Pastors’ Conference Reflections Lessons Learned

It was an impactful time, and I wanted to share some of the lessons learned with you.

    It was a time of refreshing and learning, and it’s been a whirlwind since I’ve been back. For those of you who are unaware, I went to a Disciple Heritage Fellowship conference in April. I am thankful for Carrie for filling in for me on Sunday, Robbie on Wednesday, and Deanna for writing a wonderful newsletter article. It was an impactful time, and I wanted to share some of the lessons learned with you.

What is DHF?

               Let me begin by clarifying what DHF (Disciple Heritage Fellowship) is. It isn’t a denomination. They don’t tell us what to do, nor are we required to give them any financial support whatsoever. What they are, what we (since I’m on the board) are, is a group of churches and leaders supporting one another with fellowship for pastors, pastoral care for pastors, training and skill sharing for church leaders and servants. To quote our board president, Kim Holley, “DHF doesn’t want to tell you what to do, we want to help you do what you do.” 

               Lori Putnam was the brains behind the conference, and she is a staff member at Decatur First, which hosted the event. Decatur First could be described as the “flagship” of DHF. It is, by many metrics, the healthiest of the DHF associated churches. They are a larger church, have a healthy outreach (evangelism) heart, have a great grasp on technology and trends, and are active in the community by providing chaplaincy to nearby hospitals. When DHF was facing financial issues, they took DHF on as a mission and kept it afloat, and it’s now growing. They serve as the base of operations for the one DHF staff, Rick Grace; several staff from Decatur First also assist DHF as part of their duties.               

               I’m thankful for the chance to serve with and learn from the folks at DHF, and here are just a few reflections, and applications.

We need to look for our new Samaria.

               Wayne Kent, Pastor at First Christian Decatur, closed out the conference with a wonderful look at the woman at the well in Samaria, as recorded in John 4. Jesus was off the normal road for religious Jews of the day, who would have avoided the incorrect theology and lineage of the Samaritans. It wasn’t culturally appropriate for Him to talk to a woman by herself and given the time of day when she was there, Jesus would have known she was avoiding others, even without His divine knowledge.

               Wayne reminded us of our call to be missionaries. I do mean “OUR.” if you are a Christian and reading this newsletter, you are part of God’s body and His royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9.)  Even though Jesus was doing things differently than the disciples expected, He was doing so with a purpose. Wayne asked an important question, “What’s more important: religious words, or Samaritans coming to Jesus?”

               The church is a rare type of organization, in that it exists to focus on those who aren’t yet a part of it.  Jesus didn’t shy away from engaging with Jewish leaders, but it was this woman to whom was first revealed His identity of Messiah — this outsider, a person whom most wouldn’t reach.  There are a lot of unreached around us in places where we may not be looking, and Wayne challenged us to be creative and to be on the lookout for those in need.

               Wayne connected with the opening session, jointly presented by Rick Grace and Kim Holley, that discussed DHF’s past.  DHF’s past is very much like the past of our own church. Well before my arrival, there was a fight for biblical values. It developed a strong sense of community, as individuals rallied to defend God’s truth and fight for His bride, the church, to be untarnished by ideas purely of this world.  Many DHF churches still have this strong community, but not all are engaged in evangelism the way we all should be. The question was asked, “What are we going to do with the theology we fought so hard to protect?

We need a really simple vision.

               In a session entitled “Navigating Seasons of Transition,” Dr. Ken Moberg challenged pastors and leaders on the basics. The church has a purpose, and we need to unite and head in that direction. But how do we do it?  Given the difference physical and spiritual ages that exist in a church, a question was asked, was how do we simplify our mission into something so simple a child could remember and repeat it? 

               The staff are currently going through U-Turn Church by Kevin Harney and Bob Bower. In it, a church member expresses frustration at one of the authors as they pastored a church through change. They had been willing to try a few things, but they were getting tired of trying. To paraphrase the book, the member said, “Will this be the last thing we change?”

               The Pastor dropped a bombshell. “As long we are trying to reach people for Jesus there will be change.”

               The truth of Scripture doesn’t change. God’s love doesn’t change. Culture and technology do. The way we communicate does. 

               After listening to Dr. Moberg, it became clear that we needed to change the way we communicate our vision. It needs to be simplified, so it can better be caught by everyone. I’ll articulate this in a future topical message, but it needs to be so simple that a child can catch it. After much prayer, and talking with Dr. Moberg himself, I presented a new statement to the Elders that conveys our purpose as group of Gospel-orientated believers with a mission in a way that’s unique to us, while still being biblical. I wrote it out this way first:

               Depth in Love, Depth in Truth, Depth in Life.

               It could also be written, “Depth in Love, Truth and Life.” It reflects an already-existing desire for depth — not just another surface-level sermon or kind platitude, but something more changing and more powerful, more genuine.  “Depth in Love” reflects God’s love to everyone, including those modern-day Samaritans out there; “Depth in Truth” reflects our desire to dig into what God’s word says; and “Depth in Life” reflects the idea of living out what we learn together in community.

