listen to this essay
I’ll admit: the title is misleading. I don’t really want churches to die — whether they’re Indian, Korean, or Liechtensteiner. (That’s an actual country.)
But, like with any organization, we must learn to hold our leaders and our churches accountable. Churches without direction — even if they’re well-intentioned — can and do fail. In fact, they ought to in these instances.
It’s tough to hear — sure. But that’s why I’m writing this.
A few years ago, I dove into this topic for the first time, exploring the state of ethnocentric churches in America — especially the Indian church diaspora. Suffice it to say — the essay made the rounds online.
But a lot has changed since I published that piece.
Toys-R-Us is a distant memory.
LeBron is no longer in Cleveland.
The President was White, nationalist.
One thing, however, hasn’t changed much: many churches still grapple with life-and-death organizational questions about how to move forward.
This essay isn’t a diss track. It’s not about who does church better. It’s also not only about the Indian church, which is why I used those fancy single quotation marks in the headline.
Depending on your perspective, this is either an assessment or an autopsy: an exploration into (1) why a lot of homogeneous churches mean well but fail at an organizational level, (2) how to save dying churches, and (3) the true level of effort required to build a community-focused church.
I invite you to dive in with me.
Bigger than you
His phone buzzes on the table top, breaking the silence.
Once. Twice. Three times.
It doesn’t concern him at the moment. The barrage of alerts probably heralds yet another person is upset. Upset enough to lash out. It’s been a whole week, and the torrent of responses has yet to subside. He’s made peace with the idea that maybe it won't for a while.
In front of him, behind the desk sits an older man, subtle wisps of white interrupting his black sideburns. He’s dressed in a black wool suit with narrow gray pinstripes that show whenever the lighting hits just right. His plain necktie is a shade of deep crimson, the simple knot tucked neatly under ivory collar leafs, draping down the front of his shirt and crinkling against his lap.
He doesn’t look away from his computer screen, furiously tapping away at his keyboard. His brows furrowed, he stares from behind the square frames of his black eyeglasses. “Give me one minute — just need to finish this email.”
The young man nods, barely smiling through pursed lips. “That’s no problem. Take your time.”
He can’t recall the last time somebody summoned him to an office.
A curious apprehension settles in his gut — like a visit to the principal’s office would have felt years ago. He wonders to himself, Did I do something wrong?
A minute passes.
“Sorry about that,” the older man says, accentuating the final few keystrokes before he turns his head to smile. It’s an honest smile, but it feels like he’s withholding something. Some sort of considerable hurt. “Thanks for coming in.”
The young man returns the smile. “On short notice, too. This must be important, Pastor.”
The pastor leans back in his chair, looking calmly, carefully. “Do you know why I asked you to come see me?”
“No — should I?”
“We all read your article. Our leaders, the board — all of us.”
The young man lowers his head as he listens. His heart sinks, pressed by the weight of where he knows the conversation is about to go.
He had known this new piece would make waves — the effects of which he had failed to plan for.
One thing’s clear: he no longer creates in a vacuum. Not anymore. Not after this week.
Nothing would be the same.
“I’m not upset,” the pastor assures, his voice calm and even-toned — as if he can palpably feel the young man’s quiet overthinking. “But I do want to show you something.” The pastor waves the young man over behind his desk, rolling his brown leather office chair over to invite him to read something on the computer monitor.
He gets up from his seat, canting his head in suspicion, and walks over behind the desk, leaning in closer to peer into the screen.
It’s an email addressed to the pastor. He scans the message quickly, a few phrases jumping out at him.
The pastor clicks through to another tab on his browser. It’s another email addressed to him. Another few phrases jump out.
One more email. More of the same.
[.quote__wrapper][.quote__text]"We will be forced to remove you from leadership."[.quote__text][.quote__wrapper]
[.quote__wrapper][.quote__text]"If he remains a leader at your church, we can’t support your work."[.quote__text][.quote__wrapper]
[.quote__wrapper][.quote__text]"You are setting a bad example."[.quote__text][.quote__wrapper]
[.quote__wrapper][.quote__text]"He is corrupting our youth."[.quote__text][.quote__wrapper]
All the messages were anonymous.
Forget about a feeling in his gut — this was a full-on truck slamming into him.
“Cowards,” the pastor mumbles under his breath.
“I’m so sorry… Is there something I can do?”
The pastor shakes his head, pointing instead at a few lines at the bottom of the screen. “It’s the reply I just finished sending.”
[.quote__wrapper][.quote__text]"We support Charles, who is a phenomenal, authentic leader at our church. We believe his honesty will help churches, not hurt them. Next time, have the decency to use your actual name when you make these threats."[.quote__text][.quote__wrapper]
The pastor places his hand on his shoulder. “I want you to know we support you. So you want to know what you should do?”
“Keep writing.” He pauses, letting the words sink in for a moment. “But remember that as your orbit grows, your words will indirectly impact people who love you.”
He pauses again, making sure the young man is listening before he continues. “So you better mean it.”
The young man nods.
Nothing would be the same.
Past that headline
I recently told my wife about the movie that inspired my clickbaity headline for the original piece. (Her initial reaction was laughter. Now, she judges me harshly for having casually referenced John Tucker Must Die in real-life conversation.)
That piece infuriated people. I received angry feedback in the form of texts, emails, and in-person diatribes. Even today, if I visit an Indian church, somebody’s bound to make a snide remark from the pulpit to convince me to come back to some proverbial light.
[.highlight__wrapper][.highlight__text]I remember when my parents saw the piece for the first time.[.highlight__text][.highlight__wrapper]
They were livid. They feared what their friends would say. Their church. Family.
Then, I asked them to actually read the whole piece. You know — past that headline. And the craziest thing happened: they knew I was right.
I get how it goes: the last thing anybody wants is for somebody on the outside telling them that what they’re a part of is cracking and peeling and crumbling at all the seams — let alone doomed to fail. But the irony of receiving the vitriol I did — as some sort of outsider — is that I was a part of an Indian church when I wrote the piece. (A pretty active member, too.)
