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Karl Vaters

Karl Vaters

Pivot is a Christianity Today blog by pastor and author Karl Vaters. He writes about church health and innovative leadership from the perspective of small church.
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We don't need bigger churches. We need better churches. Then we need more of them.More isn’t always better.No one wants more heartache, more tragedy, or more loneliness. Unless you’re trying to write a hit country song.In fact, it’s not just bad things we don’t want more of. No one wants more of an average meal, a typical day, or a mundane job, either.More is only good when it’s a byproduct of being better.It’s the same in the church.Is It Worth More?For so many years, the main (only?) metric we’ve used for measuring church success has been attendance at our weekend services.We’ve been taught how to break growth barriers, how to duplicate the numerical success of other churches and how to adapt our methods to prepare for numerical increase.But we seldom ask ourselves if what we’re doing is worth having more of.More Of The Same Is … The SameI don’t want to broad-brush this issue. Most church growth proponents emphasize health first, and I’m grateful for that. But when you’re pastoring a church, it’s easy to overlook the value of putting church health first, and convince yourself that more of the same will fix things.More people, more money, more staff.But more never gets us where we need to go.More of the same is just ... the same. Only more. (Profound, right?)It has to be better first.Better Is Always PossibleWe don’t need bigger churches. We need better churches.And we need more of them. Better churches. Of all sizes and styles.The great news is that, while getting bigger is a complicated, uncertain process with no guarantees, any church can always get better.Do the Jesus stuff. Love God. Love others. Share our faith. Honor God’s Word.Any church can do more of that. And more of that is all that matters.Continue reading...
This may be the biggest reason great ideas die too soon. We're creating buzz, but we're not building substance.If you have a message, idea or product you want the world to know about, there’s never been a better time than right now to build the platform for it.Technology has enabled anyone, anywhere to take an idea (it doesn’t even have to be a good one) and make it available to everyone, everywhere.At the press of a button.While sitting in your living room.In your PJs.Teams Build SubstanceBecause of this, it’s easy to have an unbalanced approach to creating and promoting a new program or idea.The biggest mistake we make? Sinking all our energy into using technology to build a platform, while shortchanging the necessity of building a team to sustain that platform.But building that team is as important as it’s always been. Maybe more so.Since everyone else has access to the same technology (more or less) team-building is what usually makes the difference.This happens in the church, too. Someone comes up with a great idea for an outreach, a sermon series or an event, and the first step we take is to start thinking of ways to promote it.We create graphics, shoot videos, and bombard social media with the images. But in too many cases we’re promoting something that doesn’t have the team to sustain it.Ideas Are Easy, Teams Are HardThis may be the biggest reason great ideas die too soon. We’re creating buzz, but we’re not building substance.Why do we do this?Because buzz is fun. It’s fast. And technology has made it easy.Team-building is hard. It’s slow. And even with the best technology and creativity in the world at our disposal, it takes the long-term, old-school application of high-commitment people-skills to build and sustain a strong team.Everyone can have an idea. Anyone ...Continue reading...
If we want better feedback, we can't just be open to it, we have to ask for it. Regularly and honestly.If we want to become better leaders we need to have good feedback. And to get that feedback, we need to find and listen to better critics.But getting helpful feedback has one significant challenge. There is an inverse correlation between the frequency of a person’s opinion and the value of that opinion.The more a person wants to tell you what they think, the less valuable their feedback is likely to be.This is true for both negative and positive feedback. It may be nice to hear “your sermons always seem to be just what I need!” or “I’m always inspired by your ideas!” But those opinions, while encouraging, offer no practical value.At the same time, the person who is always quick to tell us what’s wrong is just as unlikely to help us get better. The opinions of the frequent complainer are more about them than about the subject at hand.This is why, if we want truly valuable feedback, we have to go looking for it.Better Communicators Seek Better CriticismWe need to seek criticism from those who don’t want to criticize us, while not getting sidetracked by those who do.So why don’t we do that more often? Because hearing unsolicited positive feedback feels good, so we want to hear more of it. But hearing negative feedback feels so hurtful, why would we intentionally seek it out?The reason, of course, is that it’s only by hearing specific, constructive, solicited feedback from qualified people that we can become better communicators. Let’s look at those four key words:1. SpecificCriticism is only of value if it actually addresses the issue at hand. Generalized, sweeping statements are lazy and unhelpful. We need to seek criticism from people who can be accurate and ...Continue reading...
