Last week, I posted on this site that my congregation is no longer going to emphasize “welcoming.” Instead, we are going to emphasize “inviting.” I encourage you to get the vision, theology, and definitions that are foundational in that Part 1 post at: We-Will-No-Longer-be-a-Welcoming-Church. There, I wrote that we are making this change with three emphases—this post is the first of those three: Motivation for Inviting.
The fact is that you can encourage, threaten, explain, and even manipulate all you want. But if people aren’t motivated to invite others, it pretty much isn’t going to happen. Especially when it comes to church, because—let’s face it—we’ve done a poor job of making the church a desirable (much less helpful) community of which to be a part. My congregational folks know it and so do yours. That’s why they rarely invite. Isn’t there a statistic somewhere that says the average mainline person invites someone to worship once every fourteen years? There are reasons for that! Yes, our folks are happy to welcome new people if they happen to show up at church, but the vast majority of people in our congregations just aren’t motivated to invite others.
We can work really hard to try to get people to invite anyway—attempting to explain that a lot of people actually are open to coming to a church if invited (there are statistics on that too; again, not the point). But they aren’t going to go for it. Probably just like you, we’ve worked that angle too. Folks aren’t willing to take that risk. To me, that approach has, by and large, been a waste of time.
So rather than continue to push water uphill, we are going to try a different approach. We will simply raise the motivation to invite above the reluctance to invite. Sounds simple, right? Here are some ways we are attempting this:
Discover Your Ministries.
My congregation is not a large one. In my denomination we are pretty much a medium sized church. And yet, even in a place where people think they know everyone and everything that goes on, we find that no one knows all the ministry that actually is happening through our congregation. It’s surprising, actually. It turns out that lots of people in our church are doing some pretty exciting things—and hardly anyone knows about it. Sure, there’s all the normal (and wonderful!) things that are in the monthly newsletter: the food pantry drive, the youth mission trip to Tijuana (BTW, watch for a future blog post on why calling these trips “mission trips” does a huge disservice to our theology and purpose as church!), and the dedicated crew that works with Habitat for Humanity. But when you take the time to listen, people in our churches are living their faith in the broader community in amazing ways! Find those hidden gems; the reign of God is being revealed in ways that haven’t had much press. So, we are discovering these ministries and finding ways to highlight them. Awareness of what we, collectively, are actually doing is a must in order to be motivated to invite. Who knows, in a conversation with a friend, you may discover that an already existing ministry in your church actually would benefit them.
Articulate the Passion.
We are asking people in our congregation what they love about it. We are videoing any number of people asking that question and will be using our social media sites, as well as other ways, to share the answers. There are people who are committed to your congregation, right? Find out why! Give them an opportunity to say it out loud—let them articulate their passion. Helping people vocalize their love for their church not only concretizes those reasons in their own minds, but gives them good practice in saying it out loud. Young, old, male, female, straight-laced, free-spirited, etc.—the more diverse you can make the answers, the bigger a picture of the giftedness of your congregation will be revealed. Again, use whatever means you can think of to highlight these things that make your congregation special. Write them up, make posters, presentations, put them on your web page, and more. It is important that all these reasons for being part of your congregation be known to as many as possible. Enthusiasm is contagious. Let it work for you!
One of the big surprises as this process unfolds is that it is becoming apparent that our church is actually more than any of us thought. Instead of being a small, typical, 50-year-old mainline church, we are closer to being a well-kept secret gold mine. So we are making our giftedness public. Sure, we have a web site and a Facebook page. But they are pretty underutilized. We are making social media our best friend. You’d be surprised how many 80 year olds have a Facebook account! So we are asking all our ministry leaders to take photos and/or videos of their ministry in action (or inaction), and post them on our congregation’s Facebook page. Most people have a cell phone with a camera on it, encourage them to use it! We have someone monitoring these posts just to make sure that everything up there is more or less appropriate (we are getting written parental permission for kids’ pictures to be on our social media sites), but pretty much anything goes. We are also asking members to encourage their Facebook friends to “like” our congregation’s page. We’re considering having a “1,000 new likes in the next month” or something like that.