But I just wasn’t some idiot.
I wasn’t sitting in the pews pretending like everything worked great and that it was okay to sweep complaints and worries under the sanctuary rug.
I talked to people. Indians and non-Indians. Old people and young people. Optimists and pessimists.
My piece synthesized all these conversations.
If I was some sort of church boogeyman, I sure wasn’t alone.
North American Mission Board was writing about it.
So was The Malphurs Group.
So were major pastors.
And Acts 29.
And LifeWay Christian Resources’ President and CEO, Thom Rainer, was/is a leader in this space.
I don’t know about you, but that’s pretty good company.
[.highlight__wrapper][.highlight__text]We were all stating the obvious: churches without direction eventually die. But we were also challenging: what can churches do to reverse course?[.highlight__text][.highlight__wrapper]
For many Indian American Christians, my piece stung — so much so that people I cared about started feeling the brunt of the criticism truly aimed at me.
But what buoyed me was folks like my Pastor who believed I had something important to share. And the other leaders who were talking about this for the greater Church community. And the stories of people around the world that read past that headline and let my words sink in.
In homogeneous communities especially, there’s this pervasive sense that sticking with what’s worked for generations past will keep on working well into the future.
It’s blind, reckless, and ultimately toxic leadership.
And this holds true whether you’re in the Indian community, or Korean community, or Liechtensteiner community. (Actual country. They even have a university.)
Once again, I invite you to see the entire scope of the issue so you can find a resolution — even in your own unique church contexts.
Thanks for scrolling past the headline this time.
Who is this essay for?
First and foremost, I’m writing this for homogeneous communities. Get more granular, and this includes ethnocentric churches — communities that look a lot like mine did when I growing up. (I was born here, and my parents were immigrants.)
Even more specifically, I’m writing this for two distinct groups in these communities:
- Church leaders
- Churchgoers on the fence regarding staying or leaving
I’ll be addressing the first group directly. Why?
[.highlight__wrapper][.highlight__text]Contrary to popular belief, church leaders don’t have it all put together. And there’s absolutely no shame in that.[.highlight__text][.highlight__wrapper]
This notion that they must fake it ’til they make it as leaders or faces of a church is maybe simply an extension of the social media era we live in, fueled by this need coarsing through our veins to show people the highlight reel of our lives instead of what goes on behind the scenes.
Or maybe it’s simply their hubris that gets in the way of being honest with themselves about what’s working and what isn’t.
Either way, stats show there’s no getting around the fact that pressure and exhaustion affect pastoral leaders:
- 43% are stressed
- 26% are overly fatigued
- 9% are burned out
I’ll also address the latter group — albeit indirectly at times — because leadership decisions affect them profoundly.
“Should I Stay or Should I Go” isn’t just a song popularized by The Clash. It’s also a question many parishioners ask themselves when they’re in limbo at a church that loses its traction, stuck in some form or another of organizational sludge.
Leaders who make healthy decisions may eventually avoid the permanent shuttering of their church doors.
This essay, really, is for leaders — especially at homogeneous churches — who want to find out what decisions are available and for those these decisions will ultimately affect.
Why churches fail
First, let’s differentiate two terms:
- The Church – the entire body of Christ
- Church – a local congregation of a Christian denomination
This distinction is important to at least point out the following: while the church will last forever, individual churches can fail.
They’re merely organizations run by human individuals. And like other organizations also run by human individuals, churches can face the very same crises that derail secular organizations — unchecked toxic leadership culture, sexual misconduct, burnout, substance addiction, and anything else you could probably think of.
If you think you’re above character flaws, fine.
Let’s look at some sobering facts regarding churches in the U.S.:
- 65% of churches are declining or have plateaued
- Growing churches often do so at the expense of other churches — mostly through transfer growth versus reaching people with the Gospel
- Two out of every three small churches (i.e. with under 100 members) are declining
- The yearly rate of decline at struggling churches with an attendance of 200 or more is 4%
- Only 42% of churches offer the option of online giving
- 49% of communities don’t see a positive impact from their local churches
Maybe your church is fine.
Maybe your church has its online giving portal set up, and you’re seeing monumental organic growth from evangelistic outreach.
Maybe your church is seeing intergenerational harmony so beautiful, somebody ought to write a book about it.
Chances are, if metrics like “attendance behavior” and concepts like “KPI tracking” are foreign to you and your team, you can probably do things better.
[.highlight__wrapper][.highlight__text]Churches often fail for a really simple reason: leaders refuse to be honest with themselves.[.highlight__text][.highlight__wrapper]
These issues are even more glaring at homogeneous churches. In ethnocentric churches, in particular, an air of infallibility drives a wedge into gears that should be turning.
If it’s worked before, can it really fail?
In a word — yes.
But underneath the resistance to honesty lie three problems unique to many leaders in homogeneous church communities:
- The Conflation Problem
- The Courage Problem
- The Cover Problem
Coming to terms with any of these problems is often the first massive hurdle on the way to growth.
The Conflation Problem
Growing up in an ethnocentric church environment, I learned at a young age that church was — at best — a social club. Valuing my culture and heritage was a sign that I valued my Christian faith.
It’s an idea that’s understood whether you’re Indian, or Korean, or Liechtensteiner. (Actual country. They’ve got a flag.)
It was just understood. There were to be no questions.
Whenever my parents furrowed their brows and said something like “We want a heavenly culture and not a worldly culture”, I knew it meant I needed to tuck in my shirt and that my sisters needed to stop whining about wearing their Indian clothes to church.
[.highlight__wrapper][.highlight__text]It was code for “You need to look ‘Indian’ so we can let the world know we’re Christians.”[.highlight__text][.highlight__wrapper]
It’s this oft-unspoken and sometimes-overt idea that served as the underpinning for every “church thing” we engaged in — from merely attending all the way to being active in community outreaches.
And while that seems innocent enough on the surface — my parents weren’t monsters or anything — there’s an illogicity there that spans across cultures…
… and there’s a word for it!
It’s called phyletism — applying nationalism to ecclesiastical affairs.
