More and more, denominations are coming to the realization that starting new ministries is the most effective way to reach more people with the gospel of Jesus Christ. And in this era of “nones” and declining church participation across the board, reaching more people is in higher demand than ever. Regardless of what we may say to the contrary, church is still primarily a numbers game, and bigger certainly wins.
They may be right.
But for good or for ill, as a pastor, that isn’t what I’m called to do. Instead of forming a new ministry with no weirdness outside of my own, I’m called to deal with decades of previous, overlapping, compounded, criss-crossing weirdnesses in addition to my own. Instead of energy put into mission in the world, I’m called to deal with energy around preserving what has been. Instead of shaping a ministry from the outset to deal with the realities of 21st century culture, I’m called to deal with memories of church in the 1970s and 80s. Although I have never been a new mission developer, I have overseen that work, admired (envied?) those with the gifts to do it, and have an understanding of the intensity of work involved. I have celebrated with new mission developers who, in part because of their exhaustive work and dedication, have seen their ministries explode in growth. I’ve wept with new mission developers who, despite their exhaustive work and dedication, had to shut down their ministries before they ever got off the ground. By and large, developing new ministries is a pretty effective way to reach new people we haven’t been able to reach before, e.g., ethnic groups, LGBTQ folks, and Millenials. It’s exciting, invigorating, and exhausting!
And yet, I’m called to reach those people through the ministries of existing congregations. I don’t have the gifts, the aptitude, or the extroversion to start a new congregation. Since I believe with all my being that the church–whether 3 minutes old or 3 centuries–is created and called by God to proclaim and participate in God’s mission in the world, I have a choice to make. I can work to preserve and maintain an institutional congregation or I can attempt the impossible–revitalize one so it can embrace the LGBTQ community in the neighborhood, the Spanish-speaking in the neighborhood, and a new generation of those largely uninterested in anything the institutional church has to say in the neighborhood.
For me there is no real choice. I’ve spent almost 30 years feeling like Don Quijote, jousting at windmills. Many say the work that I (and any number of others) are trying to do is a waste of time, since it is so rarely successful. Sometimes I agree. I can’t begin to count the number of sleepless nights I’ve spent because my congregations have chosen status quo over mission. My wife still experiences post-traumatic stress at congregational meetings because of the hateful and anti-Christian comments that have been said about her husband over the years. I believe I could fill a lake with tears spilled over people we’ve hurt in our stubborness, neighbors we’ve neglected in our obtuseness, Spirit-given opportunities we’ve missed because of our institutionalization. My children have seen the dark under-belly of the church, and have no illusions about how badly we can behave. I’ve yelled at God until I’m hoarse, begging for some tangible sign of success or mission advancement.
Is revitalizing an existing, institutional congregation impossible? I will never believe that. The God who raised Jesus from the dead is the same God of these status quo fortresses. Some of these institutions will die in the next generation. Others will manage to hang on. And a very few will be moved by the Holy Spirit to die to themselves and be raised again as communities boldly overflowing with mercy and grace in their surrounding neighborhoods. A very few.
And I want desperately to be part of one of those. I want to be in a faith community that uses its tradition and heritage as tools to be fully present in a broken world. I want to see the lights come on in the eyes of an 80-year-old guardian of the institutional church when he passes on his great faith to a teenager in baggy pants with his belt below his butt. I long for this.
And I’ve seen it.
Glory to God, I’ve been part of it. It doesn’t happen every day. It doesn’t get the glitz and the press of new mission starts. But I get glimpses of the reign of God present in the institutional church. I’ve seen a martriarch who fought me over every little change put her arms around a single mother and hold her. I’ve seen a stoic defender of the status quo mist up when serving holy communion to a disheveled stranger. I’ve watched as neighborhood children suddenly have advocates, as a quiet young mother prays with a sick and elderly woman, as a child actually shouts for joy after taking bread and wine with the rest of her congregation. I’ve been part of a church community where the mentally ill are accepted and the differently abled are treasured. I’ve been partners with the most disagreeable alligators who serve food in a homeless shelter every week, offering dignity and grace in addition to a plate of food and a warm bed.
You have too.
Honestly, there probably won’t be a lot of existing, institutional congregations that will look like exciting new mission starts. And some of our existing congregations need to recognize that their days are coming to an end. But God will not be denied. Resurrection is real. Perhaps our success isn’t to be measured in bunches of shiny new participants but in the straggly and disheartened ones who are touched by Christ’s love through us but will never step into our old buildings. Maybe the conflicts over carpet and wallpaper don’t overshadow the foundational love and compassion that are often shown in the neighborhood but even more often go unnoticed.
And, perhaps most importantly, we battered, bloodied, and sometimes exhausted clergy-types need to support one another in seeing God at work in our midst. Attempting to be part of the revitalization of an exising church is lonely, difficult, and endless work. The rewards are few and far between. The glamour is usually non-existent. So perhaps it would be a good idea to call a pastor in your neighborhood and take them to lunch. Listen and find ways to affirm what they are doing. Ask them to do the same for you. God’s reign is happening all around us–let’s make sure we don’t miss it due to weariness or discouragement from attempting an impossible job.