The reason for all this social media stuff is partly about getting helpful information about our church into a public arena. But just as importantly, it’s about getting our own members to be more aware of all that is happening in their own church! The Holy Spirit is at work among us in ways we may not see. Social media is accessible, instant, and already utilized by many people in our congregations. And even if you discover there aren’t that many on Facebook (though you’ll be surprised how many are), teach them how to use it. I needed someone to show me how to post pictures to the church social media sites (and need periodic re-training), but any twelve year old in your church can teach that. And what a wonderful way to help younger members understand that they have something valuable to offer. The technology they take for granted is important to the rest of the church! While you’re at it, have that twelve year old link your church’s web page, Facebook page (start one today!), and Twitter account (start that one too!).
Social media is great for instant communication, connection, and information. But don’t stop there. Collect all the pictures and videos that people are taking and put together PowerPoint presentations to show after worship on several Sundays. Emphasize different aspects, e.g., “why I love my church” one week, “little known ministries we do in our world” another week, and “one thing I’ve learned about my church in the last month” on another week. The more people know about their church, the more amazed they are and excited they become. And the more excited they become, the more motivated they are, perhaps, to invite someone to experience the faith community they love.
The basis of our identity as people of God is our new life given to us in Jesus Christ. When we quit pushing that on others and simply “be” that through caring relationships with others, we reveal the love of God. And who knows? Those that are invited might reveal something about God that we didn’t know before. Oh, but wait. Remember? This isn’t about how the church can benefit, but how our neighbors can. Jesus Christ is alive and creating new life in the world—including in our congregations. How life-giving it is when we notice that, articulate that, and thereby are motivated to share that.
The next post will be about “Inviting in Bite-Sized Chunks.” In the meantime, join the journey. Post comments, questions, and insights. Let’s share this together.
It happens in every family, within every household. A relationship ends, an accident takes a life, an addiction is discovered, a job is lost, a medical expense overwhelms, a home goes into foreclosure, a son or daughter makes a bad choice. As much as we try to avoid them, these and similar devastating experiences strike all of us at one time or another. Yet we find ourselves woefully unprepared to deal with them.
To make matters worse, we are often embarrassed by these situations. Somehow, in the midst of adversity or failure, there is a culturally ingrained impulse to withdraw, to isolate, to deny that anything is wrong. We feel the necessity to handle the consequences of difficulties “in house.” Often unaware of how to navigate these troubled waters in our lives, we bravely struggle on, emotionally drained, spiritually exhausted, and sometimes even physically depleted. “We’ve got to be strong,” is usually how we approach these situations. “We’ve got to hang on until the storm passes.” The burden can be, quite frankly, too much to bear alone.
Nor should we have to. Humans are by nature communal beings. Created in the image of a triune God, we are relational at our very core. We understand God as “three-in-one,” Father, Son, Spirit all interacting, relating, serving, loving, and existing as the one God. Each person of the Holy Trinity finds their identity in the relationship with the other two. God is relationship—self-giving in nature and uniquely communal. God could not be God alone; and this is the image in which we are created.
When seen in this light, creation makes all kinds of sense. God, relational in nature, creates people with whom God can be in relationship—and who can be in relationship with God. God created us to share in the communal joy that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit experience since before time began. God the Son, born as Jesus, entered the world to face the powers that separate us from God and from one another. Jesus faced down these principalities, clashed with them, was killed by them, and won victory over them. All out of a need for relationship.
As the church, we are called and equipped to reveal and to proclaim the nature of God to the world. The existence of the church denotes relationship—with God, with a congregational community, and with the rest of the world. The strength of the church is relationship; it reveals the essence of who God is most completely. This is why individual spirituality is contrary to Christianity. One cannot be a Christian alone. We are gathered into congregational communities so that relationships centered in a triune God can be experienced. The character of God; the character of the church.
Which is why I become so frustrated when a household within a congregation pulls away when they are experiencing hard times. It happens all the time. Just when the church can actually act as church for one another, that opportunity is lost (or at least made difficult) because those experiencing tragedy feel they must do so alone. “I don’t want to be a burden,” we say. “Others need help more than me.” “I can handle this; I’m fine. Really.” Not only are we less likely to deal with our hardships in a life-giving way by ourselves, but we are robbing the church of a key aspect of its purpose—living as a holy community revealing the relational (and unconditional) nature of God to one another.
What’s worse, congregational members often separate themselves from their church community for far less tragic reasons. Hurt feelings, disagreements, unintended (or intended) insults, or my favorite, consumer desires not satisfactorily met (often articulated as “I’m not being fed,” or “Such-and-such church has a such exciting programs”) are all stated reasons as to why church members separate from a congregation.