And a little over a century ago, the idea that you could establish individual churches on an ethnic, racial, or cultural basis with very specific pastoral care only to the members of specific ethnic groups was not only unprecedented — entire corners of Christendom considered this heretical.
Obviously, the world has changed a lot since then. Precedents have changed, and all of us don’t scour Holy and Great pan-Orthodox tradition for precedents on how to do church in all our various contexts. There is undoubtedly value in building our homogeneous churches today, but at the core, phyletism has some glaring flaws.
“Phyletism is wrong,” explains Chase Padusniak, “because it conflates the future and success of one ethnic, national, or linguistic group with the future and success of the Church.”
Padusniak is a doctoral student in English Literature at Princeton University, and he writes at Patheos. The problem of phyletism is something he believes is both perennial and universal because of its effects on Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism.
And it starts off innocent enough.
Padusniak believes — much as I do, or friends of mine would — that it’s understandable for us to have an affection for communities we were raised in. It happens. Beliefs and norms take up residence in our psychies from an early age — even as we unknowingly tie these to ethnicity, language, or country.
“The mistake,” he says, “is allowing that affection to eclipse one’s commitment to the universal message of Christ.”
In the era of American political tribalism, it’s as obvious as ever: extreme nationalism. Left unchecked, phyletism can result in explicit xenophobia, hatred, and acts of violence.
But it can also result in more implicit things like how we think and act towards the people around us.
[.quote__wrapper][.quote__text]"Is it the Gospel and faith that we praise in people… or is it something else? When we think of our religion, do we immediately think of our own group? Can we not imagine others — whether fellow believers or not — really ‘getting it,’ being alive with faith in the way we believe our own group is?"[.quote__text][.quote__source]- Chase Padusniak[.quote__source][.quote__wrapper]
The danger isn’t in valuing one’s heritage; rather, the danger is in conflating one’s heritage with Christian worth.
This manifests in an Indian church in Jamaica, Queens — the home of 50 Cent — pushing an India-first mission in a mostly-Black/Hispanic community. Or a Romanian church looking inwardly in Koreatown, Los Angeles.
None of this is to say ethnic-specific ministries aren’t necessary. They absolutely are.
But dismissing entire communities that envelop our churches doesn’t get us closer to a Revelations 7 reality.
And it makes it easier to separate “us” from “the others” — the secret ingredients to a scrumptious red velvet cake with rich xenophobia-flavored frosting.
[.highlight__wrapper][.highlight__text]We stop thinking the Great Commission is a directive and start thinking it's something we need to do so we can squeeze in some Third World country mission trip selfies in our quarterly church newsletter.[.highlight__text][.highlight__wrapper]
In a piece on immigration, Swedish journalist, Maud Cordenius, writes:
[.quote__wrapper][.quote__text]“But no matter how well integrated you are, in homogeneous Sweden you could be labeled an immigrant your whole life.”[.quote__text][.quote__wrapper]
This line of thinking pervades in homogeneous church communities, as well.
When phyletism — whether driven by culture or ethnicity or nation — trumps authentic community, it doesn’t matter how many Black people are coming to your Indian church every Sunday. You don’t deserve a pat on the back for it if the name of your country is embedded either explicitly in the church’s name or implicitly in its organizational tapestry — you’re just telling them they’ll always be the “other” no matter how well integrated they become.
If your church has a conflation problem, that’s a problem.
The courage problem
Growing up, voicing concerns to the local church somehow meant criticizing leaders who came before.
As if telling leadership there was a leak in the bathroom was the fault of the late founding pastor’s great-grandfather, who was the first to come to the faith back in India. (Hint: it wasn’t.)
More seriously, there was (and is) this idea in homogeneous communities that precedent and tradition are immovable objects. What’s worked before simply ought to work again.
Simplified, it was a pervasive idea that there were those who came before us, and they were legends of a certain immeasurable ilk — the kind we could never really amount to ourselves. Our job as churchgoers — and this is something I learned early on — was to venerate them and keep their legacy alive by doing things exactly how they did.
[.highlight__wrapper][.highlight__text]A lot of leaders mistakenly think they deserve some sort of badge of valor even though they've merely just been riding on the coattails of a previous generation's courage.[.highlight__text][.highlight__wrapper]
These are the leaders who often freeze in times of crisis, their churches operating as if in time capsules from the 1970s. Because it’s the last time anybody (i.e. in this instance, some esteemed legend) made a consequential decision on how to move the church forward.
The truth is we all know churches like this. And, chances are, we know leaders like this — frozen in time because of a lack of courage to embrace their own unique callings that may differentiate their trajectories from those who came before them.
But “Daddy was a pastor” or “I pray pretty loud” are often the prerequisites for being a church shepherd in much the same way as dropping a ton of money to meet, greet, and take a selfie with John Maxwell is all it takes to be a leader.
It takes more than that.
Especially if you want to cut through all the noise of inauthenticity.
“Our message never changes,” says Pastor Tim Lucas, “but our methods must.”
Lucas is the Founder and Lead Pastor of Liquid Church — based in New Jersey and recognized as one of America’s Top 100 Fastest-Growing Churches by Outreach Magazine. After launching Liquid in another church’s basement in 2007, it’s now grown to six campuses and over 5,000 members.
[.highlight__wrapper][.highlight__text]Is growth uncomfortable? Absolutely. But it’s sometimes necessary.[.highlight__text][.highlight__wrapper]
Lucas acknowledges that many churches are “stuck” because they assume growth happens without much effort — that the vibrancy of the Gospel or a rich spiritual heritage would naturally draw neighbors and new families. But culture shifts and healthy skepticism has made it necessary to change up the ministry playbook of yore.
For Liquid, growth required courage.
“Outreach and mission are no longer the final step on the discipleship pathway,” he says. “In our church, they are the entry point for pre-Christians who want to belong before they believe.”
Adapting to culture and time — across church contexts — can provide similar opportunities for learning.
But, admittedly, learning isn’t easy. And letting go is even tougher — especially in homogeneous communities. Lucas notes that rebirthing or revitalizing an aging ministry requires a special brand of courage from both church leaders and the congregation.
