DYING Churches: “The boneYARD” interview with John O’Keefe


boneYARD, by John O'Keefe

In his new book, boneYARD: creatives will change the way we lead in the church, John O’Keefe tackles an issue rampant in the United States: the overwhelming trend of dying and dead churches. He also speaks to a pet topic of mine: the prevalent misguided practices that give churches supposed membership growth. [What I’ve called, “Poaching from the Choir”.]

You may know of John through his creative project ginkworld.

Here are his interesting answers to 6 questions about the issues discussed in boneYARD. Your comments or questions are welcome.

1. John, you use the terms “industrial church” and “conceptual church”, and so on, referring to eras. Can you briefly explain the terms you use; and -Do you think most churches are caught somewhere in the middle, or have they been fallen behind?

The industrial church is a church that centers on the principles of “Maxwellian Leadership.”  The ideas that grew out of the Industrial Revolution, where there needs to be a “CEO” (Pastor) and “Vice-CEO” (Associate Pastors) to control the organization.  The central motive of this style of leadership is to see the church as a business, and everything the leader does centers on benefiting the organization.  People are seen as assets and they are used to benefit the organization – “what will help the church.”  They are very logical, linear, and focused on profit.  For them, profit is defined in terms of the offering and getting people in the pews.  But, if the attendance is going down, and offerings are going up they do not see a problem.  I read an article earlier where it explained how the Evangelical Lutherans are declining in numbers (most churches are), but that there was no reason to fear because giving was on an increase.

The conceptual church is forming today.  Leadership (if that is even a valid term in a Conceptual Age) focuses on the organism; the organization holds little value.  Everything a conceptual leader does focuses on the person, the organism, and centers on how we relate to others.  In the Conceptual Age we think in terms of personality traits of a conceptual leader; people have personalities, machines have qualities.

While some are in the middle, struggling to find their voice, even fewer are in front of the curve, in my research I have found most churches are far behind the curve.  They are stuck in the idea that they need to keep doing what they have always done, and those outside the church need to change to fit into their world.

2. Do you think it’s apt to say that for a great many churches, an increase in membership has more to do with (as I like to say) “poaching believers from other churches”? (Or poaching from the choir.)

I love the visual of “poaching.”  Sometime back I wrote an article entitled “Three Kinds of Fishing” where I saw the possibilities as pole fishing, net fishing, or tank fishing, but I love the visual of poaching.   I believe most churches are growing because of poaching.  Poaching is easy for the church.  I love churches that advertise on Christian Radio; the question we need to ask is “Who are they trying to reach?”  I don’t know any “non-follower” listening to Christian Radio.  Churches that advertise on Christian Radio prove the point.  Their ads are targeted to those already going to church and say, “Come to our church, our pastor is cooler, our music is better, our service is exciting, and we will not bug you to get involved.”

Some churches even go as far as to count people who come from other traditions as “new believers.”  The Baptists and the Non-Denominational Church of Christ are the ones who do this the best.  I use to attend a church is Las Vegas called Central Christian (Currently about 15,000 people), when it was just over 300 people.  One of my family members was attending the church also and he was required to be “re-baptized” in order to become a leader in the church.  Even though he had been a follower for years before he attended the church.  They counted him as a “new believer.”  Soon, he left Central and started to attend a Southern Baptist Church in the area, and was required to be “re-baptized” and was counted as a “new believer.”  These churches count everyone who was not baptized in their method as a “new believer.”  This inflates numbers, sure – but more than that, it tells everyone who is not “one of them” you are wrong and we are right.

3. What’s the difference between church growth and kingdom growth? and, What is your best nugget of advise for those in ministry regarding church growth and kingdom growth?

Church growth centers on growing an individual church, so taking from another church is seen as an easy form of church growth.  Kingdom growth centers on growing the Kingdom, and sees people in other traditions as part of the church universal.  Kingdom growth centers on not caring what church the person is involved with, but that they understand the love and grace of God.  When I was at 247 we use to have teens coming to all our events, and many times those teens would ask about our services.  I would encourage them to get connected to the churches their parents attended and go as a family.

