Posts Tagged With: success
My new book is available, and at a discount price! Retail is $13.00, but order now for only $10.40 at https://wipfandstock.com/store/The_Neighborhood_Church_Gods_Vision_of_Success
A great resource for congregations who wish to engage more fully in being part of the reign of God in their neighborhoods.
I’m in a bit of a quandary, and I’m not sure how to resolve it—or even if there’s anything to be resolved. Many people look to the church for practical advice on daily life. What does the Bible say about how to keep my kids off drugs? What is God’s will for my spouse? How can the church make me a better person? I need a girl/boyfriend; does the Bible give any tips on how to find a good match?
From authentic life-obstacles to a truly selfish prosperity “gospel,” there are many congregations and denominations that provide answers to such dilemmas. And usually these answers follow a particular pattern: God wants you to have “x,” so if you do “y,” God will do “z,” whereby you end up with “x,” and life is good. Because I want a better marriage, children who are more polite, a higher paying job, an easier life, a healthier body, I can go to church and get the steps from God/the Bible. I can follow them and bam! I have what I want and God’s blessings to boot.
I consider this to be, in the words of Tommy Smothers, “El toro poo poo.” It is simply consumerism at its most base level. I will go to church for the primary purpose of getting something. If one church brand doesn’t give me what I think it should, I can switch to the next one. And I can simply keep moving around until I find a church brand that gives me what I’m looking for. And if I don’t find it in a church, I’ll look somewhere else. After all, it doesn’t matter what the “dispenser” looks like as long as my life gets better, right?
I believe that God, the Bible, and the church are bigger than that and desperately more important than that. I am also recognizing I’m in the minority, a minority that is getting ever smaller. Jesus, as I understand him, goes a completely different direction. The call of Christian disciples isn’t to provide religious blessings and recommendations for a better personal life. It is to be part of God’s work of redeeming and caring for all of creation. “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).
Now perhaps some good, practical counsel can help us do that with deeper wisdom and fewer distractions, but improving my own life situation cannot be an end unto itself—insofar as being a disciple of Jesus and a member of his church is concerned. We are to practice forgiveness, mercy, compassion, unconditional love, and grace and carry that into our Monday through Saturday world. We are to show the world what God’s love looks like. We are to reveal the presence of God in the world. We are to point to signs of the reign of God anywhere we recognize them. We are to teach and equip disciples to be part of God’s mission according to our particular contexts (though I think we have a lot to learn about context).
Yet there is a continual call for a consumer approach to church. Generally, people aren’t captivated by being part of a renewed world free of violence and injustice, where all are loved and valued. Rather, we become excited about solving personal problems and taking steps to make our own lives more fulfilling.
My quandary is whether or not there is room for consumerism in the church. Is it sticky enough to use as a connection to people, genuinely caring for their personal needs, and then offering a larger vision of God’s mission in the world? Is that a manipulative bait-and-switch, or an authentic incarnational approach to mission? Or something else entirely?
What do you think?
A few weeks ago, I posted on this site that my congregation is no longer going to emphasize “welcoming.” Instead, we are going to emphasize “inviting.” This is a move from passivity to activity, and must be done in keeping with God’s missional activity in our neighborhoods. I encourage you to get the vision, theology, and definitions that are foundational in the initial, Part 1 post at: We-Will-No-Longer-be-a-Welcoming-Church. There, I wrote that we are making this change with three emphases. The first of those, “Motivation for Inviting,” is available here. This, now, is the second emphasis, “Inviting (Not Welcoming) in Bite-Size Chunks.”
Let’s face it, change is hard. Most of us resist it, grudgingly accepting its reality only when it is forced upon us. Partly this is true because change is scary, and partly because it forces us to acknowledge we can’t always control it (well, actually, that’s scary too). So I guess when you come down to it, change is frightening. Is it any wonder, then, that we generally resist stepping way outside our comfort zone and established pattern of behavior to invite a friend to come to worship? This is terrifying! We are all afraid a) that our friend will laugh us out of the room, b) that they will tell all their friends that we’re narrow-minded, judgmental, hypocritical Bible-thumpers, or c) that they might actually come. Then what?