[.quote__wrapper][.quote__text]"It means giving up your personal preference — your musical style, legacy ministries — in favor of expressions that will engage ‘those who aren’t here yet’ with the message of Jesus."[.quote__text][.quote__source]- Pastor Tim Lucas[.quote__source][.quote__wrapper]
It’s easier to stand still when everything else moves forward.
But it makes keeping up that much more difficult.
The Cover Problem
I remember the negotiations well.
My sisters had seen me leave the church we all grew up in a few years prior. Now, they were in college, and they wanted to head to churches that made sense for them.
But my parents wanted none of it. They were girls, and since they weren’t married — gasp! — it would look terrible if they left the church in one fell swoop like that.
They reached an agreement: as long as they could commit to showing up a couple of weeks every month, they were free to go wherever they wanted for the rest of the month.
Sweet, sweet victory.
[.highlight__wrapper][.highlight__text]I remember having many conversations with my parents around this time.[.highlight__text][.highlight__wrapper] Their fears stemmed from something I’ve already mentioned here: the social club aspect of church. There were cultural rules in place to tell the world we were Christian. And as long as we all followed these rules, everything would be okay, and we’d be blessed.
I told them they were perverting Ephesians 6:2 by trying to guilt them into staying at their first generation church. Especially not because it was for my sisters’ good; rather, it was because it made my parents happy.
I call the third problem facing struggling homogeneous churches “cover” for a reason.
Sometimes, people use good intentions and poor Biblical interpretation — something I love writing about, by the way — as cover so they don’t get exposed for not trying to figure out why things are broken so bad that people are trying to leave in the first place.
Did you catch that in my sisters’ negotiation with my parents?
If you grew up in an ethnocentric church context like I did, you’ve heard all the cover before:
- Stay, because we’ve got the message translated in English on Sunday
- Stay, because we’ve got the new sound system
- Stay, because we’ve got a Youth Pastor
- Stay, because you’re not married yet
- Stay, because you’ll let all the kids down
That’s only a handful of all the guilt trips I’ve heard growing up. And none of them actually deal with the central issue that drove people like me or my sisters — and many more like us — to leave: we longed for authenticity.
In fact, 71% of millennials who understand both the purpose and vision of an organization say they plan to stick around.
This need for authenticity is essentially hard-coded in the behaviors of young people — far more than how bad they want to hear excuses as cover.
My parents were only doing the best they could in trying to keep up with the cultural Joneses. They eventually let my sisters leave their church entirely, and they even stood up for them when the church publicly disavowed both of them. It was hard for them, and I get that.
[.highlight__wrapper][.highlight__text]The truth is some churches don't strive to see the root cause of member disconnect and disillusionment. Instead of digging for the root cause, they put bandages on fractures and wonder why the breaks won't heal.[.highlight__text][.highlight__wrapper]
The English translation, the cool sound gear, the new hires, the blame games, and the guilt trips don’t solve problems plaguing dying churches; they hasten demise.
It’s all just a cover.
Maybe it’s cover for phyletism. Maybe it’s for a lack of courage.
Maybe it’s just for a lack of trying.
By no means is this phenomenon of millennials leaving church unique to South Indian churches. This happens across cultures.
In 1996, Helen Lee explored — what she called — the Silent Exodus taking place in the Asian immigrant church in America.
She found that despite surges in Asian immigration in the United States, American-raised children of immigrant families were leaving their immigrant churches for other churches — especially more traditionally “White” churches, second generation Asian American churches, and multi-ethnic churches.
Why were they leaving?
For the same reason I left, or my sisters left, or why a lot of young people still leave: young people were neither being acknowledged nor considered in the shaping of their churches.
Young people were given their quick fixes, relegated to their siloes, and effectively treated like vagabonds in the same churches they held semblances of affection for.
[.highlight__wrapper][.highlight__text]So they left. What choice did they really have?[.highlight__text][.highlight__wrapper]
The sentiments were echoed again recently in an article for SOLA Network. Most of the fixes Second Generation Korean American churches — those churches that began as a byproduct of the earlier, larger exodus — have implemented over the years have been stopgaps instead of true long-term solutions.
The writer’s observations are pretty universal for homogeneous church communities:
- They often feel like cultural social clubs
- There’s a lack of engagement with social issues
- There’s a lack of experienced leaders and true plurality in leadership
- There are few attempts to bridge intergenerational gaps
None of this means culture has no place in church. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Rather, what this means is that the solution for broken or dying church systems isn’t quick fixes, excuses, and guilt trips: it’s effort.
How to save a dying church
Admittedly, the easiest way to solve some of the core problems is to scroll up, take a look at the three problems and signs of unhealthy churches I’ve mentioned, and do the exact opposite of those things.
That’ll work in most contexts — whether you’re Indian, Korean, or Liechtensteiner. (Actual country. Here’s how to pronounce it.)
But there are no quick fixes. In fact:
- There is no perfect church
- There is no perfect church size
- What works for one church may not necessarily work for others
- Change is hard
- Not dying takes effort
But if you’re a leader who’s finally willing to keep it real with yourself about the state of your church, you’re already in a better place than when you started this essay.
[.quote__wrapper][.quote__text]"First steps are always the hardest, but until they are taken, the notion of progress remains only a notion and not an achievement."[.quote__text][.quote__source]- Aberjhani[.quote__source][.quote__wrapper]
I’ll go one step further and share a few tried-and-true strategies for revitalizing dying churches.
Because the goal here is not to see churches around us fail. Rather, we must challenge each other to “Change or Die” — a phrase repeated often when talking about stagnant churches.
The three strategies I’ll focus on are the following:
- Pursue Community
- Make Diversity Intentional
- Think Like an Organization
If some of this sounds like common sense — good. It should sound like common sense.
Whether you’re in a homogeneous church community or not, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel to save a dying church: you’ve just gotta want to try to save it.
Let’s dive in.
I’m not even talking about the travel across the world type of Great Commission pursuit here.
I’m talking about the other kind of pursuit — the opening up the doors of your church, learning about the demographics of the community you’re placed in, and meeting your neighbors at their needs kind.
