Book Review – Small Church Essentials 6

‘Cloudy, With a Chance of Meatballs’

In the movie of that name, a young inventor lives on an island where the primary (only?) food is sardines.  He creates a machine that can produce any kind of food upon request.  It’s clear why it becomes instantly and immensely popular!  And yet (of course), the machine goes awry, growing and feeding on itself, taking on a life of its own and becomes a hazard instead of a blessing that the young inventor and his friends must figure out how to tame.

Oddly enough, this can happen in the life of a church as well – as programs and activities and new ideas can fill our calendars and clutter the life and ministry of the church and the people who are a part of it.  Ministries that are meant to give life instead become a drain or a stress, that keep the church from prioritizing its mission and its time.

Vater notes that the healthiest churches are intentionally seeking to focus on being effective, not just busy.

And to do that requires continually ‘decluttering’ the things we’re doing; letting go of things that sap time and energy, without contributing significantly to the effectiveness of the core of the ministry we’re called to.  He uses the example of the closet rule: “Don’t add a new ministry until you’ve dropped an old ministry.  Or until your closet grows.”

Otherwise, the result is clutter that increases the stress on everyone present.  Ministries do require time and energy – and sometimes that means following through on commitments when it’s not convenient, or when there are sacrifices involved.  One of the trends I’ve noticed is how more and more people look at participation in the life of the church (and as it lives out its calling in mission) as something to be done when convenient for them, or if nothing of greater importance is going on.  Yes, there can be an element of spiritual immaturity at work in this, but it also begs the question of whether or not the church is so busy (without regard to effectiveness or impact), that sometimes we’re also getting the answer to how important our activities actually are.

Critically, Vater notes that ‘clutter’ isn’t just about a busy calendar; it can also include too much going on visually, experientially and in the things we try to do and say — it creates a sense of emotional and spiritual clutter that confuses and overwhelms people.

In other words, as he puts it: simplicity matters — or as we like to say at MBC: keeping the main thing, the main thing.

Of course, that begs the distinction between simplicity and shallowness.  And here, Vater returns to the metric of effectiveness — in relation to what God’s purpose for the church and our lives continues to be, how effective are the things we are doing in helping people live into that and express that?  Because things that were helpful at one point in time aren’t as helpful in our present context.  Critically, Vater reiterates: it’s not about size — it’s about effectiveness.  And if we’re healthy, we will always be asking these kinds of questions.  This is something I’ve heard from speakers on church health and growth across the board, including Carey Nieuwhof; and one of the reasons they both recommend new ideas (and all ministries) come with an expiration date that can be renewed if it remains effective.

Here are Vater’s questions for assessing a ministry: 

  • What ministries have ceased to be effective?
  • What ministries cost more money, time, or energy than they’re worth?
  • If we were starting the church today, would we do this?
  • What ministries don’t fit the mission or vision of the church?
  • Can this ministry be refreshed, or should it be ended?
  • What are we doing that we wish we didn’t have to do?

Are there any other criteria that you’d add or clarify?

One of the past pieces of advice Vaters gives in this section is important: if a ministry needs to end or be significantly changed, it’s important to do so gently, while recognizing and honoring those who have invested in it, and how God has worked through it.  At the same time, the fear of hurt feelings cannot keep us from making the changes which are needed – a particularly difficult pill to swallow in a small setting where relationships are key.

That said, Vaters doesn’t have much advice here for the actual dynamics of working through decluttering in a small church context, other than to say it’s hard.  (To which a thousand small church pastors and leaders are saying ‘Amen!’)  My own sense is that one of the critical elements in coming to this is working together to keep focused in on the purpose and mission of God for the church, and the question of effectiveness; so that the decisions come from the church and the leadership as much as possible out of a shared recognition of what to hold on to and what to let go of.  It needs to not be one person ‘taking away’ someone else’s beloved ministry; but a prayerful conversation about what is achieving the purpose for which it’s there.

I’m wondering if there aren’t some additional measures of discernment here:

  • Are people excited about participating in it?  Or is it often something done begrudgingly, because it has to be done?
  • Are there clear leaders who act of out a sense of calling and recognition of the importance of the work?
  • Are people’s lives being positively impacted by God’s work in the midst of it?  (What’s the fruit?)

I also suspect that starting the habits of initiating expiration dates and reviewing the effectiveness of new ministries will help create the kind of culture that allows us to begin to better apply the same criteria to older ministries.

What do you find most challenging and/or encouraging in this section on ‘decluttering’?  Where do you find yourself most energized in relation to the life and ministry of the church?  Where (if you’re honest) do you find yourself drained, stressed, or doing things out of a sense of guilt?