Because the change we are asking congregational members to make is too much, too big, too audacious, to frightening, we simply don’t ask, and they simply wouldn’t do it anyway. Let’s accept that reality and quit fighting it. Then, perhaps, we can make some progress.
You know the old joke, “Q: How do you eat an elephant? A: One bite at a time.” OK, it’s not funny, but it is true. The same strategy holds true for inviting. It’s just too much for most people to risk or try. So how about breaking it down into bite-size chunks that people actually can do? Here’s the way we’re doing it in my congregation. See if something along these lines might work for you.
Month 1: We ask people to use the phrase “my church” in a conversation with one person each week. Really simple. “Just go two blocks past my church and you’ll see the grocery store.” “No, I can’t go camping this weekend; I’ve already made plans to be at my church.” “Yes, I saw the sunset last night. The view from my church was amazing!” Just one person, one time each week during the month. Have them make up scenarios and practice with each other before worship on Sundays.
We purchased some promotional items with our church logo on them to aid in these conversations. Cloth grocery totes, string packs, water bottles, etc. Things that people will have with them in public. They aren’t all that expensive and you can pretty easily recoup the expense by selling them to your members at a reasonable price. So when you go to the bank, the bank teller may well ask, “What a handy back pack. Where’d you get that?” And we would answer, “I got this at (all together, now) my church.”
Month 2: We ask people to consider one word or phrase that describes our church well. Then use that word to finish the phrase, “my church is _____.” Again, do this in conversation with one person per week during the month. “My church is struggling with that very issue.” “School violence? My church is hosting a forum about that next month.” “That’s a hard situation. I’ve found my church is very supportive in difficult times.”
When people are watching for opportunities to do these quick, relatively small steps toward invitation, it’s amazing how many opportunities there suddenly are to take them. Ask them to share their stories with each other of their experiences. You can even award prizes for the funniest, the most awkward, the most creative, etc. Make this fun, but keep it in front of them.
Month 3: We ask people to think about one thing our congregation does very well. Perhaps it’s children’s ministry, education, music, social activism, or making the parking lot available for ride-sharing. Then use that to finish the phrase, “My church is really good at _____.” Again, one time per week to one person in a conversation. By now, some of them are getting the hang of this. A few might even be eager! Let them roll with it. That enthusiasm can become contagious. Encourage them to practice on each other and share their impressions of what their church is good at. This can feed into the motivational part covered in the previous post.
Month 4: We ask people to invite one person to check out something in which our church is involved. “Check out our volunteer day at the food pantry.” “Check out my church’s Alcoholics Anonymous Group.” “Check out the hiking trip my church is sponsoring.” This is all done in appropriate conversations when an opening presents itself. People are understanding the organic nature of these statements, and that they shouldn’t be forced or manipulated. By this time, people are actually seeing appropriate openings and are better able to bring up their church in a way that is natural and not off-putting.
Month 5: We ask people to invite someone to come to worship with them. This seems to be the most frightening invitation for many to make. But when broken into bite-size pieces, it can be attained.
Worship attendance isn’t necessarily the most important invitation, but it seems to be the hardest—leaving people feeling the most vulnerable. So we include it. If folks can invite to worship, they can make appropriate invitations to pretty much anything.
Now the question becomes, “what happens when our folks start inviting others to worship? How will these people be received? Will it be worth their time?” That, my friends, is the next installment of this invitational series. I invite your comments and partnership along the journey.
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.
We’ve decided to quit being a welcoming church. No kidding. We’re giving it up. It won’t be easy, but we’re committed to it. We’ll have to do it in stages, easing our folks into it step by step. We’ll have to deal with the fear of something new, the challenge of venturing into the unknown. But we’ll do it. It will take motivation, leadership, and constant reminders. But most importantly, it will take total commitment in embracing a new focus.
Like so many churches, we’ve sunk an amazing amount of time and energy into becoming a welcoming church. We changed worship styles, we trained greeters and ushers, we wore name tags, we percolated coffee, we went to workshops on hospitality, we put our friendliest people in the most prominent places on Sunday mornings. But we’ve realized we’ve been misplacing our emphasis. So we’re no longer going to do it.