You’d think looking around at the periphery would be the easiest kind of missional work for a church. It’s often not.
“I was a White Kansas farm boy, married to a White Southern California beach girl, who God called to a multi-ethnic neighborhood.” This is how Dr. Larry Walkemeyer starts to explain his pastoral journey to me.
Larry and his wife Deb (also a Pastor) lead Light and Life Christian Fellowship in Long Beach, California. Today, the church is genuinely multi-ethnic, it impacts the local community, and has completed 19 church planting projects across America (and 25 churches internationally).
But it started with a calling.
“The church was a small group of White people,” he recalls, explaining his trust in his calling. “We didn’t know how to transition to multi-ethnicity, but I knew it was a top priority to do so. We focused on it, and we sought God for wisdom.”
In those early days, his team would walk the gang-infested, low-income North Long Beach streets, praying the simplest of prayers:
[.quote__wrapper][.quote__text]"Lord, help our church look like our neighborhood."[.quote__text][.quote__wrapper]
It took a prayer and some effort.
The church’s first hires were non-White staff members, they incorporated different worship styles into their services, prioritized cross-cultural personal friendships, and they ensured multi-ethnicity in their church board.
Their neighbors began to take notice, because the church was intentional about looking like their neighborhood.
In 2010, they took this one step further.
(The idea of going one step further will come up a lot.)
After surveying the neighborhood about what they’d want in their newly-purchased community center, a common theme stood out: they wanted a safe environment for their children and teenagers to learn and experience the creative arts. (This was especially pertinent because the community’s elementary and middle schools had recently removed most art and music education courses from their curricula.)
So Deb (Larry’s wife) and her team built out a 140-seat theater in the back of the community center, secured a bunch of grants, and launched Act Out Theater Company.
The theater program not only led a few kids and their families to begin attending the church, but Act Out remains the only tuition-free theater program in southern California.
They saw a need, met it, and it took it one step further.
The best part is that they took one program that a lot of churches try — like any of the semi-annual or annual cookouts, block parties, concerts, and medical camps we see local churches set up all the time — and they turned it into a thing.
A living, breathing thing.
It wasn’t just a vehicle to get some church branding in front of some new faces; rather, it met the community at the point of a very specific need, solved it, scaled it, and sustained it.
They turned it into a thing, y’all.
Okay. If you’re like most church folks reading this, you’re probably thinking, “Boom. Attract the audience by doing things they’d like to see. That’s the answer.”
And you’d be half correct.
I believe a lot of churches — even dying ones — understand the idea of church attractiveness.
Get people to come to your church. Give them coffee. Give them a flyer. Tell them goodbye. Follow-up.
“Light and Life grew under the attractional thinking methodology,” says Walkemeyer. “This required helping our church folks to start with the question, ‘How can I help build our church?’ That’s a good question but it’s not the best question.”
[.highlight__wrapper][.highlight__text]What his leadership team realized was that there was a far better question worth asking: How can I build God’s kingdom?[.highlight__text][.highlight__wrapper]
Light and Life turned on a dime, switching gears from focusing on church addition to focusing on church multiplication.
[.quote__wrapper][.quote__text]"We had been a Lake church where the objective was for people to flow into one place — around one pastor — and then find a way to keep them all there. God birthed a new vision to be a River church where people flowed into our church but many of them would flow on to bring life elsewhere. Our new mission statement became: Reach, Teach, Mend, Send."[.quote__text][.quote__source]- Dr. Larry Walkemeyer[.quote__source][.quote__wrapper]
Multiplication versus addition.
It’s how a church with 39 parking spaces has managed to reach several thousand people.
If our churches can look at community intentionally, we can change our approach from setting up some cool once-in-a-while events for people to reaching, teaching, mending, and sending.
Is your church in a largely Black/Hispanic community? A largely Korean one?
What if you reached them with genuine attractiveness, and brought them into your church so you could equip them to go into new communities, plant new churches, and begin the cycle again? And not to just simply exist to be a part of a roll call every Sunday.
None of this is easy. I get that.
But I don’t think building the kingdom was ever meant to be easy.
[.highlight__wrapper][.highlight__text]When we stop seeing our community as merely an audience and reaching them as merely an event, we'll start seeing how God truly could equip them — with their unique contexts — to help build his kingdom around you.[.highlight__text][.highlight__wrapper]
Multiplication versus addition.
Often, this kind of change starts with the simplest of prayers:
[.quote__wrapper][.quote__text]“Lord, help our church look like our neighborhood.”[.quote__text][.quote__wrapper]
Going one step further?
That takes effort.
Make diversity intentional
An older gentleman from the church challenged the pastor on a phrase he always used from the pulpit.
“When you say ‘God is colorblind,'” said the old man, “what I think you mean is probably a good thing, right?”
The pastor nodded.
“But I don’t think it’s true, Pastor.”
The gentleman opened his Bible, slowly flipped the worn pages to the book of Revelations, and continued: “God seems to really care about the fact that I’m a Black man, and that you’re a White man. And that, in the end, there will be people from every tribe, and tongue, and nation.”
The pastor listened as the gentleman continued.
“God seems not to be blind to that but actually really interested in that. And you should be really interested in that.”
This next point is similar to the first (i.e. pursuing community) but goes deeper by a layer or two.
In a lot of ways, being intentional about diversity stands in stark contrast to phyletism, homogeneity, ethnocentricity, and an inward focus.
And it should.
Being intentional about cultural diversity should be important to churches because it’s something that’s important to God — central to the astounding mosaic of ethnic diversity he reveals in the book of Revelations.
While we may understand — from at least a social perspective — why cultural diversity is important in an organization, it’s often not so obvious to see how critically God values it.
“I was raised in a very White kind of environment,” says Pastor Adam Mabry, who shared the story above with me. “And so I used to say things like ‘God is colorblind.'”
Today, Adam is the Lead Pastor at Aletheia Church, a multi-ethnic church in Cambridge, Massachusetts — and a part of a larger network of church planting. When you visit the church’s website, it becomes clear how important this idea of multiplication really is when church planting is front-and-center in the messaging.