I’m concerned that we are taking holy relationship so lightly. Embarrassment and individualism are taking precedence over the nature of God. Personal desires are taking priority over communal existence. A projection of strength is outranking our authentic vulnerability. All of which are contrary to the nature of the triune God, and therefore to us as human beings—particularly as the body of Christ.
In a previous posting on this blog I wrote, “The Church’s Future and God’s Pruning” (based on John 15:1-5). And I’m wondering if, in order to reveal and participate in the communal nature of God, those whose attachment is shallower are being “pruned” from the church. Now hear me, I’m not saying we should cold-heartedly abandon those whose commitment level isn’t up to snuff! To the contrary, the church is to reveal unconditional love and support to such as these. But I am curious as to whether we should be feeling such a sense of failure when those who insist on being alone actually do so. One of the greatest gifts a congregation can offer its neighborhood residents is authentic, perichoretic community modeled on and created by the God of Three-in-One. Some people are simply not at a point where they can handle that or feel a pressing need for that. On the other hand, some desperately need that kind of support and are willing to offer it as well.
Perhaps our congregational energy would be better spent living as authentic community in the midst of our neighborhoods rather than becoming larger, impersonal gathering places for individuals. Which one reveals the nature of God to the world most realistically?
It may be presumptuous to say that for over 1700 years the church has needed to change its understanding of its purpose. Be that as it may, I’m saying it. Without a doubt, there are things the church has done well over the centuries in accordance with the reign of God: developing education, advancing health care, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, enhancing disaster relief, and serving the poor are chief among these. Sometimes we’ve proclaimed the gospel with clarity and love. And sometimes God’s mercy and compassion are made real in the lives of many all over this planet because of the work of Christ’s church.
And yet with a history all of this for 20 centuries, the Christian church in America in recent decades continues to decline. What are we doing wrong? Where do we need to work harder? What do we need to improve? How can we do better?
The decline in numbers of American Christianity has nothing to do with inefficiency or laziness. Churches and church leaders are working harder and longer than ever before—to the point of rostered leaders burning out at an alarming rate (but that’s another book). Our numerical decline has little to do with our faith or faith practices. And it’s not because we aren’t teaching our children well enough, aren’t relevant enough, don’t have updated projection or sound systems in our worship areas, or don’t have enough programs for young adults. No, it’s much simpler and yet much deeper than all that. Simply put, we are being pruned. Jesus is speaking about us and to us when he said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit . . . I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:1-2, 5). The church in the United States is being pruned in order to bear more fruit.
As I’m sure you know (but just to be official), pruning is a horticultural practice where parts of a plant are removed to help improve or maintain health, reduce risk from falling branches, and to increase the yield or quality of flowers and fruits. Jesus says the branches that bear no fruit at all are removed, but those that bear fruit will be pruned in order to bear more. We can take some comfort in the fact that we are being pruned. That means that we, the church, the body of Christ continue to bear fruit, but God is preparing us to bear more.
Which begs the question, “Exactly what fruit is Jesus talking about?” That’s where we get into trouble. I think we’ve confused branches and fruit over the course of the last seventeen centuries or so. Branches are a permanent part of the plant. They grow from the vine and always stay in the vine. That’s the church, the people, the disciples. The fruit can be picked, eaten, used for sustenance, and it is where the seeds are. Those seeds are meant to be cast, planted, tossed into the world.
Our mistake is that we’ve come to believe that our purpose as the church is to get as many branches as possible—sometimes at the expense of the fruit. We’ve been so deliberate about gaining members in the church that we’ve put the main purpose of the vine—the fruit—on hold. We’ve become more concerned about our membership numbers than about revealing God’s mercy, compassion, love, forgiveness, and grace in the world. Paul wrote about the fruit of the Spirit to the Galatian churches, “[T]he fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”(Galatians 5:22-23). This is the purpose of the church: to bear the fruit of the Spirit.
A vine that has too many branches isn’t healthy. It cannot effectively do what it was planted to do: bear fruit. In order to help the vine as a whole plant bear the fruit it is intended to bear, it must be pruned. As the vinegrower, God is pruning the church to restore our health and to allow us to be about God purpose in planting the vine in the first place. It’s much more about the fruit and a lot less about the branches. We’ve forgotten our purpose. We need the vinegrower to step in and restore us. We need pruning. And God is accomplishing it.