Here’s what we’re doing instead. We are becoming an Inviting Church. That’s different. You see, “welcoming” from a missional perspective is passive. It denotes waiting for visitors and guests to drop by. When they do, we attempt treat them very well and do everything possible to make them comfortable. We’ll be willing to change who we are. We’ll follow particular formats that have proven to be more welcoming to new people. We’ll do whatever it takes to have them come back the next Sunday, even if they shouldn’t. Welcoming is about us, not about them.
“Inviting,” however, is different. That means we leave the comfort of our congregational home-court advantage. The main activity doesn’t happen in our worship space when people drop in, but in the neighborhood when we go out. It isn’t so much welcoming them into our place, but going out into their place and meeting them there.
Even that warrants a significant caveat. This is not just another gimmick to get people into the church. The foundation of this isn’t an attempt to bolster declining membership rolls and make a better parochial report to the bishop. No, it goes much deeper than that. It starts with who God has called us to be as church. It involves discovering our gifts and purpose. And it mandates joining God at work in the world. This isn’t about getting the world into God’s church; it’s about getting the church into God’s world.
If you’ve read any postings on this blog before, you know that God’s mission is what we are to be about. Everything comes from that—including the identity of the church. We exist as church only because God has a mission. Our purpose, our very identity, is called forth out of God’s loving care and redemptive activity in creation. We are steeped in God’s mission. We are drenched through baptism into this essential character of God. God is at work in the world, and creates, calls, and equips the church specifically for that work.
Each congregation has a purpose within God’s mission. Each congregation has particular gifts. Each congregation reveals the life-giving reign of God in unique ways. No congregation is everything to everyone. But every congregation is something to someone. Who can know God through your worship style? Who can experience forgiveness and grace through your congregational community? Who needs the gifts you have to offer? Who can offer gifts you need? Knowing those things, when in conversation over the backyard fence about their pain in losing a loved one, it would be natural then to invite that neighbor to your congregation’s grief support group that has made such a difference for many others. When in the employee lunch room chatting about the pressures of our jobs, it would fit to invite that co-worker to your congregation’s spiritual direction group for professionals. When sharing the struggles of parenthood with a friend while waiting for your kids to come out of school, it would make sense to invite their whole family to your cross-generational faith development where you have gained so much guidance from other parents. While paying for a car repair, your long-time mechanic lets slip that she has lost her faith, it would easily flow for you to invite her to join you (and all the other doubters who will gather this Sunday) in worship.
Welcoming involves hoping whoever happens to find you will join. Inviting involves sharing God’s specific gifts—made real in your congregation—in the world.
Based on a council study of the book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath (Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc., N.Y. Copyright © 2010 by Chip Heath and Dan Heath) http://www.amazon.com/Switch-Change-Things-When-Hard, my congregation is going about this transition from being welcoming to becoming inviting in three specific ways. One leadership team is taking the lead for each portion. Each of these three approaches will be the topic of an upcoming post on this blog. As a preview, however, they are: motivating people to invite, taking on invitation in bite-size pieces, and changing the inviting environment. We aren’t sure what the final results will be, but we’re excited to find out. Join us on this journey as we jump off the cliff and (hopefully) learn to fly. Please offer feedback, ideas, and help along the way.
What do God’s values look like in your context?
No, really, what are the results of forgiveness, love, grace, and generosity being lived in your neighborhood?
Here’s the deal: God is bringing a new future that lines up with God’s own priorities. God is actively doing this. It will happen. It is happening. Right now. Jesus is the visible, tangible, focal point of that reality. God’s mission is all about redeeming a broken creation. Period. In the death and resurrection of Christ, God shows creation just how committed God is to that future. It’s here. We get to see samples of it now and again.
So God has gathered a community of people and elected them to be a “test plot” for this new future. According to an article published by Purdue University (full article), the goal of an agricultural test plot “is to identify differences among ‘treatments’ under ‘real world’ conditions.” In other words, this new community is “treated” by God with forgiveness, unconditional love, unlimited mercy, and extravagant generosity, then lives these values in the midst of the world as a sample of God’s new future.