But, admittedly, he didn’t immediately understand the depth of God’s heart for cultural diversity. That deeper revelation happened over the course of organic moments like the one when an older Black church member challenged him on the phrase he loved using.
When Adam started his church, the prayer was a simple one:
[.quote__wrapper][.quote__text]"Lord, help our church look like our neighborhood."[.quote__text][.quote__wrapper]
(This prayer is a recurring theme, as you’re well aware of by now.)
And as the church grew, Adam realized his own leadership growth — something he longed for — required an acute awareness of his own cultural contexts as well as the cultural contexts of the new faces that flooded in from the community.
“I’m a better shepherd to people,” he says, “when I realize it’s probably harder for a Black man than a White man on Sunday.”
[.quote__wrapper][.quote__text]"In American culture, I’m never forced to think about the fact that I’m White — unless someone points it out to me. Non-White people never have this experience. There’s never a day that something about our culture doesn’t remind them of this. To be a good leader, I must ask myself what I can do to mitigate this as much as possible."[.quote__text][.quote__source]- Pastor Adam Mabry[.quote__source][.quote__wrapper]
And again, like always — there it is.
Going one step further.
That effort happens a lot. Building authentically multi-ethnic churches takes prayer, time, and a whole lot of intentionality.
It sure isn’t easy.
In fact, there are many massive churches that struggle with cross-cultural contexts and relatability. Some of the biggest, most prominent churches in New York City, for example, struggle with keeping young people of color (especially married couples), because there’s no representation in leadership. Young people of color just aren’t in leadership. And that level of diversity is a huge factor for not only attracting, but also for keeping members long enough to teach them and send them or inspire them to be church planters and changemakers somewhere else.
It’s something Adam is keenly aware of, as his church looks to hire staff over the next 12 months.
“I’m not just looking for people who can execute a task,” he says. “I’m looking for people who can help me build a culture.”
For Aletheia — like it was/is at Long Beach’s Light and Life — this means intentional hiring.
And intentionality behind the guest speakers they book.
Adam admits he’s got “super smart White friends who can really preach.” But the intentionality he has in building out his church’s diversity keeps him from relying on them too often to swing by and speak on a Sunday.
If he’s booking guest speakers, his team will take the effort to find those who better connect culturally with those sitting in the pews.
That level of effort matters.
But, again — it’s hard.
Adam grew up in a homogeneous church community of his own, which is why his level of intentionality is critical. If he didn’t make the effort, he probably wouldn’t see the diversity in church he sees today.
And it’s similar for other leaders who came from homogeneous communities as well.
I met up with a friend of mine recently — Siby Varghese, a pastor at Seven Mile Road Church in Philadelphia.
We’ve known each other for a while — we both grew up in similar South Indian church contexts, and we were in bands and making music out of college around the same time.
It’d been a while since I’d talked to him, so it was great to catch up.
Seven Mile — a church plant in the Acts 29 network — was built a little differently than both Light and Life and Aletheia. They had a dual desire: first, to reach anybody (including neighbors) with the Gospel, and second, to reach second generation Indian Americans who either didn’t know Christ or who had walked away from the church.
But those early days were tough because only one of those desires really started to stick right away.
“Our Sunday morning gathering was about 95% Indian in the early days,” he says.
[.quote__wrapper][.quote__text]"We found that when you walked through the doors on a Sunday morning to see a sea of Indians, the initial thought was: 'This is an Indian church.' So then the question becomes: 'Can I be a part of a church like this?'"[.quote__text][.quote__source]- Siby Varghese[.quote__source][.quote__wrapper]
Remember the earlier points about what the second generation Korean Church was experiencing? These struggles are real.
Early on, like birds of a feather that flock together, it’s often these second generation churchgoers — and people that look like each other — that begin coming to these churches. It’s something a lot of leaders who were raised in a homogeneous or ethnocentric background experience.
In Seven Mile’s case, with three Indian leaders pastoring the church from the get-go, it was especially challenging.
Early on, Siby says, there was a misunderstanding about the church’s purpose among other Indian-led churches. While some established homogeneous and first generation churches saw Seven Mile as a new church built to rip Indian Americans from their pews, others in the community supported them and prayed for their growth.
He explains how much that early support helped nudge Seven Mile forward. “It’s not easy setting out on a journey like this without spiritual fathers and mothers who share our heritage and culture to push you along in the process. And we know for many of them it was not easy and it cost them something. We owe so much to them — their faith, their sacrifice, their love for us.”
But Seven Mile’s leadership knew that they were called to this dual desire — no matter how long it took to actually see it through, and no matter how rocky the initial community support would be.
“We trusted God,” he says. “And we trusted the vision he placed before us.”
What it took was — here’s that phrase again — going one step further to really crack the code.
The church began forging authentic connections in the communities the members lived in, nurturing relationships with the community schools, leaders, and meaningful organizations. And they especially began doubling down on missional efforts in the areas where the church’s small groups met.
[.highlight__wrapper][.highlight__text]All of this took work. It always does.[.highlight__text][.highlight__wrapper]
And it slowly paid off for Seven Mile.
Years later, what started off as a majority second generation Indian American church plant is now seeing a membership blend of 50/50 — that dual desire they’d been fueled by all this time. There’s diversity in its membership, and one look at the church website shows that there’s also diversity in its leadership.
Siby credits their perseverance. “I think the relationships and commitments we’ve been able to maintain have made an impact, regardless of the color of our skin.”
I think the idea of intentionalizing diversity is something that trips up a lot of struggling or dying churches.
When you look at this from a purely cultural standpoint (i.e. pursuing cultural diversity), a lot of homogeneous churches have good intentions about it. Those semi-annual and annual events really are intended to tug at the community’s collective heartstrings and get them to walk in to the church.
[.highlight__wrapper][.highlight__text]But that’s where it ends.[.highlight__text][.highlight__wrapper]
Rarely do you see the community represented in church leadership. And you can forget about being a part of the board — cultural diversity on the board almost never happens.