I went to the Service of Holy Communion at St. Andrew and St. George Parish Church in Edinburgh, Scotland, just off St. Andrew Square. It is a beautiful and historic building. Though small by Scotland standards, the building is significantly larger than most U.S. church buildings. As I walked in, I saw there were about a dozen chairs gathered in a circle around the altar in the chancel, half of them occupied. It looked like they were having a meeting, so I hung back in the tiny foyer area, waiting for the meeting to break up so people could gather for worship. I soon realized no one was talking up there–apparently there was no meeting; this was worship. So I went up and prepared to sit down. Though not in obvious prayer, no one looked up or said a word. It was rather uncomfortable, even for this church geek.
I noticed that they all had bulletins, so I asked someone–startling him, apparently, by speaking to him. He mumbled something, and pointed back out in the little foyer. I went back and found a small stack of bulletins, fairly well hidden on a table with several other flyers of sorts.
Returning to the circle of silence, I took an empty chair on the opposite side (the first 6 people had taken the closest 6 chairs, causing me to have to walk around behind them). From this vantage point I could see a few other people coming into the foyer area (unseen by the “members,” who, in taking the premium seats, had their backs to the door). These visitors saw our “meeting,” apparently assuming the same thing I did when I entered, so they turned around and left. I was actually embarrassed.
As I was trying to figure out what to do, recognizing I was a guest in their house, I saw a couple come into the foyer, look quizzically up front, and begin talking together–pointing toward us. I caught the woman’s eye, and waved them in. They smiled, and came up front–without bulletins. Now knowing where they were, I left my chair and went out into the foyer to get them some.
As I passed them in the aisle, they thanked me for welcoming them into my church. I just smiled and said, “You’re welcome.” I think my accent threw them off a bit, but they at least were inside. While I was back there, someone else came in, so I handed her a bulletin. Apparently, I’m now the host.
I returned to my seat, noticing that there were now only two chairs left. And sure enough, three people came in the door. What’s the practice in this place when there are more people than chairs? Do they move out into the regular worship area? Do they bring chairs up and start a second row? I waited to see what the members would do–though not really expecting anything. And I wasn’t disappointed. Finally, in frustration, I got up and grabbed a chair from the nave, bringing it up into the chancel area around the altar. The others scooted chairs around until there was room in the holy circle. Some of the other visitors (the ones who thanked me for welcoming them into my church), did the same when others came in. This process was repeated until there was a full complement of 20 people. Still, the members, though watching all this, hadn’t moved or spoken. The visitors were acting as hosts for one another.
The pastor came in through a back door and looked surprised at the “crowd.” Come to find out, he was a guest preacher, as the regular pastor was on vacation. He was welcoming, gracious, informal (“call me Tom”), and made sure we all knew that the communion table was open to everyone.
The service was wonderful, though only about twenty minutes total (no singing). The sermon alone was worth coming for. And communion was, in fact, for everyone who had gathered. Once the service was underway, I, with bulletin in hand, was fully able to participate. The only thing that seemed unusual to me during worship was that eye contact during the sharing of the peace is apparently prohibited. Either that, or everyone was noticing some unusual pattern in the carpet they hadn’t paid attention to before. Or perhaps that is simply Scottish cultural procedure. I’m open.
Afterward, I spoke with a couple of people who were slow to leave (most members bolted for the door as if the building were on fire–or maybe it was just their waiting breakfast that was burning). These dawdlers were somewhat interested in where I was from and why I was there. The pastor, who had gone to the back to try and greet the hasty retreaters, then joined us and continued to be gracious and hospitable. We spoke for a few minutes, until he had to get ready for the next service (someone had since quietly arranged chairs in a small circle down in the front of the nave).
Authentic worship is just that. It is open, it is inclusive, it is unifying when done with an awareness of its inclusive nature. It is, after all, reflective of the God we worship. But the very nature of its inclusivity cannot happen apart from those who gather for it. Corporate worship is public, therefore those on the “inside” of a particular congregation are obligated to be hospitable. It isn’t extra, it isn’t for the ushers and greeters, nor is it reserved for those with special gifts. It is mandated by the nature of this inclusive God. In the words of the hymn, “All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place.” It is up to us, as the insiders of a local congregation, to make sure everyone who comes in the door knows this, and experiences this.