The purpose of this new community, the church, is to allow the world to sample God’s future now, in the context of their everyday lives. The church is comprised of us who are baptized into this community in the name of the Father, + and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. We exist as church for the sake of being a sample of God’s future in the world. For the sake of the world.
This means the church stands for some things. And it means the church stands against other things. For example, the church does not exist to get people into heaven when they die. It does not exist to get people to believe a certain way. It does not exist for its own sake. It does not exist to gain members or improve programs or enlarge its own budget. Rather, the church is placed in neighborhoods so that those neighborhoods have the opportunity to sample the love, forgiveness, authentic relationships, and generosity of God’s present/coming reign. And having experienced its effects, are then changed by them.
The ways that the church can participate as test plots of grace and unconditional love are innumerable. Though the values of God’s present/coming reign are the same in all places and in all times, the world culture in which those kingdom values are lived varies incredibly. The context of each congregational community is unique. Therefore, when the values of God’s reign are introduced into each context, it will look different according to each context. More on that next time. But for now, consider how you are living the forgiveness, love, compassion, and generosity of God in your own context. What are the results?
This blog is mainly a “Missional Church” blog with helpful insights and conversations about how congregations can deepen their understanding and participation in God’s mission. However, this series of three posts are more personal. I believe them to be beneficial for the broader church, but for different reasons. You decide for yourselves.
Here’s the situation: I was recently a “middle of the pack” nominee for the office of bishop in the Rocky Mountain Synod of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). I’m sharing the journey of that process with you from the inside. I hope you find it beneficial at whatever level you are open. You can catch up by reading Part 1 here and Part 2 here.
At the Rocky Mountain Synod Assembly, almost 500 voting members gathered, sent from each congregation in the 4+ state territory that comprises this synod. The big agenda item was the election of a new bishop as our current bishop, Allan Bjornberg, was retiring after 18 years of faithful service in that office.
The first ballot was a nominating ballot. All of the pre-nominated 17 were, in fact, nominated. Myself included. At this point nominations were closed, and one of the 24 people who accepted this nomination would be called as the RMS bishop.
The second ballot required voting members to vote for one of these 24. The top seven would move on to the third ballot and would be asked to address the assembly the next day. When the votes were tallied, there was a tie for seventh place, therefore the top eight would actually move on to the third ballot. Yours truly was in ninth place, one vote behind seven/eight.
I’ll admit I was a bit disappointed. And yet, I swear, at the moment it sank in that I was out of the running, the colors in that large conference room became brighter. Kind of like the allergy medicine commercial on TV where the hazy filter is peeled away to reveal how bright things can be. My breathing became noticeably deeper. I felt like I had suddenly lost ten pounds. And I was aware that anytime I wasn’t conscious of it, I was smiling. I think I actually skipped out of the assembly gathering for the dinner break.
That night I slept like a rock for the first time in months. Finally, this ordeal was over for me. The eight candidates remaining were all solid, wonderful, faithful people. And none of them were me. Whew. As far as my participation was concerned, this process was finished. I had been faithful to the leading of the Holy Spirit, learned some things, and moved past some personal obstacles. Thank you Jesus. Let’s elect a bishop, finish up the assembly, and go home.
The Rev. Jim Gonia was elected on the fifth ballot. My experience of his election was deep, spiritual, and moving. It seemed that the Holy Spirit had truly worked through this gathering of amazingly diverse Lutherans who gathered from the ranches of Wyoming; the urban centers of Denver, Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, and Colorado Springs; the border community of El Paso, and many other communities—large and small—that make up the territory of the Rocky Mountain Synod. I was taken aback at the powerful effect his election had on me. This person had truly been called by God to this office. It was a win/win. God had called someone who had responded, and it wasn’t me.
As I gathered one evening with a few other colleagues toward the end of this election process, one of them asked that since I was out of the running, what I was going to do now. “What do you mean?” I asked. “It seems self-evident. I’m out of the running. I don’t do anything.” No, this colleague answered. It’s not over. It’s just beginning. You were a viable candidate for bishop of this synod. Like it or not, Rob, you owe it to this church to speak out. Apparently, you have something to say that this synod wants to hear.
