap at points, of course.) Youth groups may have to go without several video game consoles because the money has been better spent helping rescue teen girls from a life of prostitution and slavery. The sound system may be subpar because we sense we could worship God more truly by supporting a missionary church-planter overseas, one who has no sound system but is seeing another people praise him in another tongue. The church is greater than the building, and our budgets reflect our beliefs.
Churches that do not decentralize in these ways grow sickly and stagnant, even if they attract many people. Like ingrown toenails or the Dead Sea, they have ceased to be healthy, bringing death and decay when they should be beacons of life and vitality. A robust, vibrant church, however, will flourish like a tree planted beside streams of living water. Its roots will go deep, and so its branches will grow wide—each bearing fruit far from, though still connected to, the trunk.