No pastor should ever stop learning – not if we hope to stay effective.Pastorates are getting longer.This is mostly good news for pastors, their families, and the churches they serve. (As we saw in my previous article, 8 Benefits Of Investing A Lifetime Of Ministry Into One Congregation.)But there are a few inherent dangers to staying in one church for a long time. As someone who celebrates 26 years at the same church this month, here are the top 5 dangers I’m constantly trying to avoid, in no particular order:1. Getting Stuck In A Rut2. Getting Stuck In A Rut3. Getting Stuck In A Rut4. Getting Stuck In A Rut5. Getting Stuck In A RutYeah, that’s about it. If you can stay out of that rut, a long-term pastorate is best for everyone. So, how do we avoid getting stuck?Here are a handful of lessons I keep learning that help me stay fresh, excited and forward-looking after two and a half decades at the same church.Stay CuriousIf the pastor isn’t learning and growing, the congregation will be able to tell. Maybe before we can.The same old stories, the same tired ideas, the same worn out excuses…You may have left your formal schooling decades ago, but no pastor should ever stop learning – not if we hope to stay effective.The wisest, most joyous, most delightful people to be around are those who keep a spirit of curiosity about everything. They’re never satisfied with what they know. And they’re ready and willing to learn from as many sources as possible. Even (especially?) from people who hold views they disagree with.Listen More Than You TalkPeople may get tired of hearing you talk, but they’ll never get tired of having you listen.People who talk all the time are exhausting. People who listen well are inspiring.And if you can listen well, then reflect ...Continue reading...
Longevity builds trust, which gives people a better perspective on what does and doesn't really matter.Pastors seem to be staying in their churches longer now than they did in previous generations.That’s on purpose.I know, because as of this month I’ve been ministering at Cornerstone Christian Fellowship for 26 years. When our family arrived here, our prayer was that the Lord would let us stay and plant roots.Certainly there are challenges to staying so long in the same place. Keeping fresh, not settling in too comfortably, and not repeating the same ideas over and over are constant battles to fight against. (We’ll address those in my next article, The 5 Biggest Dangers Of Staying In A Long-Term Pastorate – And How To Avoid Them).But if you can avoid those pitfalls, here are 8 advantages to investing a big chunk of our lives in one church body.1. There are some lessons it takes a lifetime to learn – and teachRecently I heard an art history expert say that the reason the great painters of history are called the “old masters” isn’t because they painted a long time ago, but because it takes decades to become great.It’s the same in ministry.When you move every few years, you never get past the preliminary stages of relationships and ministry.It takes years, even decades to get into the truly deeper aspects of any discipline, including pastoral ministry.2. You get to see generational resultsSpiritual growth is long term. Not only is it about an eternity in heaven, it’s a about how we spend our lifetime here on earth – and how we affect the generations that come after us.Spending decades of thriving ministry in the same place allows you to have that kind of long-term impact. Today, there are adults with kids in our church who were kids themselves when we started ...Continue reading...
