The Reciprocal Revolution: How the Church Can Re-chart its Mission to Change the World

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Pastor, you are an incredible gift to the Church. Thank you for listening to the Spirit and answering God’s Call. Whatever your denominational tribe or experience, serving a congregation with a large or small membership, you have tried your best to apply spirited skills to grow the church. Like you, I have participated in conferences and classes taught by thoughtful leaders intended to help the church chart its way ahead through unfamiliar political, social, and technological change. As it turned out, we still remain many steps behind the culture, struggling to keep what we have, afloat.

This struggle has left many pastors and denominational leaders disappointed and despairing. We tried to reconcile the truth that Church is Christ’s spiritual body with the decline in membership, resources, and compromised or failed ministry. What’s going on? Our brick and mortar structures are no longer filled; neither can we afford to maintain them. Our aging buildings and members pose an incredible challenge to the church. Sadly, our crumbling church exteriors frequently mirror the congregation’s interior spiritual life too. Emotionally attached to dying structures, we cling to anachronistic ministry models.

The church is both a spiritual organism and a physical organization as it interacts with the world. For us to fulfill our work, we need new ministry models that have remained essentially unchanged for hundreds of years. It will take a revolution to transform institutional stagnation into missional innovation. Pastors and churches have a responsibility to do all they can to ensure that their gifts bless the world to the glory of God.

Americans and Religious Life

Your particular ministry context is unique. Demographic services like those provided by MissionInsite can provide practical information about your neighbors. When we pay attention to what’s going on in the community we not only show love, we also begin to change and grow ourselves. Your community also shares similarities with the nation. For example, the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) 2008, found that ten percent fewer adults identified as Christians, compared to 1990, and that twenty-seven percent do not expect a religious funeral at their death. With deep, significant change church leadership often lacks sufficient skills and resources to cope and lead effectively. “Each month 1,300 pastors are fired or forced to resign. Ten years from now, forty percent of currently serving pastors will be in another line of work” (Chuck Meyer, Dying Church Living God: A Call to Begin Again, Kelowna, BC, Canada: Northstone Publishing, 2000, p. 31.)

Ministers deserve special attention from their boards and denominational support systems that address not only stress from ordinary life experiences, but the stress of failed ministry, and the feelings of personal defeat that can be attributed to repetitive, ineffectual ministry practice. Increasing our contextual intelligence could create more effective pastor retraining that would improve competencies and reduce stress.

Another challenge to institutional Christianity does not come from, “other religions but rather from a rejection of all forms of organized religion” ((ARIS) 2008). Our context has been severely stressed as historic Mainline churches experience sharp decline. Despite some non-denominational churches trending up, as are young adults born between 1983 and 1995 (Gen-X), these remain as only teasers. According to “A Decade of Change in American Congregations 2000–2010,” by David A. Roozen, despite some positive signs the “net overall effect is fewer persons in the pews and decreasing spiritual vitality” (Faith Communities Today, 2010, p. 1). Until we correlate the cause of our pervasive membership decline, we will continue to waste our limited resources on what doesn’t work while the remedy remains out of reach.

What We Measure, Matters

John 3:16[1] is likely one of your favorite Scripture texts, as it is mine. "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” These words, so indelibly implanted on our memory, might be heard differently in many communities. They hear, “For God so loved the church.” Despite exciting vacation Bible schools, acts of kindness extending shelter, food, or clothing, and other community ministries, our best efforts appear disproportionate to the enormous resources invested to serve people gathered inside the walls.

The church, spiritually and corporately, is a gift to the world, but only as it connects authentically to public and social networks. According to Peter Block, “the core question is this: What is the means through which those of us who care about the whole community can create a future for ourselves that is not just an improvement, but one of a different nature from what we now have?” (Peter Block, Community, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2008, p 33). The open and connected church could be the answer. Since God loves the whole world, couldn’t the church love the whole community?


