My first pastorate after seminary was in St. Petersburg, Florida. In my interviews with several of the lay leaders prior to my coming to the church, I noticed a recurring theme. When I would ask them about the health of the church, one word was repeated several times: stable.
I could not reconcile their perception of the church with the information they had sent me. The most recent year’s attendance was 118; seven years earlier the average attendance had been 191. In a relatively short period, attendance had declined 38 percent, but the common theme among the church members was that the church was “stable.”
The more I heard from the church, the greater my concern grew. The number of conversions in the congregation was almost nonexistent. Ministries had been discontinued. Biblical literacy and doctrinal awareness had declined. And the reputation of the church in the community had suffered. But the condition of the church, according to key laypersons, was “stable.”
A Common Plight
From an outsider’s perspective, this lack of awareness was inexplicable. But in subsequent years, I consulted with hundreds of churches. Much to my dismay, I discovered that this reality blindness was common. Many churches are unwilling to make needed changes because they fail to see the need for change.
The Manifestations of Reality Blindness
As my team consulted with churches over the next two decades, we not only discovered that reality blindness was common; we discovered that it often manifests itself in three ways.
First, the churches have no means of accountability. They don’t know if they are truly evangelistic, engaging the culture and the community. They fail to ask if their members are really growing spiritually and biblically. They don’t know if their ministries are really effective. They may continue some ministries because that’s the way it’s always been done. In simple terms, these churches refuse to ask the tough questions.
Second, the churches that have reality blindness often have members who have little doctrinal awareness. While the churches typically had a written doctrinal statement, most of the members had no idea what the statement contained. And the few members that might have had some awareness expressed theological positions in contradiction to the printed doctrinal statement.
Third, many of these church leaders were change resistant, even when needed change was clearly obvious to an outsider. Obviously, change is unlikely when leadership is unwilling to look reality in the face.
From Reality Blindness to Breakout
The bad news is that most churches in America will remain in a state of reality blindness. It’s easier to assume that all is well rather than confront the painful truth that serious change is necessary.
The good news is that a few churches will move from blindness to breakout. We have studied about and consulted with such churches over the past twenty years. The leaders of these churches have been willing to confront the brutal facts about the state of their congregations. And they have been willing to lead the churches to make the changes necessary to move from near death to greater health.
One pastor of a breakout church stated it well. “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in a place where we are playing church and not impacting our community. I know that change is painful. I know that many in the congregation both resist and resent change. But I can’t live a life of mediocrity. In God’s power, I have to lead my church to greatness for God’s glory.”
Reality blindness or breakout? One is a path of comfort, little conflict, and little impact. The other is a path of change, discomfort, and potential conflict. But it is the path where lives are changed and communities are impacted.
May we leaders do what it takes to see our churches become dynamic and vibrant. May we see that reality blindness is really not an option at all.
Dr. Thom Rainer is president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.