THE MUSCLE OF BABY STEPS

Ben and Erin Napier are hosts of the HGTV show, “Hometown.” They have taken the dreams of a small-town revitalization by storm. The Laurel Mercantile (owned by the Napiers) even has a collector’s mug with the phrase, “We have the POWER to do this.” This phrase was devised by the series director during their first summer of filming in the sweltering heat of southern Mississippi. This axiom is applicable to revitalization in general. Revitalization is a process of many exciting and rewarding BABY STEPS!

          Ben and Erin started a small, grass-roots movement to assist Laurel’s downtown in regaining its former beauty and vibrancy. What they started has become a booming trend! It didn’t happen overnight, but with a series of small, incremental improvements, their efforts provided enough momentum to transform and improve the quality of life for years to come. In the world of small towns and Main Street renovations this is known as “incrementalism.” Incrementalism is not flashy and not always immediately rewarding. It requires numerous small changes that need to take place over a period of time. Some are well-received, and others are totally rejected, but like the domino effect, a chain reaction is set in motion, and the beauty of the plan brings about something new, exciting, and desirable to replicate. This is the MUSCLE of Baby Steps! 

          Every child begins walking with small, baby steps. Some steps lead to excitement, applause, and the joy of making it from one spot to another. Others end up on their face with embarrassment and a painful “booboo.” So how can we as revitalizers help a church work through the process with the least amount of pain and bloodshed? Neil Armstrong said it best on that monumental day of July 20, 1969, from the surface of the moon – “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” His words have been repeated thousands of times and the message still rings clear – the first steps maybe small, but the journey beyond can be gigantic. We start by taking a small step and we press on for the health and effectiveness of the entire congregation. Our baby steps can lead to a thriving church and a transformed community.

          The first steps can be a bit mundane and laborious. Consider how many times a baby who is learning to walk, gets picked up, set precariously on their wobbly legs, and told, “Come to papa or mama?” This must be exasperating for the infant! But this is where we all start. The Change Readiness Assessment determines if the pastor is the one to lead the process and if he has the trust of the congregation. Will they follow him into battle? Second, unpacking the process helps the congregation and leaders to determine where their church is on the congregational lifecycle bell curve. This can be unpleasant and even embarrassing. Here is where the measurement tools are laid out for display and the timeline is presented. At this stage I usually lose the commitment of a majority of churches. They have forgotten how long it took for them to get into the pit from which they now feel trapped. We begin by having the pastor preach on the Biblical rationale for the revitalization process and start praying about the candidates for a Future Vision Team.

          Now that we have begun toddling along, we introduce the revitalization specialist. He shares the process with the entire membership, presents the church health survey and begins congregational and leadership interviews. Next, before compiling the data needed for the church report, are observations and evaluations of the facilities, property, parking, signage, technology, security, documents, ministries, committees, teams, events, plans, etc. Only after thorough inspection will the weakest areas be exposed. The reason for such intense examination is that the specialist does not want to be considered a liar or manipulator of the church’s leadership. The revelations of this stage are from the church members and interviews with people in the community.

          Now, with all the facts in hand, the specialist presents the report – the survey, church member interviews, demographics, observations, evaluations, and community interviews are presented to the staff just prior to the Church Conference Weekend. During this retreat, the report is submitted, and the congregation hears the “what and why” of their survey responses. They hear what makes a church healthy and barriers to church health. Then, they break up into smaller groups and dream, declare their ministry values, uncover the areas of greatest church need and present their greatest hopes and deepest concerns for the future of their church family. We come back together to synthesize their findings and ponder the ideas that would break down the barriers to a thriving and exciting ministry in their local church. The Conference Weekend is often the time I see members become aware of the depth of their decline and hear testimonies of a craving to re-ignite the fire and mission that once drove the church into the community and the world. This step is the “one giant leap for mankind.” When the congregation embraces a fresh zeal for the lost and becomes broken over their own apathy, revival is only one more baby step ahead!

          Next, we examine and secure the players who will make up the Future Vision Team. By use of a Personality Inventory and Spiritual Gifts assessment we can locate a balanced and harmonious team; this is performed by the specialist in conjunction with the pastor. After securing a covenant by each team member, the team is ready for training. We deal with the biblical rationale for a revitalization team, the difference between a purpose-driven and values-driven philosophy of ministry, strategic planning molded together with intentional implementation and a receptivity to the responses of the Church Conference Weekend. These findings and suggestions become the marching orders for the Future Vision Team. The team learns to use the Strength, Weakness, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) analysis to evaluate the bulk of the church’s activity/ministry. Every ministry is evaluated, and adjustments are offered to those who lead these ministries. The church needs to know how to do more, with less, in this present culture. Priorities are determined and goals are set using the SMART goals plan (Simple, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely). Measurement tools and checkpoints are clarified and the persons who will champion each of the goals is assigned during the training sessions. Any church conflict must be addressed before or during this stage. Adding some equipping courses to the weekly schedule of the church should be considered at this juncture as well (mentoring; coaching; discipleship training and potential worker training, etc.).

          Finally, the Vision Team and the pastor set the goals, proclaim the vision, encourage engagement in the revitalization process and motivate the leaders to perform ministries and events with the values and goals discovered in the Weekend Retreat and Vision Team training. Innovative technology, security procedures and safety protocols should be developed and incorporated by those who function within these roles. Church documents need to be reviewed and adjusted to align with the new values and strategies, and committees and teams should be renovated to assist in adhering to and acting in agreement with the new paradigm.

          We, as followers of Christ, must not make the baby steps about theology or methodology only. We need to be displaying a willing receptivity to the Holy Spirit and immediate obedience to His voice and movement. Some of these strategies may appear worldly or elementary, but baby steps look easy until you walk in the shoes of those who are new to the family of God and those who are yet-to-be-reached. In business, the axiom is, “think like a customer.” In the church, the strategy should be, “how can we effectively answer the question: ‘What must I do to be saved!’” These are the baby steps most important for the health of the church!

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