I think the best thing I can share with churches today is to not concern yourself with growing your church, center on growing God’s Kingdom.  When we focus on growing God’s Kingdom we move out from the walls of the church, and into the communities we are called to serve.  We desire to share the message of hope with people, who need to know the love of God through Christ, and we are avatars of Christ to the world around us – we are the incarnation of Christ to the world.  Our care is more for inviting people into God, and not into our church.

4. There will always be left-brained thinkers. If the new era of leadership is right-brained, as you say, what should these people do?

Change, embrace their right side.  Keep in mind, being right brain dominate does not ignore those who are left brain dominate.  The idea in a Conceptual Age is that right brains will be the dominate side and left brains will play a subordinate role.  In my research I came upon a study I mention in the book that says 98% of us are born right brain dominate and creative, while 2% are born left brain dominate.  Over time, our educational system causes those numbers to flip, causing 2% to be right brain dominate and 98% left brain dominate.  It is amazing that our educational system flips the numbers to left brain dominance.   This is because, in an Industrial Age, we need more left brain thinkers to “oversee” others.

5. In your opinion, does the “bone yard phenomenon” (of vast numbers of churches closing) have anything to do with apprehending church and/or the church building from a materialist and modernist vantage point? And how can we do better?

While I believe it matters little where a community of faith gathers, for the industrial church the building has become an albatross.  Some churches spend more on building upkeep then they do on ministry and care.   Between salaries, mortgage payments, utility bills and upkeep a major part of the budget is spent just to keep things going.  Because of that, the leadership focuses on keeping the building afloat, and less on reaching those who are not followers of Christ.  So, they strive and strive to increase the numbers in their pews to fill their coffers and less on bringing people into a life changing reality that Christ offers all people.  This is one of the reasons I believe the church is comfortable with poaching.  If they are poaching they are attracting givers who will help keep the building going.

6. With all the churches closing, and new ones not meeting the needs, is there any way out of the boneyard?

You bet there is.  I see all the churches closing as a good thing, not a bad thing.  I see the churches failure to reach a new generation as a good thing as well.  Why?  Because it is causing us to wake-up, and move out of the church.  Many churches are waking up to the realization that what they are doing is not working, so they are now open to change.  The only thing that is holding them back is that they do not know how to make the change.  Keep in mind, deciding to change and actually changing are two different things.

Conversation about change is a waste of time, we simply need to change.  The future looks bright for the church willing to make the change and reach a conceptual mindset.  While boneYARD is not a program, I believe it is a good starting point to make those changes.

Thank you, John.

If you would like to try for a free signed copy of boneYARD, leave a comment, and tell us if you’ve seen churches closing in your region, Or, tell us the approximate % of worshipers per Sunday in your church that may be the product of poaching.

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4 responses to “DYING Churches: “The boneYARD” interview with John O’Keefe

  1. Sharon Herbster

    We live in an area where there are three large churches that grew from one. I have seen a constant revolving door over the past 20-30 years or “church hopping” from one to the other by about 1/3 of the attendees. It’s not from “poaching”; it’s more of a “have it your way” mentality of the church consumer. “I think I feel like a Big Mac today.” Real church growth can only happen when the church (you and I ) goes into the world and impacts lives for Jesus Christ.

  2. Thanks for sharing, Lisa.

    This area has been an interest of mine in recent years leading me to deal with the concept of the church in an academic study. I believe a paradigm shift is occurring in how people view the church and the Kingdom. The shift from an organized to organic view has started small among the house/simple church crowd and is now gaining influence for the rest of the church. May this change continue so we see the church as the body of Christ and not as an institution.

  3. jeffery – i agree with you. when all is said and done, and the dust settles, i believe we would be able to trace back this shift to people like frank viola – i love this shift 🙂