So far we have discussed the relational, transformational, accountability, self-sacrificing, and reproduction principles that I have observed in healthy disciple-making churches. This article will focus on the principle of alignment. This is a principle that for decades was simply assumed as being true across the full spectrum of American Christianity but is no longer the case. Just because someone grew up Southern Baptist doesn’t mean they will join a SBC church when they move to a new city. They will be looking for a church like the one they just left and for most people, their major consideration is not denominational loyalty.
For example, fifty years ago if you were Southern Baptist and traveled for work or on a vacation, you could attend a sister SBC church and know exactly what to expect. You would have attended Sunday School, because that’s what was expected. In Sunday School you would very likely be using the same quarterly you used at your home church the week before. As you transitioned to worship, you would have received a bulletin that you would take with you and present to your Sunday School teacher when you got back home so you wouldn’t break your perfect attendance streak. In the sanctuary, you would find “your” pew, sit down, and grab a hymnal from the rack on the back of the pew in front of you. As you looked around at the front of the church you would see the choir area, an organ on one side, and a piano on the other. You would also see a report board on a sidewall near the front of the auditorium listing various information related to attendance and giving. You might have even found a bulletin from the previous week, and it would have been exactly like the one you received the week before at your home church with the exception of the church name, the hymn numbers, sermon title, and the announcements. And yes, it would have had the same order of worship that you were accustomed to at home. The same kind of experience was available to Methodists, Lutherans, Catholics, Church of Christ, etc.
Fast forward to today. Sometimes you don’t even have to go to a different church to experience variety in the worship service. Many churches don’t print a bulletin and few have pews or hymnals. So, how do you know what you’re going to experience when you walk into a sister SBC church? Today, the average first-time visitor will do some online searches seeking to find a church like theirs or one that fits who they are. That means a pastor and his church need to know who they are and be able to communicate it with clarity and simplicity. That’s basically what alignment does. It gives pastors and church leaders clarity so they can communicate in simple terms who they are.
But achieving alignment in today’s pluralistic church culture is not easy. It takes a pastor and church leaders who are willing to become 100% united on their understanding of the purpose of the church—making disciples whose transforming lives bring God glory. Then they need to agree on exactly what principles and processes will be used in their church to provide the greatest opportunity for God to produce the Fruit of the Spirit within every member. That means men and women from various church backgrounds will have to be willing to discuss deep theological, philosophical, and ecclesiological issues and agree upon specific definitions for critical issues. With that clarity, they can speak unapologetically to the world about who God has called them to be and how He wants them to do it.
I attended a conference at a very effective disciple-making church a few years ago that was designed to help sister churches see how God was using them to make disciples. It was a conference our association had financially helped several pastors and leaders attend prior to my opportunity to go. I had visited with every pastor who had already attended to get his feedback, reflections, and major take-homes. None of them mentioned that the initial breakout session was about alignment. The pastor of the host church knew the importance of having clarity and communicating their discipleship principles and processes with simplicity!
He was a former athlete and coach, and he understood the importance of teamwork: everyone working out of the same playbook. So he meticulously developed a four-section “church playbook.” It clearly defined their theological beliefs, their philosophical approach including their vision and values, their organizational structure that was designed to effectively steward God-given resources with a constant eye on fulfilling their mission to make disciples, and fourthly, their unapologetic emphasis on and explanation of how it would be done in a relational manner (see principle number one).
Pastors and leaders in aligned churches have little tolerance for anyone who wants to lead their church in another direction. Time, energy, and resources are not used for activities or programs that are not designed to make disciples. They are willing to ask the hard questions when it appears that resources are being used to simply support an organization, its bureaucracy, or its buildings and endowments.
Alignment isn’t a new church growth principle. It’s been around since creation. God created us in His image and likeness and gave us two responsibilities: to steward His creation and to fill the earth with His glory by reflecting His attributes wherever we were. But instead of aligning with His plan, Adam and Eve started us down the road of seeking our own plan. In the fullness of time, God sent forth His son who modeled alignment with God. In Matthew 5:17-18, Jesus proclaimed his desire to align with God by stating, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.” John 9:4 records Jesus’ declaration, “I must work the works of Him who sent Me.”
The early church was willing to wrestle with difficult alignment issues. One clear example is the Jerusalem Council described in Acts 15. They had to decide what it means to be a Christian. Peter’s opening greeting in his second epistle speaks to the alignment they were able to hammer out, “To those who have received a faith of the same kind as ours” II Peter 1:1.
Think what would happen to a large rowboat with eight people in it if each individual was rowing in a different direction. Unless you and your church are aligned top to bottom, that’s what’s happening every day. There are some good resources available to help you walk through the process of becoming aligned. You just need to ask.
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, AMS
Mark is in his twenty-seventh year of serving as an Associational Missions Strategist. He served in western Iowa for almost eight years, and is in his nineteenth year with HCN. He has a passion to see pastors and church leaders grow in their abilities to lead their churches. He continues to have a heart and desire to see new churches planted and God continues to use his strategic thinking skills in this area. Mark also has a wealth of experience in helping churches clarify who God has created them to be, and what they can do best to reach their community. He has had ample opportunities to help churches in times of conflict, and has seen God do exciting things to restore a spirit of harmony, returning churches to a time of fruitfulness. He also helps churches in transition by working with search committees. Mark and Phyllis who were married in November of 2018 have four children and three grandchildren. They will enjoy their combined 87th anniversary in just a few days.