Fresh directions

“We’re stuck, aren’t we?” asked several participants in a recent church workshop.

Yes, they are stuck. So are many churches ­– and many families and institutions, for that matter. We tend to keep telling old stories and rewarding old behavior.

I shared with them four basic points for seeking a fresh direction:

  • Look outward, rather than inward.
  • Focus on conversion, rather than comfort and customer satisfaction.
  • Focus on congregational development (rather than maintenance) with entrepreneurial leaders.
  • Get beyond Sunday morning and reach people where they live, rather than invite them to where you worship.

Let’s understand these concepts.

First, the place of religion in our culture has changed. It used to be that congregations and denominations served subsets of the larger community. That ministry was primarily centered around gatherings for worship on Sunday. The questions we were asking were: Whom do we welcome in the front door? Whom do we invite into leadership?

When we struggled to welcome minorities, women and gay individuals into fellowship and into leadership, we thought we were making those changes on behalf of the world. To be honest, I think we were doing them for ourselves. They were important changes, but they didn’t connect us to the world. Our women went from cooking church suppers to serving at the altar and on councils. But it was women who were already part of the church, not a fundamentally new and broader initiative to women in the wider community. That broader initiative would have taken us way beyond worship and governance.

Looking outward means no longer asking what we want, but instead asking what the world needs. It mean no longer worrying about our identity, but instead focusing on what God wants us to do in the world. We will discover our identity in the course of serving the world. Our identity will change as we grow in faith and service.

This is a practical matter. Where do people hurt, worry, fall short, live poorly? Those needs aren’t likely to be addressed by Sunday worship. People’s lives are changing. We need to get in touch with those changes and look for practical ways we can make a difference.

Second, we have relied on institution, rather than faith. Belonging, not being. Tradition, not transformation. Getting, not giving. Comfort, not collaboration in mission. Customer satisfaction, not conversion. We need to turn all of that on its end.

Third, leadership has focused on keeping members happy and engaged. Instead, we need entrepreneurial leaders who want to touch many lives, transform lives, do whatever it takes to reach new people and to make a difference in the world. Take risks, embrace conflict, learn from failure, challenge constituents to do more, give more, dare more, grow more.

Fourth, recognize that the weekly worship paradigm stopped working decades ago. We can’t resurrect it, no matter how much we tinker with Sunday morning. We can’t just open the doors with better attitudes and stronger performance values. We need to do what Jesus did: meet people where they are.

Tom Ehrich newTOM EHRICH is a publisher, writer, church consultant and president of Morning Walk Media, based in New York. His new Fresh Day online magazine offers fresh words about faith and life, fresh voices, fresh ideas. For a free trial go to