The best things in life don't come in a hurry. They take time. But they're worth the investment.Sometimes it seems like everyone is leaving the church. But that’s not the case.While we’re right to be concerned about church-hoppers and church-droppers, people don’t typically go to a church with the plan of leaving soon. Most want to put down roots and stay committed for the long haul.There’s always a core group of faithful people at the heart of every healthy congregation. Our lives and our churches are better because of them.Recently, I’ve written a couple articles about why people don’t go to church, and how to leave a church well. In my next few articles I want to take a look at the opposite, encouraging end of that spectrum. The benefits of a long-term church commitment.Here are just a few advantages of staying put in a congregation through the good times and bad:1. You develop deeper relationshipsWhile it’s always nice to meet new folks (and it’s God’s work on earth to help them connect with your circle of friends) there’s nothing like knowing and growing with a group of people over a lifetime, or a major segment of your lifetime.There are so many life lessons that simply take time to learn. No matter how smart we are or how hard we work, nothing can replace living life with people who know, love and watch out for each other year after year and decade after decade.There are no shortcuts to deep relationships. You have to put in the time.2. You’re less likely to repeat the same cyclesIf we move from church to church we can stay spiritually stuck and not know it. Everything around us has changed, so we don’t have to.It may feel like we’re growing deeper, but we may be doing nothing but repeating the same cycles in a new environment. And ...Continue reading...
Leaving a church is hard. Don't make it harder by doing it badly.It’s hard to leave a church you used to love – and maybe still love.In previous articles I’ve written from the pastor’s perspective about how hard it is when people leave the church you’re pastoring, and what to consider before leaving a church you’ve been pastoring.But the pain of leaving a church isn’t limited to pastors. Many church members find themselves facing the heartbreaking decision of whether-or-not to separate themselves from a church they’ve invested a lot of their lives in. And I’m not talking about church-hoppers, bored believers or shallow saints. I’m referring to people who have found themselves in a place they never expected – considering leaving a church they had planned to stay committed to.If you are facing that dilemma, here are 8 principles to consider that will help you leave well – or decide to stay:1. Talk it over, firstIf you’re considering leaving a church, talk to the leaders and your church friends before making your final decision.As a pastor I’ve had a handful of frustrating conversations with church members who had already decided to leave the church, only to discover that it was due to a misunderstanding that could have been rectified easily if it had been brought to light earlier. But by the time it got to me they already had one foot out the door and it was too late to change.On the other hand, I’ve had some difficult, but constructive conversations with people while their frustration level was small, and we’ve been able to fix problems, correct misunderstandings, reverse course and keep good people in our church body – often with a renewed sense of hopefulness and dynamic ministry.These ...Continue reading...
This is a great way to thank everyone for their generosity, while providing a helpful reminder to make up for any unintentional shortfall for the year.A lot of churches get a nice year-end bump in their finances.During the Christmas season even casual attenders come to church more often, churches hold annual events like Christmas Bazaars that bring in funds, and the week of Christmas often attracts huge crowds – and offerings to match.But not all churches experience this.Many churches (like every one I’ve ever pastored) either stay flat or they experience a financial downturn at the end of the year.Several years ago, I discovered a simple idea that helps our church members plan their giving better, and gives our church finances a healthy year-end bump.A Reminder While There’s Still Time To Catch UpIn late autumn we send out a short letter to every regular giver, with a “thank you” for their faithfulness and a record of what they’ve given so far.This simple practice is a great way to thank everyone for their generosity, while providing a helpful reminder before it’s too late to make up for any unintentional shortfall for the calendar year.In previous years, the only time we thanked or reminded people of their giving was in late January when we sent the giving report for the previous year. The problem with this timing was two-fold.First, the “thank you” didn’t feel as sincere because it was attached to a notice we were legally required to send them, anyway.Second, if they hadn’t given as much as they intended, the year was already over, so they couldn’t make up their shortfall.When the church sends a thank you and a financial report in October or November, the thank you feels more genuine and the reminder is very helpful.What’s In The Letter?So, what does this letter look like? It’s simple. ...Continue reading...