In my 27 years of ordained ministry, I think I’ve spoken into a microphone at a synod assembly once. Not my forte, not my comfort zone, not my desire. I’ve not expressed any aspiration to serve on any synod-wide committee, council, or task force. Although I allowed myself to be nominated for and subsequently elected to the synod’s Mission Outreach Board some years ago, I’ve never promoted that position or publicized my work there. I work as a team with my fellow board members, learning, speaking at meetings when necessary, and (as is so often my style) quietly influencing when I know something that’s relevant to the agenda or when I believe something ought to be on the agenda. I rarely “speak out” at synod assemblies, board meetings, or anywhere else outside of the pulpit.
Now I wonder, perhaps, if I’m being called to move beyond my own comfort again. If the demon that has kept me relatively silent for fear of ridicule has been exorcized (see part two of this blog series), then who knows what God will now call me to do and/or say? I am passionate about this church, I see God at work in and through us. I have the background, education, and experience to have a voice. I believe with all that is within me that the purpose of the church is not to do church, but to be the church God has called and gathered. And to be that church in the world. I can lead my congregation in living that out through new and fuller means. I can articulate that in any number of ways. I can imagine that in even more ways. Perhaps I can use a new-found voice to be more effective in encouraging and challenging others to be missional church as well.
Which is why this blog exists and how this series fits into it.
And that, my dear reader, is how God has used this bishop election in ways that I never could have imagined. Soli Deo Gloria!
In Mark 8:34-35, Jesus “called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 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.’”
I believe this to be the heart of Christian discipleship. Not only for us as individual followers of Jesus Christ, but for Christian congregations and denominations as well. As individuals, perhaps sometimes we do it well, perhaps we don’t. But that’s for another blog post on another day. This post is referring more to a congregational level of losing our life for Jesus’ sake and the sake of the gospel.
I can’t begin to recall how many times I hear congregational members and their staff/pastors talking about how they need to grow. They adopt programs, set goals, hire staff, build buildings, set up neighborhood outreach campaigns, and rework their thinking in order to get bigger. As if that was the goal. As if that was discipleship. Sometimes this happens as a result of dwindling membership—to the point of fearing for congregational survival. Other times it happens because we don’t know what else to do. And still other times because we believe this is what we need to do to be successful, with all the ego-boosts and accolades that accompany it.
It seems to me that if we take Jesus seriously in Mark 8:34-35, as soon as we try to save our congregational lives, we have lost them. If our primary effort and energy are going into bolstering congregational numbers, we are no longer a congregation picking up a cross and following. Congregations who carry the name of Jesus must be willing to die in order to live. This can’t really be measured by tracking membership numbers. Whether we are a congregation that is statistically going up or going down, those trends probably aren’t revealing our willingness to lose our life for Jesus’ sake.
Our purpose as congregations is the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, not our own survival. We do this not through increased butts in pews but through the revealing of unconditional forgiveness and love, extravagant generosity and compassion in our neighborhoods and in the world. As congregations, we proclaim Jesus through self-giving relationships with other entities, institutions, and individuals in the broader community. It’s not about us, it’s about them. It’s not whether they join us, but whether we join them. We are to lose our congregational life in order to save it.
This is risky, because in giving up their lives for the sake of the gospel, some congregations actually will die. My contention is that unless they are taking up their cross and following Jesus in a willingness to lose their life for his sake, they aren’t really living anyway.
What our neighborhoods need are not bigger churches but the crucified and risen Christ. If we as communities created and called in his name aren’t willing to risk our existence to reveal him in our neighborhoods, then what are we doing? We are placed by God in specific neighborhoods to join Jesus in revealing the reign of God there, not to get the neighborhood to join us here.
I believe there’s a way for us as congregations to measure our willingness to pick up our crosses and follow. There’s a basic step we can take to lose our lives for Jesus’ sake and the sake of the gospel. For us, it can begin with extravagant generosity. How much of your congregational budget do you give away? If you’re doing well, perhaps you go as high as giving away 10% to your denomination and/or local food banks, etc. Wonderful! Some congregations may even do more than that.