So what you really end up with is a bunch of silos. People who don’t look like the leadership aren’t really represented in the church and are expected to continue to show up — and even grow. It’s disingenuous.
Diversity in leadership and representation are major factors in keeping people happy and engaged in a church — whether that’s young people (especially millennials) who often feel siloed and ignored, women who don’t have a voice in the board and decision-making bodies, or members from the community who don’t see leaders or members who look like them or understand their unique contexts enough to feel like they can fit in.
[.highlight__wrapper][.highlight__text]But remember that God, through Christ, actually seems really interested in young people, women, and cultures. Our churches should be really interested in them, too.[.highlight__text][.highlight__wrapper]
Think like an organization
I once saw somebody post a graphic on Facebook that intended to tell us what their parachurch organization’s vision statement was.
But the graphic just had one abstract paragraph with a bunch of vague over-spiritual sentences. It felt more like a few ad hoc motivational quotes spliced together than a true vision statement.
I was genuinely confused by what was going on. So I asked him if the church had a mission statement. He pointed to another verbose, ambiguous paragraph.
Every church — every organization, really — should have a clear and concise mission statement and vision statement. And being clear is important.
(Some leaders prefer to use one overarching vision statement, but in any case, you still need to be clear and concise.)
A lot of churches fail, generally, because of one of two reasons:
- They don’t really know what the vision is
- They don’t really have a vision
This ties back to the idea of courage I mentioned earlier. In a lot of legacy-sustaining ministries, the founder’s courage — the one that fueled their initial vision for the ministry — is expected to fuel the vision of the church forever. It’s why there’s rarely ever even conversations around the topic of vision at homogeneous and ethnocentric churches.
There are loads and loads of cottage prayers and all-night prayers and fasting and prayer meetings — all of which are inherently good and useful programs — but there are rarely ever vision casting meetings set up so people know where the church is headed.
[.highlight__wrapper][.highlight__text]Churches need to think like organizations because… well, they are organizations.[.highlight__text][.highlight__wrapper]
Does everybody know the mission of the new English service? Why did you start it? Does it tie into the larger worldview of the church? Does your church know why it exists where it does?
And if you start breaking those questions down, you can really start figuring out why the organization struggles or fails in the first place.
Take, for example, this homogeneous church I just made up:
- It’s running on the fumes of the late founder’s courage
- It’s not really great with connecting with or representing young people
- It’s smack dab in the middle of a community and neighborhood that looks different than they do
- Its community has real problems the church could really help solve
- It’s not really outward focused
Without a real grasp of the church’s mission and vision for today, the easiest cover here would probably be an English service.
They’d start the service so that it appeases young people who are disillusioned by lack of opportunity and representation. While there’s a fear or hesitation to really connect with the community and integrate them with the church body, a new English service allows these new people to come and exist in a siloed environment. They can launch one-off events on behalf of the English service to help the community sporadically — but not really get too involved.
If it sounds like you know that exact church, that’s only because it’s a very common cover for ethnocentric churches that are stuck in neutral and are struggling to survive.
True solutions would start at identifying the vision of the church: is this church meant to be multi-ethnic and multi-generational, or is this church meant to be a landing spot for immigrants needing a home church that speaks their language and makes them feel comfortable?
I don’t want to make it seem as if the latter is a bad vision to have. It’s not! Those kinds of immigrant-focused churches are necessary.
[.highlight__wrapper][.highlight__text]In fact, it’s why the founder often left their home country and started the church in the first place — to draw other immigrants to it. But is that why the church is still around?[.highlight__text][.highlight__wrapper]
It’s all the pretense afterward that drives these churches to the brink.
The cover is just a bunch of tactical solutions — surface level fixes. There’s nothing strategic about it.
As church leaders, be honest with yourselves: what’s the worldview of your church? Why does your church exist?
Because if your vision is for your church to be authentically multi-ethnic, multi-generational, and diverse, every mission statement for every program you create will point towards that vision.
Otherwise, it’s just cover.
It’s just pretense.
In ethnocentric churches, a lot of young people — who are truly on the fence about leaving — are administered Oscar-worthy guilt trips because the churches don’t actually have a place for them but feel like they really should have a place for them.
[.highlight__wrapper][.highlight__text]If your church only has an overt immigrant focus, why do you demand young people — who genuinely yearn for more than that from their church experience — ought to stay there? That makes absolutely no sense.[.highlight__text][.highlight__wrapper]
I’ve talked to young, creative leaders at homogeneous churches who have been on the fence about leaving their churches because of a sense of loyalty. And my response to them is always two simple questions:
- What’s your church’s vision?
- Does that vision include you?
If the answer to the second question is no — and you don’t feel it in your bones that you’re called to stay and persevere — then don’t apologize for leaving, don’t feel bad you’ll be letting kids down, and don’t believe the accusations that you’ll undoubtedly hear about you being some sort of boogeyman.
Leave the savior complex at the door and walk away.
When I left my childhood church, I had those same reservations and regrets… for years. I felt like I was a superhero. If only I could have stuck around, I would have been able to help those kids more.
The best thing I ever did was leave. I found a better leadership support system, my skills were nurtured, I was held accountable, I was better equipped, and I was unlocked to be a better version of myself — a better writer, creative, and leader.
So leave the savior complex.
[.highlight__wrapper][.highlight__text]If God can use an inanimate shepherd’s staff to intimidate a pharaoh, he can use an intricately-crafted you to help people you left behind. Just be real with yourself.[.highlight__text][.highlight__wrapper]
Is there a vision? And does that vision include you?
The truth is a lot of struggling churches don’t think like an organization. And it goes beyond just the mission and vision statements.
I’m not just saying that because I work in marketing and see organizations struggle with scale all the time — but the experience helps.
I spoke to my friend Paulson Thomas, a fellow marketer, who can vouch for organizational thinking.
A few years ago, Paulson left the clinical side of things, founding Branchwater Marketing Group to create his own freedom as a healthcare practice growth consultant. He currently works alongside Kevin Harrington of Shark Tank fame to bridge the gap between healthcare and digital marketing — through ensuring patient data privacy and social media engineering.