The most powerful communication tool is not the image on the screen. It's your ability to connect with the audience.Are there any two words more likely to send an audience running for the exits than “PowerPoint presentation?”That’s why, even though I use PowerPoint almost every time I speak, I don’t do PowerPoint presentations.I teach. I preach. I talk. I illustrate. I tell stories.And I use visuals on a screen to enhance that communication. The program I use to create those visuals happens to be PowerPoint.Like any tool, it can be used well, or it can be used badly.There are a few techniques that make PowerPoint work for me, and they all come down to a simple principle that every public speaker needs to acknowledge.PowerPoint is designed to help the audience hear better, not to help the speaker communicate better.Every mistake we make with PowerPoint happens because we violate that one principle.PowerPoint is a tool, not a magic cure for boring speakers.It won’t make you a good speaker if you don’t have the basics down.Use it. Don’t let it use you.Whenever I’ve seen a PowerPoint presentation turn an otherwise good communicator into a droning robot, that’s what’s happening. They’re relying more on the tool than they are on developing their communication skills. They’re more concerned with getting the slides right than how the audience is receiving what they’re saying.So here are my 6 essential techniques to use PowerPoint to help people hear what’s being said.1. Create A Presentation That Can Function Without PowerPointWhat happens if (when) your technology goes down? Can you deliver your message without PowerPoint? If not, you’re leaning on it too heavily.Once your message can stand on its own, use PowerPoint to show an illustration that can’t ...Continue reading...
Churches on defense talk about the glory days of the past. Churches on offense maintain a strong hope for the future.There are two types of churches.Those on offense and those on defense.In recent years, I’ve been in hundreds of rooms with thousands of pastors from both types of churches.Churches on offense are not different from churches on defense in any external way.They and their pastors struggle with the same challenges of facility, finances and attendance. They’re in rural communities, suburbs and inner cities. They come from all denominational (and nondenominational) traditions.But a room full of pastors on offense is a joyous, hopeful place, while a room full of pastors on defense feels sad and hopeless. The difference is so stark you can almost literally smell it in the air.So what makes the difference?The Difference Between Defense And OffenseChurches on defense talk about the glory days of the past.Churches on offense maintain a strong hope for the future.Churches on defense are trying to maintain the status quo.Churches on offense are changing and adapting.Churches on defense allow their traditions to hold them back.Churches on offense use their traditions as a foundation to build on.Churches on defense are willing to compromise their core values for expediency.Churches on offense are willing to change anything but their core values, because the mission is what matters.Churches on defense have a hard time maintaining what they once had.Churches on offense have a hard time making the necessary changes to move forward.Moving Upward In MinistryWhether on offense or defense, ministry is hard.If ministry is going to be hard, why not choose the hard work of the upward climb instead of the hard work of the downward slide?No church can move upward in ministry if they compromise on biblical truths, run after the ...Continue reading...
Changing because the mission demands it is the only way to make changes that last.There are a lot of bad reasons churches want to change. To keep up with trends To get bigger To have more available funds To appeal to a different group of people To break from tradition Because we’re bored Because we’ll die if we don’tSome of them seem like good reasons, but none of them will sustain. Not on their own.There are also a lot of bad reasons to want a church to stay the same. To keep long-timers happy To avoid risk To stay comfortable To maintain tradition Because we’re afraid Because change is hardThere’s only one good reason to move a church toward change.Because the mission demands it.This is also the only way to sustain the change in the long term.This is why, despite all the bad reasons for and against change, the church must constantly be in a state of mission-driven change.Make It About The MissionNo church has ever made a big change successfully unless it’s an essential part of the church’s overall mission. But when it is tied to the mission? It’s amazing what can happen.For instance, earlier this year, our church changed lead pastors. After spending 25 years in the position, I stepped aside to make way for my long-time youth pastor to take over the position, while I became the teaching pastor.When word got out that we were attempting such a big and unusual change, several people cautioned us that we were headed for a world of hurt.But do you know who wasn’t worried about it? The people in the church – including the two of us at the center of the change.Not because we have some special skills unknown to mere mortals, but for one simple reason.We weren’t changing pastors simply for the sake of changing pastors. We did it so we could take the next step ...Continue reading...