How about a goal of giving away 50% or more? If you were to propose that in your congregational budget meeting, what would be the reaction? Maybe something like, “We’d have to cut too many staff and ministries.” “Much of what we fund internally is for the sake of the broader community anyway.” “We’d never survive that.” “That’s just silly nonsense.” “No one in their right mind would ever do that.” More importantly, why would that be the reaction? Chances are because we are still trying to save our congregational lives.
Until we as congregations take Mark 8:34-35 seriously, we aren’t going to be as effective as we might otherwise be. Until we actually take the risk of losing our congregational lives, we won’t save them. Until we put down our self-centered commitments to get bigger in order to take up our crosses, we aren’t following Jesus. Who knows, perhaps dying to self will result in increased numbers. Or perhaps it will result in fewer congregations (or even denominations). But the point must not be us; it must be Christ crucified and risen. Even if that means we lose our lives for his sake.
It’s evening, and you’re finally settled at the dinner table. Just as the first spoonful of long-awaited yam and celery soup is approaching your mouth, the doorbell rings. You aren’t expecting anyone, but you experience a sinking feeling in your stomach because you strongly suspect who it is. It’s someone with an agenda that isn’t yours but who will insist that their agenda become yours. Yes, it’s someone selling something.
The single-pane aluminum frame windows in your house have been a virtual neon sign inviting every construction company and window pane producer in a five-state area to ring your bell. A recent hail storm has every roof inspector in existence descending on your neighborhood. The initiative on the next ballot will apparently affect your great-great grandchildren, either making or breaking their very lives. You will be condemned to an eternity of suffering unless you accept the religious message of the young zealots on your porch. Household break-ins are on the rise, and your only hope for securing your valuables—and maybe your life—is through signing a multi-year contract tonight with a particular home security company.
You know how it goes. These interruptions are annoying at best, and rarely have anything to do with your actual needs. Yet they keep coming. People come to your door uninvited and hope you will alter your schedule for them and their product. And they expect you to pay them for the privilege! There are even a few who will use high pressure, manipulative techniques, telling you things that may or may not be true just to get you sign on the dotted line tonight.
Not surprisingly, this is often how the residents of neighborhoods see local congregations. Our neighbors perceive a local congregation as yet one more entity primarily seeking its own profit and benefit. And, to be honest, there is good reason for that. As the church, we often are more concerned about selling our product than in being in relationship for the sake of our neighbors. We justify this by saying that what we are selling is exactly what they need. Though that may actually be true, that isn’t the issue here. No one likes someone else’s agenda imposed on them. Whether the church goes door-to-door or offers great youth programming, we are often correctly perceived as seeking to benefit ourselves, bolster our membership, fill our pews, and most importantly, increase the offering.
I know this sounds terribly cynical, but we need to be honest here. Isn’t that how we measure our success as a congregation? Using the same primary criteria for success as someone selling faulty vacuum cleaners doesn’t seem in keeping with the reign of God. It’s time to challenge our assumptions about success. It’s time to consider the kingdom of God before we consider the annual congregational report. It’s time to put the needs of our neighbors ahead of the needs of our organization. It’s time to strengthen relationships with our neighbors. It’s time to reveal the perichoretic nature of God in our communities. And, like all relationships, this starts with listening.
Wouldn’t it be nice if, instead of coming uninvited to sell a particular product—one you may or may not need or even want—there were caring and trustworthy people who actually had your best interests at heart? Not offering you their product to increase their sales commission, but helping you, serving you, making your needs their priority? Can you imagine someone patiently taking the time to really learn what you wanted, what you needed, and only then sought to help you get it?
Yeah, right. That door-to-door company wouldn’t last long.
But that’s really the point: the church isn’t a door-to-door sales company.
Can we be the organization that takes the time to listen, to learn, to meet needs that emerge from relationships rather than the organization’s agenda? Shouldn’t the church be this? Relationship is the nature of the triune God, the God we are called and sent to reveal. Relationships, then, need to be our first priority as the church. Relationships involve trust. Trust takes time to develop. That, again, begins with listening.