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4 Signs Your Church Has Slipped into Survival Mode

Lack of visionary thinking causes institutions to stagnate.
The Christian Century editorial board recently voiced this concern about seminaries and theological education, but their sentiments were broad enough to apply to churches as well.

“Institutions in survival mode typically spend little time or energy in visionary thinking,” they asserted. I couldn’t agree more.

When Abraham Maslow developed his “hierarchy of needs,” he made the point that our most basic level of need has to do with survival: breathing, food, water, sleep and so on.

Only when those needs are met can we move on to the next level of need that involves safety, such as health and property.

Love and belonging come next, followed by those things that build up our sense of self-esteem, including confidence, achievement and respect for and by others.

Finally, the top of the pyramid has to do with self-actualization: morality, creativity, spontaneity and acceptance.

Only after you have actualized the realities on the lower levels can you move up the “hierarchy of needs.”

What goes for individuals applies to institutions, including the church.

When you are constantly seeking only to survive, you are at the bottom of the “need chain.”

But when you reach the top level of self-actualization, then you have the energy and ability to be engaged in visionary thinking.

It is on this level that true creative ministry takes place. You have now come to the point where lives are changed, paradigms get shifted, and the church reaches out into areas never before seen or experienced.

What does survival mode look like? Here are four signs:

  • Success is measured solely by numbers.

Since I’ve never been engaged in another denominational relationship, Baptist is all I know. And I know that Baptists have always paid keen attention to numbers.

Remember the display boards that used to adorn sanctuaries – the ones that listed the hymn numbers for the day and posted the number of people who attended Sunday school?

It’s still OK to take tabs of and record such things, but when the numbers become the end-all of measuring the health of a congregation, you know you’ve lapsed into the wrong kind of institutional thinking.

  • Ministry is determined by budget.

I am the first to admit that paying our bills is important, but when our involvement in ministry is determined by the bottom line, survival becomes key.

And when survival is key, the church has slipped down the pyramid of achievement and settled for less than Jesus ever called it to be. The institution becomes the center rather than what the institution stands for.

  • Old methods are the only or highly favored methods.

The veterans among us remember Training Union and the six-point record system. They were successful for their time.

Instead of lamenting their loss, our time is better spent in creating alternatives that fit today’s world.

That is a part of the definition of self-actualization, which can only be achieved when the old methods are recognized for what they are: old.

  • Rules become more important than relationships.

Jesus is our obvious and best model for this point. He did not come to bolster the religious institutions of his day; he came to reveal a relationship with God that ever before was unimaginable.

How did he do that? By making strong relationships with those he met, especially those in need of what he had to give them; namely, a grace that replaced orthodoxy and a mercy that went beyond rules.

The church that does not follow his example becomes mired in its institutional thinking.

Where are you and your church on the ecclesiastical “hierarchy of needs”?

It’s a good question – one that finds its answers in the heart of the people who follow the greatest visionary of all.

Randy Hyde is senior pastor of Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock, Ark. His sermon manuscripts appear on EthicsDaily.com.