I wonder how many people have to come to this or other churches this Sunday needing the community of believers gathered in Word and sacrament, and were turned away by the “members'” unawareness of their role as acting hosts? Hospitality isn’t added on or plugged in, nor is it everything God calls God’s church to be. But it is at the heart of worship.
2nd Pentecost (A)
Jeremiah 28:5-9; Matthew 10:40-42
I’m starting my sabbatical in five days. I’ll be resting, writing, and researching during the next twelve weeks. Most of that time will be spent in Scotland and Ireland. I’ll be a guest in a foreign country for eight weeks. I’m mindful that everything I do and say represents not only the U.S., but Christianity, Lutheranism, and this congregation. These communities are all parts of my identity, and I want to reflect well on them. That makes me think that I’ll be pretty careful about what I say, what I do, how I treat people.
I will be a guest. That means I need to obey their laws and follow their customs. I will be somewhat vulnerable, because I’m a guest there. If I miss something, say something wrong, or do something that by their customs is really stupid, I risk reflecting badly on all of you. I will be careful, but if you hear anything untoward, try to remember to listen to my side before you rush to judgment.
My anticipation of being a guest in foreign countries makes me somewhat sensitive to the situation of the disciples in Matthew here. Jesus is sending them to other towns and villages on their own. They are being sent and will therefore be guests. They will need to obey local laws and follow local customs. They will be somewhat vulnerable, because they will be guests. If they do or say something stupid they risk reflecting badly on each other and on Jesus.
Never in the last 1600-1700 years has this text been a more appropriate description of the church today. We’re no longer the hosts in our neighborhood, we are guests. We don’t dictate laws or customs, our culture does. We’ve got to accept the reality that we, as church, are guests in our own culture. We are being sent into this culture and are therefore guests. We will need to obey local laws and follow local customs. We will be somewhat vulnerable, because we are guests. If we do or say something stupid we risk reflecting badly on each other and on Jesus.
For the early church, that was understood. The concept of the disciples of Jesus being guests in the surrounding culture was normal. And however the culture treats us is, well, how they’re going to treat us. Whoever goes out representing God gets whatever the host culture gives them. Prophets speak for God, and sometimes their “reward” wasn’t too terrific. Righteous people act for God, and sometimes their “reward” was better. But however the surrounding culture responds to us is how they’re going to respond—both good and not so good. Getting them to respond one way or another isn’t the point. The point is that we are sent.
That’s what Jesus is making clear to his early disciples; and making clear to us. We are sent to be guests in a different culture—revealing the forgiveness, grace, mercy, and love of the kingdom of God. Sometimes the response will be great; other times not so much. Regardless, go. Rather than putting so much effort into controlling the response (conversion, joining the church), we in today’s church might want to try putting effort into revealing Christ to our host culture regardless of the response.
I wonder what would happen if we really took that to heart. What would be different if we quit emphasizing people coming here to us, and instead emphasized our being sent to them. Instead of them joining us, it should be us joining them. The ultimate goal is not membership here, but forgiveness there. We are given the name of Jesus and sent to bear his presence to every person we meet out there. Not in order to convert them. Not in order to get them to come to church. But to make sure they meet Jesus who has made us his own in baptism; who has filled us with the Holy Spirit so that we can reveal him in the world.
This doesn’t make us better than our hosts, any more than I will be better than the Scots and the Irish I’ll be meeting. We are called by God, given the name of Jesus Christ, and equipped by the Holy Spirit to expose Jesus present in the world. We are sent into what amounts to a foreign land to bear the reality of Jesus. That may be accepted, or it may be rejected. The response is not so much our concern.
Think about it this way. There’s a huge difference between approaching a friend with, “If you were to die tonight, do you know what would happen to your eternal soul?” and, “I’m sorry that I hurt you.” Which reveals Jesus?
There’s a huge difference between spending time passing out Gideon Bibles in hotels and spending time volunteering at the Jeffco Action Center, a hospital, or Habitat for Humanity. Which reveals Jesus?
There’s a huge difference between feeding a poker table in Blackhawk and feeding a homeless child recovering from the tornado in Joplin, MO. Both will cost you $100: which reveals Jesus?
There’s a huge difference between saying, “I’ll get you for that,” and “I forgive you for that.” Which reveals Jesus?
