I wrote the following article for the April, 2015 edition of “The Lutheran” magazine, a publication of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. With their permission, I’m reprinting it here.
Jennifer and her 7th grade daughter, Maria, attended a congregation’s confirmation ministry for the first time. The family has no church home, but Jennifer wanted her daughter to be part of a community that would show her love, care, and support.
Jim, a guidance counselor at a large suburban high school, is working with a congregation to provide much needed career mentors for students who may fall through the cracks after graduating.
Rosa, an elementary school principal, not only encourages members of a church to come to the school library to help students with homework, but asked other local principals to do the same. Not interested in church herself, she nonetheless has invited members of this same church to offer a Bible study for parents and families in the school building.
These examples of trusting partnerships are happening, but are coming about in a way that may be counter-intuitive to many of us. Authentic relationships involve mutual trust and dying to our own agendas.
Christian congregations, which for decades have been the trusted center of our communities, have in many cases become disconnected from their neighbors. Some congregations are now seen as self-serving, judgmental, and unsafe places. There is good reason for this skepticism. Instead of unconditionally loving their neighbors, they have looked at them primarily as a way to bolster the church’s membership.
In a time of numerical decline in congregations across denominations and the country, it’s tempting to think of the neighborhood around the church as merely a resource to be tapped. So we advertise programs, exude hospitality, jazz up our worship and more, all in an attempt to get the neighbors into our building.
We all want to dodge the “congregation-in-decline” label and can become frantic in our efforts to avoid it. With good intentions, we pour increasing amounts of energy into improving our worship attendance numbers but often don’t see the intended results.
As long as filling pews on a Sunday morning is our motivation, our neighborhood will rightly perceive the church as self-serving and will be less likely to trust us. Whether we mean to or not, the message our neighbors hear is: “We don’t really care about you, we just want you to fill our building (as well as our offering plate).”
Jesus speaks to this and reminds us: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35).
Our internal focus is partially understandable, as we love our congregations and authentically want to share the joy and meaning we’ve found there with others. But in our efforts to stop the decline in our numbers, we can forget why we are there in the first place. Consider the possibility that the more energy we put into improving our numbers, the less energy we may be putting into developing trusting relationships with our neighbors.
What’s more, not only are trusting, self-giving relationships between neighborhoods and congregations a good strategy for the work of the church, they are also in the image of God.
The Trinity can authentically be described as God-in-relationship. The identity of one person of the Trinity can best be understood through one’s relationship with the other two. Throughout biblical history, God has worked by establishing relationships with individuals or groups, including Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, and Moses. A relationship with God was opened to all directly through the Son, Jesus.
Relationships are God’s way of revealing God’s self and mission of love, grace and forgiveness to us. Relationships are the way we trust God’s invitation to be part of that mission. And relationships are how we do God’s work in the world—the work to which we have been called through baptism as the body of Christ.
In putting aside our agenda of playing the numbers game, we can begin to develop trust within our neighborhoods. As we do so, we reveal the very nature of God. By being part of our neighborhood for the sake of the neighborhood, we are better able to be about the purpose of the church.
Without considering whether it will bring in any new members, try some things that allow you to listen to the neighborhood around you.
- Sit down with principals and teachers, listening as they tell you what would be helpful for their schools.
- Host a town-hall meeting in your community about a particularly hot issue that may be arising. Do so without an agenda other than to listen, allowing all sides to be heard.
- Talk to the local police department, perhaps riding along in squad cars to get their perspective on your neighborhood.
Activities such as these over time will allow our congregations to develop trust within our neighborhoods. Through trusting relationships God is revealed and the reign of God is present. Perhaps then we can all see—and together join—God at work in our neighborhoods.