2017 hasn’t been a good year for iconic retailers. Sears announced in March that it “has substantial doubt” that it can stay in business much longer. K-Mart and Sears (both owned by the same parent company) will close more than 150 stores nationwide this year. Macy’s will close 68. The Limited will close 250. Guess will close 60. Crocs will close 160.
Other once thriving companies have also hit hard times in recent years. Hostess closed its doors after two bankruptcies (and re-opened with a new name). Kodak filed for bankruptcy in 2012. Borders filed for bankruptcy in 2011.
Each of those companies has a different story, but they all have something in common.
They weren’t ready for the future.
Never before in history have so many major companies failed so massively. In the past 50 years, the average lifespan of S&P 500 companies has fallen from 60 years to 18 years. Close to 90 percent of companies on the S&P 500 in 1955 had fallen off by 2014.
The world has changed at lightening speed over the past few decades. Companies that can’t keep up have collapsed.
Before you think that’s a story just for the corporate world, take a look at what’s happened within the Christian world. It’s hard to define exact statistics, but most commentators suggest that between 4,000 and 7,000 churches close each year in the United States. In case math isn’t your strong suit, that means 75 to 135 churches close their doors for the last time every Sunday.
That could be your church. That could be your ministry. The changes in our society—the ones that have set blue-blood businesses and growing churches to the wayside—isn’t slowing down. In fact, those changes are speeding up.
Let’s be real for a moment. Whether your church is two centuries old or two weeks old, collapse could be in your church’s future. No matter how strong your ministry is today, ministry fruitfulness could be fleeting.
Before you pull out your copy of Matthew 16:18 and cry foul, I’m not suggesting that THE CHURCH faces extinction. In a century, if Jesus hasn’t yet returned, the Church will still be here and making a difference in new and fresh ways.
But I can’t sugarcoat this. While the Church might not be around, your church might not be. And that would be sad. It won’t be sad because God can’t work in this world without your church. He can, and He will.
It’ll be sad because your church’s unique expression of the Body of Christ won’t be impacting your community for Jesus.
Your church’s future will rise and fall on leadership. So how do you become a leader that can face the future with confidence rather than fear? Building these seven characteristics into your ministry will be a great start.
1. Connected to Jesus. None of us knows the future, but we know Who does. Stay close to Him. Get to know Him better. Follow what He teaches. The leaders who will make a Kingdom-sized difference in 10 years or 20 years aren’t the most charismatic, the smartest, or the best at preaching. The Christian leaders who will impact tomorrow are those ministering out of an overflow of what God is doing in their lives today. You can’t fake that.
2. Learner. Leaders commit themselves to growing. You don’t, at this moment, know everything you’ll need to succeed as a leader next month—much less 10 years from now. To get where you need to go, you’ll have to learn new skills and hear new voices. Rick Warren likes to say, “Leaders are readers.” Read broadly, on subjects that interest you and those that don’t. Listen to podcasts. Take a college course (you can find free ones online). Meet new people (and ask them a million questions when you do). The day you stop learning is the day you’re finished as a leader.
3. Risk-taker. No matter how smart you are, you don’t know how to solve tomorrow’s problems right now. The only way to fully prepare for tomorrow is to risk utter failure today. California pastor Larry Osborne writes, “The most striking thing about highly effective leaders is how little they have in common. What one swears by, another warns against. But one trait stands out: the willingness to risk.” Learning to take God-honoring risks is a skill that can be honed. Work on it. Try new things. Fail. Try something different.
4. Visionary. Future-facing leaders can imagine a better tomorrow and communicate that vision to the ministry he or she leads. It’s the essence of leadership. These leaders constantly ask God to let them see what He wants to do through their ministries. They don’t focus on past successes. They don’t even get mired in the leadership problems of today. They constantly point toward the better future God has ahead.
5. Adapter. The strategies that impact your community for Jesus today likely won’t work in five years. Christian leaders must hang on tightly to biblical truth but hold loosely to today’s ministry practices. That may seem easy to do at the moment, but it will grow ever harder in practice. As God gives you ministry success, you’ll be tempted to hang on to the ministry practices that have worked in the past long after they stop being fruitful. Just don’t. Learn to separate the eternal, never-changing truths of scripture from the ministry practices that have been helpful in the past.
6. Others-focused. To become the most effective leader possible in the future, you can’t focus on your achievement. Forward-facing leaders are like the best point guards in basketball. They make everyone around them better. Constantly look for ways to help the people around you grow. Invest in others. Give of your time. Give of your expertise. Give of your wisdom. Don’t do it to get ahead. Don’t do it so you can move up a ministry ladder. Invest in others because you care about their development.
7. In this world, but not of it. Christian leaders who thrive in the future will have to successfully walk an age-old tightrope between their connection to the world and their devotion to the world-to-come. Christian leaders who are faithful to scripture will be increasingly out of place in the future. What you value, what you seek, and what you hope for will not jive with the prevailing wisdom of the age. It never really has, but this distinction will only grow in the future. Yet asceticism will rarely be an option. To fully thrive you’ll need to behave much like a missionary in years gone by. You’ll have to invest yourself in learning the language and culture of 21st century life so you can faithfully communicate the gospel in its midst.
Most of all, don’t fear tomorrow. Corrie ten Boom once wrote, “Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.” In a decade, you’ll discover opportunities to make much of Jesus that you can’t even imagine today. Get ready for that future. Prepare for it. Plan for it. Don’t worry about it.
God is already there.
For more about how your church can prepare for the future, check out my free ebook, Futureproof Your Church: 3 Simple Ways to Build a Church That Lasts.
Tobin Perry writes for echurch, a company that partners with churches to help them unlock generosity for a new generation through a forward-thinking mobile-adoption strategy.