Prescriptions for the church

Healthy churches must have outward focus, Whitesel tells Big Tent

August 7, 2013

Bob Whitesel, award-winning author and change theory expert, offered a much-needed prescription for today’s ailing churches in his Aug. 3 luncheon address.

Bob Whitesel, award-winning author and change theory expert, offered a much-needed prescription for today’s ailing churches in his Aug. 3 luncheon address. —Danny Bolin

LOUISVILLE

Move over, Dr. Phil. The church doctor is in.                             

Bob Whitesel, the award-winning author and change theory expert, offered a much-needed prescription for today’s ailing churches in his Aug. 3 luncheon address based on his book, Cure for the Common Church: God’s Plan to Restore Church Health.

“You’re here because the church is facing a very challenging time in North America,” Whitesel told his audience here at the Healthy Ministry Conference under the Big Tent. “If you look at all of the research, you’ll find that the common church is not usually a vibrant, growing, healthy church. The common church is usually a church struggling with different growth, multi-cultural, and age issues. My burden and my passion has been for almost 40 years now to go and study churches that are making a difference and are growing.”        

In his 11 books, Whitesel outlines the factors he says prevent churches from being a “force for unity and maturity in Christ.” He also addresses the necessary changes to help churches become healthier organizations. By “healthy,” Whitesel means churches where spiritual growth is taking place, not necessarily larger congregations. 

“Many congregations don’t have to grow numerically, but they do need to grow in their maturity, their acceptance and their reconciliation of different ethnicities, cultures and races,” he said. 

Today’s congregations have to work hard to overcome 200 years of history in which churches functioned first and foremost as social clubs, Whitesel said. 

“I as the church don’t want to compete with other social clubs because I believe we offer something spiritual and eternal,” he said.

Even most new church plants cease being effective at winning new people for Christ after 18 months because that’s when the churches “stop focusing on community and start worrying about their own organizational well-being,” Whitesel said. 

The four cures that Whitesel offers to today’s ill churches all involve changing a congregation’s focus from inward — focusing on organizational issues — to outward. In his address, he covered the cures: need-based outreach; “up-in-out” groups; transformational programming; and measuring learning, not attendance. 

In doing his first doctorate, Whitesel analyzed fast-growing churches in America to find out what they were doing alike. “All of them didn’t want to grow, and they grew, because what they wanted to do was meet needs,” he said. 

Such a change in focus will bring a change in vocabulary, among other results. As an example, Whitesel cited how church visitors are most often greeted. “Instead of saying to visitors, ‘We’re glad to have you here,’ say ‘Jesus is here to meet your needs and we’re here to help,’” he said. 

As for “up-in-out groups,” Whitesel advocates that every small group in a church grow “up” (toward God), “in” (by praying for each other), and “out” (by serving the community). He also calls this cure “missionalizing small groups,” in which they become not just groups doing tasks, but actual discipleship groups. 

The third cure he presented to his audience was transformational programming. By this, he means programming that’s designed to make the church the place that changes people. 

“That’s what Jesus desired the church to be,” he said. “It should be a place where people get changed. Today, people go to Dr. Phil. They turn on the TV. We want our churches to be known in the community as the place that helps people change. That’s what we want people to know about being Presbyterian.” 

Big Tent, Aug. 1-3, was a celebration of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mission and ministry organized around the theme “Putting God’s First Things First.” It was composed of 10 national Presbyterian conferences, more than 160 workshops and special events to mark the 30th anniversary of the formation of the PC(USA) and the 25th anniversary of the opening of the Presbyterian Center here.

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