The Holy Spirit gives us the name of Jesus, gives us a new identity in him, gives us a new-and-forgiven life in order be sent. And we are sent in order to reveal the nature of Christ. Accepted or rejected. Believed or not believed. Welcomed or turned away. We are made new, equipped, and sent to reveal the nature, the reality, the person of Jesus to those we meet in the world this week.
I will be very mindful of that in Scotland and Ireland as I’m a guest in those countries.
This text is reminding you to be mindful of the same thing right here. We bear the name of Christ. We are sent. As guests in the world, we cannot control the response we get. But whoever welcomes us welcomes Christ. And whoever welcomes Christ welcomes the one who sent Christ. Truly, none of these will lose their reward. Amen.
Sometimes it takes a while, but a deep agenda of many congregations ultimately emerges with a lot of decisions they make. Sometimes it rises up during the initial discussion; sometimes it’s later, during the “how do we implement?” phase. But no matter how good any given idea is, no matter how Spirit led, no matter how selfless and compassionate a decision or direction may be, a hidden agenda will most generally show itself.
Walk with me, here. You discover a need in the community—let’s say local middle school kids are running around unsupervised during the afternoon between the time school ends and their parents get home from work. You see this as a recipe where trouble is likely to brew, so your congregation decides to begin an after-school sports program for middle school children. Wonderful! Doesn’t this sound like something the church ought to be doing? Altruistic, selfless, serving, benefiting the neighborhood. All-in-all a very Christ-like thing to do.
But sooner or later, someone says it. They’ll sneak it in at some point in the deliberation or planning. More often than not, no one notices—because everyone else at some level is thinking the same thing. “This will be great for the kids,” they say. Wait for it . . .
“This will make a real difference in our neighborhood.” Wait for it . . .
“We’ve got the resources to make this happen.” Wait for it . . .
And then . . . here it comes, “And some of these kids’ families may end up joining the church.” Bam! We just twisted this benevolent idea into a self-serving project.
You might think I’m making a big deal out of nothing. Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing tragic about people joining the church. Far from it. That’s part of the Holy Spirit’s work too. But when it enters into the decision equation as motivation, I believe we’ve lost something important. Or maybe it’s more that we’ve added something. We’ve spoiled the mix. We’ve contaminated the way in which we approach the relationship of the church in the neighborhood. It’s a very short and very slippery slope from “wouldn’t it be nice if some people joined our church” to “how many new members can we get out of this?” Once we start thinking in terms of the church’s benefit, that notion has a dastardly way of easing into virtually every decision for ministry.
Be honest, how long are most congregations willing to spend large amounts of time, energy, and finances in programs or ministries that don’t bring in any new members? How long would your congregation exert the kind of resources necessary to run an after school sports program if, year after year, there were no people checking out the church? Be honest, now. There are some congregations, yes, but we aren’t very thick with them.
OK, church growth people. This is where you can chime in about how if we do the sports thing right, there will be new members whether we’re focused on it or not. If no one is interested year after year, maybe we aren’t inviting, maybe we aren’t including, maybe we aren’t welcoming, or some other maybe. You are likely correct in these and many more maybes. But that’s not the point.
And I hear you theologian-types, too. Right now you’re saying something about original sin or “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” or “if we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” or whatever your denomination or affiliation generally says about our sinful nature. And you’re right. We cannot escape it. We cannot do anything apart from our sinfulness. We have to trust that somehow God will redeem our efforts and use them for “reign of God” purposes. I absolutely agree.
So, then, what’s the big deal with getting a few new church members out of an after-school program? On one level, nothing, really. Because, of course, God can transform our meager and (deep down) selfish motives into something that reveals the presence of the kingdom. God does it all the time. Good heavens, I hope so! But once we start down the road of church-as-beneficiary of ministry efforts, we’re closing doors on other opportunities. That’s where we goof it up. Read on.
It’s extremely difficult to keep this hidden agenda at bay. It infiltrates everything and can sully even the best intended ministry effort. With “what’s in it for the church?” thoughts lurking in the back corners of our minds, ministry opportunities that don’t have an obvious or immediate benefit to the church stand a greater chance of getting overlooked. Regardless of what God may or may not be inviting us into.
That’s the significant issue, really. Rather than gaining clarity on God’s movement, God’s action, and God’s direction, we become clouded with our own survival, numerical growth, and congregational advantage. As baptized people of God, we are called and sent in the name of Christ to proclaim and participate in the reign of God. Regardless of anything else. Including what we as church are or are not getting in return.