               The Elder Council bought into the rephrase of our mission statement, and you will see the phrases around church as decorations soon.

It’s adapt — or die.

               David Upchurch had an impactful breakout session regarding church strategy after the pandemic and after the quarantine. That shadow really touched upon all aspects of the conference. Their research only confirmed my own, and their experience in broader and bigger contexts continued to provide useful information in approaches to surviving in a very new landscape.

               The reality is that the world isn’t going back to “normal.” The world we were trained to do ministry in is gone. Uber has replaced the taxi, and we need to take our next steps carefully, as society at large continues to see “church” as less and less important.

               Before the pandemic, society had already drifted far from church culture, with the divide between Christians and non-Christians being so wide that even the words we used were different. Technology was an area that the world thought churches were already seen as behind with, rightly so, and the pandemic accelerated the move and furthered the divide.

               Years ago, the church foyer or lobby served as the first experience that people would have with a church. Going through the front door was literally going through the front door. It isn’t that way anymore. In the same way that individuals have stopped using doorbells and now text people when they arrive at their house, new folks check out the website first. That wasn’t so new; it’s been that way for several years. The change is that now many will experience one or more services online before being willing to try an in-person service, and most of them are looking for similar things.

               Thanks to faithful equippers and volunteers, we got our services online, but more challenges exist and are ahead. In the coming months, you will continue to see us adjust technology with new software and hardware. The end goal is to glorify God and remove barriers for individuals who try our church, either online or in person, but don’t stay.

               Although there are a few outliers, church researchers like Barna Group, Thom Rainer and Carey Nieuwhof are all clear about what is working, and what isn’t. Simply spending time with fellow pastors and listening to their struggles and various strategies, clear trends could be seen at the DHF conference.

               Considering these trends, I’m confident that God spared us from being among the staggering 20% of churches who closed last year so that we can continue our mission right here in Visalia.  David Upchurch encouraged us to cut, but with a scalpel, not a chainsaw, what wasn’t working, and to take this as an opportunity. Some things we did before the pandemic simply won’t come back, so we can do other things better.

               The information gained at DHF helped guide our next steps, as did the recent church surveys. Expect us to continue two services. One will be geared more towards what younger and non-church individuals consistently say that they want, both here, and across the country, the other will be more classic. It’s not only technology behind the scenes that will need to change, but we will continue to ask what a new visitor might see, that those of us who are regulars would not, and make some adjustments based on that information.

               We will be launching a formal campaign to help us make some more modern adjustments and be physically more welcoming. It’s not about making the place look “nicer” in and of itself; it’s about communicating to those outside of our church that we would love to share life and our Lord with them.

We aren’t alone.

               I take comfort in the fact that we aren’t in this alone. Other churches are facing the same challenges. Navigating listening and valuing heritage while welcoming surprisingly different people and trying to bridge the two together isn’t easy, but it’s worthwhile.  It’s a problem that the Apostles had to enlist the first deacons to help with and was a symptom of the growth of the first church. Other churches are dealing with smaller in persons services, more folks watching from the couch, and of course impacts of a less stable economy.

               I have been to pastors’ conferences before, but I have to say this was the one that felt most like family. I wasn’t the only one from outside the “Christian Restoration movement” tradition. Lots of us have been grafted into a group of churches who really want to fellowship together, focus on the essentials, and serve God together. It’s refreshing. I’ve been in places that claim that, but often devolve into believers wasting their time fighting one another in some way or another. Everyone seemed very aware that we are in this together, and desired to support one another.

We have an encouraging example.

               28 years ago, when Wayne Kent was hired at FCC Decatur, everyone on stage wore choir robes, he was the only staff, and there were around 200 people. Their town has continued to shrink over the years and is currently about 50,000 fewer people than our own, but by embracing new technology, multiple services, and making sure to communicate to their community in a way that effectively connects with those they are trying to reach, they have grown to nearly 2,000 on a Sunday, in multiple services, of course. I don’t know what God has in store for us. I can’t ever envision myself in a church that large, but that’s not the goal, and it wasn’t theirs, either. It was just reaching one person at a time for our Lord — each changed life glorifying our Savior.

God is working in our congregation, right now!

               While it’s easy to focus on individuals moving out of state, going to be with the Lord, being unable to be with us in person due to health reasons of their own, or their family members, some great things have been happening in our church. Spending time with other pastors helped me to recognize what God is doing among us.

               The idea of organically outreaching to others is being absorbed and lived out. I see folks like Joe, June, Deanna and more inviting their friends and sitting beside them on Sunday morning. I’ve seen Romy work hard at inviting and connecting the youth, and I’m excited to see new singers up on stage in the contemporary service. Our Wednesday family nights have drawn new families, and It’s been a joy to hear young children memorize Bible verses for the first time during AWANA.

               I’m looking forward to what God will do in the rest of 2021, but in the meantime, we have our standing orders:

               Matthew 28:19-20: Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to follow all that I commanded you; and behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”