I hate a stinky church. In fact, I am compulsive about it. All week long during moderate weather months I am opening and closing windows, trying to catch the freshest breeze to get rid of that musty church smell. I don’t want people to walk into our church building and think our Lord, our worship, or our message is smelly as an old church building. To counter it, I have a weekly Sunday-morning ritual of turning on exhaust fans, spraying air freshener, and opening windows and doors.
Charles Spurgeon, the great Baptist preacher from England, gave fresh air as a primary reason why he liked preaching outside. He said, “Fresh air and plenty of it is a grand thing for every mortal man, woman and child.” He had a particular disdain for preaching in “an impure atmosphere, heated and poisoned by human breath, and carefully preserved from every refreshing infusion of natural air.”
Even more than “an impure atmosphere,” I especially hate a spiritually stale church. It happens when the group inside is warm and cozy, but nothing fresh comes in. They have a Vegas mentality of “what happens here stays here,” coming back each week to breathe the same stale air.
While visitors notice how musty everything smells, the regulars are so used to the odor that they don’t even notice the stench. When visitors don’t return, the regulars assume it was the stranger who was the stinky one.
Signs and remedies of church staleness include:
1. Entrenched leadership—If annual reports from 10 years ago identify nearly all the same ministry leadership as you have today, your programs may be on autopilot and your leadership stale. After three years, if the volunteers do not need a break, the ministry probably does. Set a goal of every entrenched leader to begin mentoring a replacement who will take over, even if for one year, within 12 months.
2. Propped-up programs—If you, or even the people actually providing leadership, have no clue why you are maintaining certain unfruitful programs, use those programs’ energy and resources to launch a new effort. Assemble a group of upcoming leaders and ask, “What need in the community is no one addressing that we are equipped to tackle?”
3. Closed Groups—If the rosters of your small groups, Sunday School classes, and ministry groups are not showing growth through added members during the past 12 months, it may be time for them to disband and new combinations formed. The start of newly formed groups can provide for new leadership, new strategies, and new entry points for new members.
4. Neglected Procedures—If normal and expected processes are being ignored, someone in leadership needs to either step-up or step-out.
5. Decrepit building—Fresh eyes can point out in 15 minutes more building deficiencies than you have noticed in years. Do the 10% of changes that will bring the 90% of results. Old-fashioned elbow grease and a fresh coat of paint can go a long way to showing that someone cares.
6. Hodgepodge of literature and signage—Boredom and indiscipline with logo and themes can dilute your unique branding over time. Graphic designers from all over the world are waiting online to bid for your work and get you up to date for pennies (e.g., www.designcrowd.com).
Old, stale, dead air breathed by the same few people every week lulls congregations into stupor and sleep. Let’s wake up, throw open the windows, and let our message out, and let’s throw open the doors to people who are dying for the fresh, life-giving oxygen that we can share.
As a church planter and pastor, Dr. Phil Wood has worked on the staffs of everything from mini- to mega-sized churches during the past 30 years. He is also the director of Urban Youth Ministries and a trained consultant under the Society for Church Consulting.
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