To be in Christ is to be called to give up one’s own (or one’s congregation’s own) life. To die to self, in other words. Are there many congregations willing to risk that? Jesus sums this up pretty well, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). If the cross that marked us in baptism is any indicator of our call to participate in God’s mission (and, duh, it is), our agenda is to reveal God’s grace, mercy, love, and redemption—even if it gains us no new members. Even if it costs us members. That takes courage. That takes faith.
How do you measure success in the church, especially in the neighborhood congregation? In my denomination we fill out annual parochial reports, which reveal members gained (or lost), worship attendance increase (or decrease), a larger (or smaller) our budget, and so on. Good, measureable numbers. Solid. Up or down. Growth or decline. And—the message becomes readily apparent—success or failure.
We talk about congregations with increasing numbers of people and dollars as models for the rest of the church to follow (the faster the better), and we spend considerable time in print and in attitude trying to figure out the secret to this “kingdom of God” achievement. In contrast, the congregations that maintain similar numbers over the last five years are referred to as “stagnant,” and those whose numbers are more than five percent lower are “in decline.” These are hardly complementary adjectives.
Pastors of churches with increasing numbers often frown on those with decreasing and steady numbers, cluck their tongues, and offer self-righteous advice on how to become more statistically triumphant. These successful clergy can be somewhat sanctimonious toward their neighboring congregations and colleagues. They gather together in victorious cohorts, congratulating each other and sharing success stories.
I know, I was one of them. It was temptingly easy to fall into. Many looked on my ministry with a bit of awe and/or envy because my congregation’s budget increased by a factor of three in a few years and worship attendance was swelling by double digit percentage points annually. I enjoyed being included in the victory circle, a model of success. I accepted the accolades and offered advice. I knew, inwardly, what the declining congregations were doing wrong, and was greatly relieved that I wasn’t still stuck in that “old” model of doing church. I was riding the wave. Surely God was pleased with my statistics!
So what’s wrong with this picture? Nothing, if you buy into a business model of success. You know the catchphrases: bigger is better, if you’re not growing you’re dying, stuff like that. But is that all there is to God’s mission? Is the reign of God measured in such detached terms?
Let’s face it; this is the culturally accepted measure of success for pretty much everything. Sales, clients, market shares, bank accounts, properties, listeners, viewers, revenue streams, billable hours, and yes, even church members. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t seem to nestle into Jesus’ life, ministry, or teaching quite as comfortably as I would have liked. Love God, love your neighbor. Sell your property and give the money to the poor. The last shall be first. Humans do not live by bread alone. One’s life does not consist in the wealth of possessions. On and on, you pick the texts. Jesus came proclaiming the presence of the long-awaited reign of God. Those with eyes to see it, will. Those with ears to hear it, will.
And then there’s the whole cross thing: what was accepted by everyone as absolute, utter defeat was the crowing glory in the kingdom.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with growth. We are, of course, to invite people into communities that reveal the kingdom of God. We are to participate in God’s mission in the world, sharing the good news of forgiveness, hope, and life, and bidding others to be part of that mission too. But I’m calling into question the primary (and sometimes the only) standard of being the body of Christ as the number of hash marks in the “new member” column. In what ways can you numerically report love, mercy, compassion, and grace incarnated through relationships in the neighborhood? Where is the column to check the number of times that forgiveness was freely given and relationships restored? How do you measure lives changed by the power of the gospel? How do you categorize the movement of the Holy Spirit?
If our energy is funneled into numerical growth in order to appear successful, it probably isn’t going into joining what God is up to in the neighborhood in order to be truly successful. The neighborhood isn’t put around the church in order to bolster the church’s numbers. Rather, the church is placed in the neighborhood to reveal the reign of God, proclaim it, and join in its activity there. Numerical growth may or may not be related to that; therefore ought not to be the primary measure of success.
Congregational rate of growth has little to do with being equipped to participate in missional relationships in the neighborhood. This is good news for congregations that get beat up on their parochial reports. So-called “stagnant” and “declining” congregations might actually be more successful in God’s mission than the neighborhood’s fast-growing church. The principal question can’t be how many new members have joined the church, but how the church has joined God’s mission of care and reconciliation.
Being clear about who God is and what God is doing (and trying to do) needs to be the standard in missional success, not the number of chairs used in the worship space on an average Sunday.