Long story short, he knows what he’s talking about.
“The critical reason for why organizations and brands don’t grow,” he says, “is their inability to adapt with the market.”
As a student of technical analysis — like most good marketers must be — he understands that each niche, market, and product offering have their own cycles in supply and demand.
Those terms may not seem relevant to churches and parachurch organizations, but they are.
Every neighborhood you’re in, outreach program you create, community you try to reach, social cause you try to get behind — each of these things has a natural ebb and flow. Churches in Harlem, New York, for example — where my wife and I live — must pursue a dramatically more diverse ethnic tapestry today than they had to 15 years ago when the neighborhood was mostly relegated to low-income Black families. The effects of gentrification have been profound.
[.highlight__wrapper][.highlight__text]That’s just one example of what could happen to a single neighborhood over 15 years.[.highlight__text][.highlight__wrapper]
Other variables change over days, weeks, or months.
At Light and Life, the Walkemeyers felt the ripple effect of the 1992 Los Angeles riots all the way in Long Beach. Arsonists were setting fire to buildings in their neighborhood, and so they had to make a decision on whether to persevere there or not. They ultimately chose to persevere.
But does your church have the deep understanding of what it stands for — its mission and vision — to make a calculated decision like that?
A lot of struggling churches don’t, and they can’t.
It’s why thinking like an organization is so important.
What about church growth? Does your church know what it needs to do to grow?
“A lot of teams recognize the need to grow or adapt to changes,” explains Paulson. “But they don’t know what they should be measuring to track their progress.”
Maybe you’re seeing more members with natural leadership skills join the church through a collaborative community event versus a free concert at the church. If your church is in a season of needing more leaders, do you know how to find them?
Do you know if the online giving platform is leading to more recurring payments than other traditional methods? Is that important to you?
Do you know if that back-to-school event you put together in your neighborhood actually helped schoolkids in a measurable way? If not, do you know what you could do better?
Are you seeing more people engage with your church’s content through Soundcloud or through your blog? Should you persevere on one and scrap the other?
[.highlight__wrapper][.highlight__text]Not only do organizations that are built on a true purpose know they need to grow; they know why they need to grow.[.highlight__text][.highlight__wrapper]
This ties back to vision casting and making sure everybody — from the top down — understand the mission and vision of the church. If only the pastor understands the goals, you can’t expect teams to execute toward those goals. This must be absolutely transparent.
It’s easier to stick to what’s worked, assume laws of supply and demand seamlessly work in tandem with your good intentions, and make excuses for when things don’t work. It’s harder going one step further.
But churches that succeed at least try.
Revitalizing your church requires a lot of honesty and a lot of hard effort.
But it’s important to understand there are others who can share their expertise and strategies with you so you can see the symptoms of failure clearly enough to remedy them. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel.
You’ve just got to want to try.
Leaders, here are some resources that can help:
- Exponential – Connect with a growing community of leaders (including Pastors Larry and Deb Walkemeyer) committed to accelerating the multiplication of healthy, reproducing faith communities.
- Acts 29 – Connect with a diverse, global family of church-planting churches and leaders.
- The Advance Initiative – Connect with a community (birthed by the leaders of Seven Mile Road Church) that exists to see a movement of Gospel-centered, multiethnic churches planted by or among Indian Americans.
- Help For Churches – Watch how Liquid Church helped rejuvenate a 191-year-old congregation to reach a new generation.
- Develop.Me – Use Life.Church’s free platform to plan and track church/team growth through intentionalized goals, collaboration, and accountability.
Here are some books worth reading:
- “Plantation Jesus: Race, Faith, and a New Way Forward” – Read how the authors call out the church’s denials and dodges and evasions of race, and learn how they invite readers to encounter the Christ of the disenfranchised.
- “Life and Doctrine: How the Truth and Grace of the Christian Story Change Everything” – Learn how to reorient the church under the harmonizing simplicity of the truth and grace of the Christian story.
- “MultiAsian.Church: A Future for Asian Americans in a Multiethnic World” – Learn how to minister among the fastest-growing racial ethnic group in America.
- “All Are Welcome: Toward a Multi-Everything Church” – Learn from 10 different leaders (all from ethnic minorities) as they explain how to create a more welcoming environment in churches.
- “Letters to a Birmingham Jail: A Response to the Words and Dreams of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” – Learn from men of various ethnicities and ages about how to pursue Christ exalting diversity.
- “Building a Healthy Multi-ethnic Church: Mandate, Commitments and Practices of a Diverse Congregation” (and two more) – Learn from Pastor Mark DeYmaz about the biblical mandate for the multi-ethnic church as well as the core commitments required to bring it about.
And here’s one more — just because:
- “25 Best Things to Do in Liechtenstein” – If you ever visit this actual country, here are some of the best things to do there.
This isn’t intended to be a comfortable read.
If you’ve made it this far, there’s probably a reason for it.
Maybe you’re leading a dying church. Maybe you know of one. Maybe you’re on the fence about leaving one.
Maybe you just want to pick me apart later and rant on Facebook about how your good intentions, Pulitzer Prize-winning mission statement writing ability, and your state-of-the-art sound system are why I’m wrong about all this.
But I hope there are a few of you reading this, inspired by the anecdotes, willing to explore the resources I’ve shared.
I know it’s overwhelming — whether you’re a leader or you’re sitting on the fence about leaving your church.
But nobody said this would be easy.
If conversations about organizational health are icky, flank yourself with the kind of teams that are equipped for even heavier topics like mental health in church and sexual abuse happening in the pews. If you can’t handle the former, I’m willing to bet you aren’t ready to handle the latter.
Is growth uncomfortable? Absolutely. And it’s sometimes necessary.
Otherwise, your church will die.
And if the gravity of that statement doesn’t bother you, then your church probably should. ■
[.endnote__text]Shout out to Dr. Alex Mikulich, Andi Cumbo-Floyd, Murphy McHugh, James Robilotta, and Ray Chang for their help with this essay.[.endnote__text]