How would you characterize Jesus’ mission if you paid attention to the outside effects of his ministry? Using the Gospel of John as a reference point, consider how Jesus’ incarnation disrupted the entire planet when the Word, became flesh and moved into our neighborhood" (Jn. I, 14). Jesus disrupted our economy when he overturned the moneychangers’ tables (Jn. II), disrupted faith when he told Nicodemus he had to be born anew (Jn. III). Jesus disrupted gender and race (Jn. IV), justice and resources (Jn. V, VI), education, morality, and even disrupted health care (Jn. VII, VIII, IX). Jesus forever disrupted life and death (Jn. X), our identity (Jn. XI-XVII), our expectations (Jn. XVIII-XX) and ultimately our destiny (Jn. XI).

Jesus completely disrupted what was not working, beyond repair, and unacceptable, to give life in abundance. Self-serving devotees of entrenched, incumbent leadership were targeted for transformational change. Instead of sustaining equilibrium, Jesus disrupted life on a grand scale.

We measure inside, such as membership and finances, but rarely pay attention to our engagement outside. Counting members is easy. Who is paying attention to those not sitting in our pews, or counting the un-reached? If we thought they mattered, we would likely pay better attention and count them, too.

Who are your church’s equity holders and stakeholders? You might quickly respond, church members. Who pays for your church’s ministry? To help understand where mutual exchange exists, consider two more questions:

Q1: Does the government support your church? “No,” you explain, “Our church was built on the dreams and donations of faithful members.” (This perception helps explain the emotional attachment members express for their beloved sanctuary.) One more question:

Q2: Does your church pay property taxes? “No,” you explain. “Churches do not pay property taxes; they are charitable, religious, organizations.”

Property tax exemption represents significant government support for the church. In northern New Jersey, property tax exemption for thirty-seven Presbyterian congregations exceeds one million dollars every year!

The communities in which these properties are located essentially invest one million dollars in Presbyterian congregational ministry every year, (not counting other denominational churches and ministries amounting to millions of dollars more). Is it past time for church members in America to acknowledge with gratitude the enormous financial investment their community (our country) makes in their (our) ministries. In the past ten years, congregations indicating financial difficulty more than doubled to nearly 20% (David A. Roozen, “Holy Toll: The Impact of the 2008 Recession on American Congregations,” Faith Communities Today, 2010, p. 1). Many of our churches would be bankrupt if they had to pay their fair share of property tax.

Since property tax exemption establishes a financial contract between the church and the community, you can measure the community’s equity contribution by estimating the equivalent property tax assessed on your sanctuary, education facilities, and minister’s housing. Consider the many facets of your church’s ministry and measure the community benefit, then strive to exceed the “gift” of property tax relief.

You may want to include an amount equal to the property tax exemption received to the income line of your annual budget. Visualizing the magnitude of the gift would encourage the church to find ways for reciprocal action. Reciprocal action includes various programs and services intentionally directed outward into the community, as opposed to programs and energies designed to benefit the current church membership and those already served.

Reciprocal Action, In Action

I was asked to meet with a large church planning team exploring ways to reach young people, (as one team member put it, “to bring kids back to church”). As I listened and affirmed their energy for this important project, I asked them to consider one question: In what way could their exciting youth vision bless every young person in their town? It was as if puzzled looks turned into sparks of connecting dots as the team looked around at one another. “We had never thought about that before; could we do that?”

I came prepared with demographic data identifying the opportunities of community young people deserving to experience God’s love as they had. I pushed a bit harder and asked, “What could result if your vision grew to be the church for kids in your area? If you authentically embraced that vision, then every community asset that cares about kids immediately becomes your partner, and resources will align to achieve that goal.” The conversation gradually scaled to a larger vision. Reciprocal action, for example, recognizes a larger view of mission, a collaborative view, and in gratitude for town’s support of the church (i.e., property tax forgiveness) develops ways to return the blessing to include priorities of the community, as well as the church. Today, this congregation is crafting an audacious capacity-building youth initiative that will have an enormous impact on the community.

