A scene from the final session of our Winter Alpha Course.
A scene from the final session of our Winter Alpha Course.
“It’s finally working!” Christine, our Director of Congregational Care found me after church on Sunday excited that our S.H.A.P.E. Course was finally functioning as we hoped in placing people into ministry. After two or three failed attempted to launch S.H.A.P.E. ( http://www.saddlebackresources.com ), we found the traction we were looking for as seventeen people took the course and all of them began a practical ministry in or through our church.

It is easy to become discouraged when something doesn’t work as it should. It is easy to shrug the shoulders and move on to the next thing. (I am a big believer in the adage: “When the horse is dead, dismount.”) But sometimes a worthy ministry that is a great fit for your church just takes some additional investment in order to help it succeed. In Luke 13, Jesus told the parable of a barren tree that was given one more year and some extra fertilizer. Here are four alternatives to giving up on an under-performing ministry:

First, show the church that you are committed to making it work. There are core courses that you want to offer regularly because they are part of your discipleship process. Sometimes the average church member is not able to discern between these and the occasional ministries that come and go. It takes a while for people to get the message: “This isn’t going away. We are committed to making this a central part of our congregation.” There are various ways of doing this. By giving a ministry prominence in your publications, priority on your calendar, mentions by the pastor during worship, and access to your best locations you are sending a message that the ministry matters to the effectiveness of your church. Put people who have been touched by the ministry up front in church on a Sunday morning to tell their story, either in person or on a video. Few things match the effectiveness of testimony.

Second, be prepared to weather declining numbers until a ministry hits its groove. When we launched the Alpha Course ( http://alphausa.org ), we knew that we wanted it to be a core ministry of our church. We also knew that the first course would probably be the largest because a lot of our faithful folks were going through to check out the content. But we also knew that the ultimate aim of the ministry would be to reach the unchurched or those brand new to our congregation. We acknowledged to our leaders that the course would get smaller during the second and third time it was offered. This was not a sign of its failure but of a necessary transition to reach different type of people. Lower numbers are not always a sign of failure if a ministry is transitioning to reach its intended target.

A have heard a lot of pastors and church leaders talk about Alpha and say, “Oh, we tried that already.” Have you really? Did you take a team of key people to a regional or national Alpha Seminar to help them catch the vision? Did you hold an Alpha Sunday a couple weeks prior to the launch of the course? Did you do a top-notch Alpha Celebration Banquet at the end of your course to invite new people on the next course? Did you give opportunities on Sunday morning for people who have been through Alpha to share their testimony? It takes sustained commitment for a ministry to become part of the culture of your congregation, but the long-term benefits are well worth the investment.

Third, some ministries just need a new venue. Don’t blame the ministry for failing if you assigned it the wrong location or place on your calendar. Some ministries are placed against unfair competition. We learned a long time ago that, for our farming community, a Men’s Retreat works best in the winter so as not to compete with spring planting, summer vacations, and fall harvest. Some classes need to be offered on Sunday morning because they target people with a lower initial commitment level to the church. My favorite example of a new venue comes from our venture into multisite ministry. We have an after-school program on Wednesdays for elementary-aged students that realized modest but respectable numbers. When we started this same ministry at our new site in a smaller community, it exploded numerically. Nearly a third of the local elementary school is at our multisite campus each week! There is less competition with other activities in the smaller town.

Fourth, leverage times of commitment in order to get people aboard your key ministries. A major difference-maker in the new-found success of the S.H.A.P.E. Course in our church was deciding to ask new members to take the course within the first twelve months of their membership. We thought about making a prerequisite for membership, but this would have created a bottle-neck and erect yet another hurdle for people to jump before joining. We wanted to make it “easy” to join but use this critical time of commitment to get people on board with the concept of taking the course sometimes in their first twelve months. Decision points are commitment points. If we let them pass without asking more from people, we have missed a huge opportunity. When we offer the SHAPE Course, we now send a letter to all the new members and remind them of their commitment. As Christine said, “It’s working!”

We all experience false starts and failed attempts in ministry. Some ministries, however, are “gotta have’s”: A course in basic Christianity, a way to place people into ministry, a system of care/nurture/discipleship, children and youth ministry, and an outlet for service to the community.   Don’t be afraid to invest more these essential ministries. Once you know “why”, pray that the Holy Spirit will show you the when, where, who, and how to make them effective, even if it is the second, third, or fourth attempt.