Avoiding Pitfalls Disguised as Church Growth Ideas

Church leaders can be relevant and effective without following worn-out practices. Here’s how. | by Karl Vaters

Fads come and go. And churches aren’t immune to them.

From the trendy new church to the old-school traditional congregation, we’re all susceptible to doing something that seems right at the time, and probably works well for a season, only to look back and ask, “What were we thinking?”

Unfortunately, the overlap between when it worked and when it doesn’t is seldom obvious. Here are some used-to-be-cool trends that are hanging on a little too long (and some that never were cool to begin with).

  1. Christianizing the Words of a Secular Song

From Martin Luther to John and Charles Wesley to William Booth, many church leaders have taken the melodies of well-known secular songs and updated them for use in worship, right? Maybe not. Despite being a popular idea (that I may have mistakenly repeated years ago) it’s simply not true. Luther and the Wesleys never did it and, while some early Salvation Army songs were drawn from secular tunes, it was never as common a practice as we’ve been led to believe.

Certainly, some great hymns were built on folk melodies (Amazing Grace and What Child Is This? are standouts). But slapping Christian lyrics on a current song is almost universally cringe-inducing to the people you want to reach.

Besides, it’s unnecessary. While a lot of Christian attempts at artistic expression have had hit-and-miss results, we have a wealth of great music to draw from, both old and new. Let’s rediscover our own musical history and keep encouraging those who are writing original songs of worship.

  1. Sermons Based on Pop Culture

For a while, it was popular to build a sermon series around a movie franchise or other pop culture phenomenon. It seemed cool in the first few years when we were able to use video clips in church — like when the substitute teacher wheeled the film projector into your junior high class! But no one is wowed by your church’s ability to show video clips anymore.

Sure, it’s okay to use them when they truly integrate with the message, but building a sermon series on pop culture is more likely to make people shake their heads than raise their interest. And, while we’re at it, can we please stop sharing memes like the one where Jesus is talking to the Avengers about the time that he saved the world? [Facepalm].

  1. The Trendy Pastor

There’s nothing wrong with keeping up with the latest clothing styles, terminology, and technology. But it’s cringey to see pastors obsessed with being trendy.

Trendiness is a problem…

  • When it draws more attention to the person than to the message
  • When it creates a disconnect from regular folks
  • When it puts pressure on others to try to keep up

I’m not trendy. My terminology updates faster than my tech, and definitely faster than my clothes. But I also live in California where a lot of pastors naturally gravitate towards new trends quicker and at a later age than most of the places I visit. That’s fine.

If it’s the way you normally talk and dress, you’re probably on solid footing. But if staying on trend is costing you copious amounts of time and money, you need to reconsider.

  1. The Know-It-All Pastor

Some pastors seem to speak authoritatively on everything from science and medicine, to law, art, and more. If it’s a hot topic, they somehow became pros overnight. This attitude used to elicit awe and admiration from regular folks, both in- and outside the church. Now we have the internet. We can Google that stuff.

The days of expecting the pastor to be the final authority on everything are gone. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know” or, even better, “Let’s find out together.”

In most cases, honestly admitting that you don’t know everything will give you more credibility, not less.

  1. The Angry Pastor

Theology matters. Having vigorous debate about doctrine is important. Identifying and correcting societal errors is a part of our pastoral calling. But the pastor who is constantly finding a new enemy to rail against is… exhausting.

It may energize the crowd you already have, and it may bring in other angry people. But it doesn’t change hearts or minds, it entrenches them.

  1. The Christian Celebrity

Do you know who’s excited about a sports or entertainment star coming to your church to share their story of faith? Other Christians. That’s about it.

I love hearing that anyone has come to faith in Jesus. Famous or not. But when we attach value to fame, we make the mistake of over-platforming the celebrity and under-platforming Jesus.

This also happens when a believer becomes famous for the Christian work they do. Whether it’s a megachurch pastor, an author, a musician or whatever. Fame is dangerous. We need to promote Jesus, not the celebrity.

  1. Extravagance

There will always be people who see extravagant facilities, clothes, and lifestyle as a sign of God’s blessing. It’s not.

Just as we correctly decry immodesty in dress, we should also stay away from extravagance in our lifestyles. In fact, there’s a strong argument to be made that the biblical pronouncements against immodest dress have as much to do with extravagance as they do with sexual exposure.

Over-the-top buildings and lifestyles do not promote the biblical values of holiness, generosity, and modesty. Instead, they promote sinful attitudes like pride, greed, and covetousness. We need to avoid them, not endorse them.

  1. Outlandish Claims

Why are Christians so susceptible to “too good to be true” claims? Here’s my theory. It’s because the Gospel itself is too good to be true — even though it is true.

The problem is, when we’re gullible about verifiably false, MLM-type claims from slick salespeople, (“Here’s the real truth no one else will tell you!”, “What Revelation says about the latest news story!”, “He prophesied the last three economic disasters!”), we make our claims about the gospel ring false as well. There are very few things more cringe-inducing than gullible Christians.

  1. Forced Alliterations

This one is near the bottom of my list because it may be more a pet peeve of mine, but I cringe when I see a forced alliteration. You can tell it’s forced when one or two of the main points use obscure or not-quite-accurate words in order to make the rhyme or alliteration work.

Here’s a truth that will hopefully set many pastors free. An occasional alliteration or rhyme is fine. But it’s not necessary in most cases. Say what you need to say. Emphasize the main points. And stop spending so much time figuring out how to expand a four-point-sermon into a five-point sermon just so it can spell out G.R.A.C.E.

(And yes, I’m aware that list-heavy titles like 10 Church Trends That Haven’t Aged Well, should be used sparingly too.)

  1. Empty Church Growth Promises

You knew I had to add this, didn’t you?

I love church growth. I even love the Church Growth Movement. The problem happens when we make promises like “Double Your Congregation Size In The Next 12 Months!” and “Follow These Steps And Your Church Will Grow!”

There was a season when those promises seemed so…promising. But time and experience have taught most of us that such promises are empty. What used to get our blood pumping, now gets our eyes rolling.

The church growth movement has a lot of valid principles. I still use them, teach them, and seek them out. Principles, not promises. Stick to the valid principles. Avoid the false promises.

The era of cool is drawing to a close. Let’s hope the era of health, effectiveness, and integrity is what comes next.

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