The Bible records numerous examples of reciprocity. God’s exiled people were to demonstrate reciprocity with the exhortation to, “Make yourselves at home there and work for the country’s welfare;” and to “Pray for Babylon’s well-being. If things go well for Babylon, things will go well for you” (Jer. XXIX, 7). The Gospels also encourage reciprocity: “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke VI, 31). “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows” (Gal. VI, 7).

Our communities are social networks built on principles of reciprocity to operate optimally. This shared value within a community is referred to as “social capital,” measured as bonding social capital (inward looking activities like churches and other volunteer associations), or measured as bridging social capital (outward looking activities of groups such as political parties, civil rights movements, youth service groups, and ecumenical associations).

Fig. 1 – American Group Trends

American Group Trends, (Fig. 1, below), visualizes two radical changes in American life. First, compared to 1974, there were more than twice the number of groups, and second, an approximate twenty percent decline in total group membership as well twenty-five percent fewer people in the new groups. More groups with fewer members suggest that Americans join less.

Americans have demonstrated little interest in joining groups, groups of any kind. For example, though bowling may still be a sport of choice for some, fewer leagues are formed today than fifty years ago. In the same way, though people may be religious, they are not joining religious organizations.

To see how the church is doing over an extended period of time, we use group membership as a proxy for vitality and effectiveness. Often negative attitudes and defensiveness can arise when disappointing results are discussed. As pastoral leaders, we must work through any unresolved issues that may interfere with a healthy, adult sense of self-worth. Effective remedies are only as good as the diagnoses.

Statistics are indicators, not predictors. As Clayton Christiansen, professor at Harvard Business School, reminds his students: collecting data can only tell you about the past, the results of something, but it cannot tell you the cause (Notes from a presentation by Clayton Christiansen at TedXBoston, 2011). No congregation, pastor, or denominational leader should consider himself or herself a victim to descriptions concerning performance and outcomes. At the intersection of historical data and current events, not only correlations, but causations can be tentatively explored and more effective behaviors tested.

Fig. 2 – Volunteer Trends

In Volunteer Trends, (Fig. 2, below), denominational data is overlaid with the aggregate membership of all volunteer associations. Though the scale varies, the trend is remarkably similar. One assumption we could test about the data is to hypothesize that the cause of the church’s decline correlates to the decline in other volunteer groups.

Building on statistical research published by Dr. Robert D. Putnam in, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2001), and Better Together: Restoring the American Community (2004), and data from the Roper Social and Political Trends Data (1973–1994), and the DDB Needham Life Style Survey (1975), we learn about Americans’ changing behaviors over the past five decades. By converging the data from the Roper Trends with the DDB Life Style surveys, a direct correlation between organizational membership and community engagement emerges. As communities in America became more fragmented, membership in the PTA, clubs, political parties, and bowling leagues went down.

Based on this correlation, church membership decline (felt in almost every denominational tribe in America) cannot be reversed by changing pastors or programs, putting new cushions on the pews, or air conditioning the sanctuary. The decline has affected every theological stream and liturgical tradition. Interestingly, even regionalized data supports the same hypothesis. Severe church membership decline in the northeastern United States correlates to the decline in all other volunteer organizations and community fragmentation leading to diminished social capital. The correlation between your church’s health and your community’s health constitutes a revolutionary opportunity for mission.

Many of us have struggled to increase church attendance. We seek to get people to church, and we focus ministries on the un-churched so that they can become, I suppose, churched? As disciples of Jesus Christ, is our missional goal to get people to church? We undervalue, if not undermine, the Gospel if we reduce the mission of the church to get people into church. By embracing the implications visualized in Fig. 2, mission confusion becomes mission clarity.

Behaving as if church attendance was our ministry objective erroneously substitutes an outcome for a goal. Jesus disrupted every facet of life. Equilibrium fosters nostalgia, not mission. “For the Son of Man came to find and restore the lost” (Lk. XIX, 10), not to get people to a certain place, at a certain time, on the Sabbath. Discipleship was the behavioral outcome from a changed and transformed life. Healthy organizations, like organisms, will grow, thrive, and reproduce through normal stages of life, eventually toward death, then resurrection.