Asking “why?” can help a church infuse their Christmas celebrations with greater hope, joy, mission and purpose.More than any other time of the year, Christmas is filled with traditions.It’s one of the many reasons we love the holiday season.It’s also something our churches need to pay closer attention to. Before a church holds any event, program or service, we should always ask “why?” And Christmas is no exception.We need to ask questions like “Why do we do this?” “Why do we do it in this way?” and “Does this event or tradition fit with the current mission of our church, or are we just doing it because we’ve always done it?”Then, if it does fit, we need to ask “is there anything about it that needs to be updated for current generations?”And maybe most important of all, “what aspects of our church’s Christmas events or traditions need to be explained instead of just assumed?”For instance, if Christmas is about the birth of Jesus, why do we have a Christmas tree on our platform? And if we don’t, why don’t we?What is Advent, and why is it different from Christmas? What bigger story is the biblical account of Jesus’ birth tied to, and why does it matter?Regular church attenders may understand the “why?” behind our traditions (although probably not as much as we think), but it may not be so clear to our guests – and this time of the year we may have more guests than ever.Use Traditions To Build BridgesI’m not saying we should dump any of our traditions.But we need to be careful not to let our beloved Christmas traditions create a bigger wall between insiders and outsiders. We have enough of that during the rest of the year already.Taking a few minutes to explain our Christmas traditions has several ...Continue reading...
Most people who don't attend church are not making a conscious choice against it. Choosing requires awareness.Why are fewer people going to church? And what can we do about it?This may be the main topic of conversation among pastors today.For example, while scrolling through my Facebook feed last weekend, I came across multiple posts with sarcastic takes on how sad/interesting/ridiculous it is that people can get up early for a sale at Walmart or to sit on freezing seats for a sporting event, but they can’t get up for church on Sunday.Oh my.There are so many things wrong with that kind of thinking I hardly know where to start.Attendance (And Non-Attendance) Is Not A ChoiceShoppers and sports fans don’t choose to go to the store or to a game instead of going to church on Sunday.First, those acts are not mutually exclusive.Second, and most importantly, most people who don’t attend church are not making a conscious choice against it. Choosing requires awareness. And that awareness exists for fewer and fewer people every day.People aren’t deciding not to go to church on Sunday any more than they’re deciding not to drink a bowl of ketchup for breakfast. Sure, they could do it, but why would they?They haven’t rejected the idea of going to church. It simply isn’t on their list of options.They’re not lazy, they’re apathetic.Until we understand this, we will never have a chance to reach this generation for Christ.As long as we keep complaining about people not attending church services we will continue to miss actual opportunities to meet them where they are.It's Not About Church AttendanceGuilting people into church attendance won’t work.Offering them a better Sunday morning religious show won’t work.Convincing ourselves that getting people to attend church is equivalent ...Continue reading...
Like saying “please,” using church growth principles makes church growth possible, not inevitable.There’s nothing anyone can do to guarantee that any particular congregation will grow numerically.No, I’m not being pessimistic, I’m being realistic.There are simply no absolutes in church growth. At least not for the numerical increase of an individual congregation.In my previous article, Church Growth: Your Results May Vary, I wrote “not every church that uses church growth principles grows as a result of them.” If that’s the case, some may wonder, why try at all? Here’s why.Because, while using the right principles doesn’t guarantee growth, not using them will guarantee that we won’t grow. Or be healthy. Or have a positive impact for the kingdom of God.Say PleaseWhen kids learn how to say “please”, they often think of it as a magic word that opens all doors. Then, when they ask “can I have some candy before dinner, pleeeease?” and they’re told “no”, they’re confused.“Why say please if I’m not going to get what I want every time?” they may wonder. Because, while saying “please” doesn’t guarantee that I’ll get what I want, not saying “please” will guarantee that I’ll get nothing.Church growth principles work in the same way.Biblical Principles Unlock The DoorThe best church growth principles reframe biblical truths for our particular context.If we use them consistently and correctly, we will help a church move towards greater health and effectiveness, and we open the door to the possibility of numerical growth.When we don’t use the right principles, the door stays locked.Like saying “please,” using church growth principles makes church growth ...Continue reading...
In church growth, as in everything, we can't take our lead from the best examples, but from typical results.You know those commercials where clients or patients had amazing results, only to hear a hurried voice at the end telling you “individual results may vary”?It might be helpful if church growth books, blogs, podcasts and conferences had that, too.The reason those commercials have that qualifier is because the fantastic results they advertise aren’t typical. They’re the best examples, not the usual ones.I understand why commercials do that. If you want to promote something, you talk about your success stories.But if you’re looking to buy or invest in something, you shouldn’t just look at the best examples, you need to know what the typical ones are. Look at averages, not exceptions. What’s normal, not what’s unusual.It’s the same with church growth.No Church Growth GuaranteesThe principles that have been discovered by the church growth movement are helpful and important. The methods that have been devised to help us take advantage of those principles are valuable. And the people who promote those principles and methods are doing their best to help churches and ministries.In short, the majority of church growth material is great.But it’s not fool-proof. There are no guarantees.Except one. The one given by Jesus that he would build his church.But Jesus never promised relentless, unceasing, inevitable numerical growth for any congregation. Not even for the faithful ones, (as we see in the struggling, faithful congregations in the New Testament).Facts Are Our FriendsWithout using the right principles, no congregation will ever make any progress towards health, effectiveness and greater ministry impact. But using all the right principles is no guarantee that your church ...Continue reading...
Christ is not found in our institutions, he is found in the church. In people who love Jesus, love each other and gather together regularly.Why does the church exist?It’s not to get people together for meetings. Or to keep our theology pure. Or to defend our traditions. Or to look cool and appealing to the unchurched.But it’s easy to fall into one or more of those traps if we’re not constantly reminding ourselves what we actually do exist for.Why The Church Is Supposed To ExistAs defined clearly by Jesus himself in both the Great Commandment and the Great Commission, the church exists to love God and share his love with others.We’re not about meetings, denominations or creeds – although all of those have had and will continue to have a place. We’re about relationships.It is our calling and our mandate to introduce people to Jesus, connect those people with each other, then prepare them to help others meet Jesus, too.Being The ChurchThrough the command to make disciples, Jesus created a self-perpetuating system to keep the church alive, vibrant and adaptable.For 2,000 years and counting the church Jesus started has been the most relentlessly growing, most adaptable, most life-changing, most liberating organism in the history of the world.Despite all the cries of alarm and concern, the church is not in trouble. It’s not dying. Its best days are not behind us.The church is alive and well, with far greater days ahead than any we’ve seen come and go so far.But the formats we’re currently using to accomplish those ends? Those are in trouble. Big trouble.What We’re Doing Instead Of Being The ChurchThe way we format the church experience, the expectations we have of people when they gather as the church, the top-down hierarchical structures that are so commonplace we barely see them any more – those are ...Continue reading...
Wear what helps you think more about Jesus and less about yourself – and what will help others do the same.Really?Is this still a thing? People aren’t still arguing about what we wear to church, are they?Yes. Despite the much more relaxed approach most people have, the debate about appropriate church attire still rages in some circles. So I’m going to weigh in on it.Where angels fear…Why Is Clothing An Issue?First, let’s frame the debate at hand.There are some people who feel that what you wear in church is a non-issue. Throw something on. Show up. Worship and serve. As long as your heart is right, what you wear doesn’t matter.There are others who feel that what we wear in church should be different than what we wear for other events – or at least from what we wear on our day off. I don’t know anyone who would chide a newcomer or poor person for not wearing a suit or a dress, but there are those who think that regular church attendees should wear their Sunday Best. And ministers especially, should dress well.“God deserves our best”, they say. Or “there’s a dress code when you meet the president or a king.”What Is Best For Church?I fall into the “wear what you want” camp. If a suit and tie feels respectful to you, do so. If casual clothes help you feel less self-conscious, go for it.Here are two reasons why I don’t think it matters what we wear in church, followed by three biblical rules for appropriate clothing, not just in church, but anywhere.First, let’s address the argument based on God deserving our best.This argument falls apart on so many levels that it could be its own blog post, but for now I’ll just say this.There are no universal or biblical standards for what is “best” when it comes to clothing. Is “best” ...Continue reading...

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