Consider the stress experienced by the evangelism team at your church if their mission is to get people to church. They can invite, persuade, and cajole, but most people will simply not attend. Essentially, neighbors and friends say, No, to the teams’ invitation. What’s more, reasons given for not attending have little to do with the church. Instead, people do not find sufficient value participating in any volunteer associations.

Mission Tip
If you could identify what activities hold value for your neighbors; for your community, you would increase the missional intelligence of your church.

Observing what people need to be done; what kids need to get done; what seniors need to get done; not just asking them, you would better understand the deeper job your ministry is hired to do.[2]

Traditional church is no longer the destination of choice for those seeking spiritual practice, worship, and formation. A thoughtful church leader would begin to explore alternative venues for people to connect, express faith, worship God, and be more involved in the community. Examples of innovative ideas include time-shifting programming and services, collaborating with other ministries, exploring merger opportunities, effectively using the web and social media, holding conversational gatherings in restaurants, cafés, or other public places—as well as activities that build capacity for conversation and collaboration among members and the community.[3]

Keep a Community Engagement Scale that measures how active church individuals are in other community groups, events, financial contributions to non-church causes, and community issues. Celebrate this participation. A second scale could track a congregation’s sense of community. This scale tracks how involved its people are with one another. Find ways to promote this kind of interaction. A church that demonstrates a high degree of community engagement and a high sense of community would likely have a higher involvement index (attendance and membership) compared to congregations that scored lower in these two key areas.

“Physical space is more decisive in creating community than we realize. Most meeting spaces are designed for control, negotiation, and persuasion” (Block, p 427). This could describe most of our sanctuaries. When we stubbornly continue to gather in inaccessible sanctuaries with uncomfortable pews and little interactivity, remain in our liturgical comfort zones with three hymns and a sermon, and only meet on Sunday mornings at a time that correlates more to a cow’s milking cycle than to the cycle of today’s American life, we are not exhibiting love or intelligence.

Expecting different mission outcomes while engaging in the same behaviors is absurd. Instead, we should consider, what is the job for followers of Jesus Christ for the benefit of our communities? Listening, really listening, and truly understanding the communities’ needs, will allow you to test your ministry assumptions, learn and try risky, new, and innovative programs. "Why can’t the church be the one place in someone’s life where it is not only acceptable but also expected to act creatively and contribute significantly to the life of the church community and the community at large? (Landon Whitsitt, Open Source Church, Alban Institute, 2012, p.37). Your church can become that one place.

Reciprocal Revolution

When volunteer associations in North America, including the church, experienced the stressors of membership decline, instead of re-engaging with the community, they retreated within themselves, eventually obsessed with their own institutional preservation. Jesus said, “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.” (Lk. IX, 24). To re-chart its future, the church must choose to give itself away, not hoard away the gifts of God. A reciprocal revolution will bless both the community of faith and the community at large.

Choosing a different, better future, is rooted in the practice of reciprocity. Transforming your congregation’s ministry can reverse decades of decline,. The greater the reciprocity, the more likely it will be that the church and the community will experience health and vitality.

Incarnational worshipping communities will supplant dying institutional churches as the Spirit sends transformed followers of Jesus Christ outside with re-charted resources, processes, and values. Those who are ready for a reciprocal revolution will change the world, to the glory of God.

  1. All Scripture references in this article are from THE HOLY BIBLE: NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION (NIV). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society.  ↩

  2. For more about the Jobs To Be Done framework see my blog ReciprocalRevo and Clay Christensen’s consulting team website at Innosight.  ↩

  3. The new 1001 New Worshipping Communities seeks to create the conditions that will allow existing worshiping communities in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to flourish, and to give birth to over 1,001 more in the next ten years.  ↩

Fig. 1 - American Group Trends.

Fig 2. - Volunteer Trends.

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