This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Church Growth, Part 1.

            The world is changing rapidly.  Many churches are in trouble because the world in which they had learned to thrive has largely disappeared.  Traditional ways of thinking and acting just don’t gain as much traction in today’s environment as they used to.  This situation has become acute since the financial meltdown of 2008, in which large parts of the endowments, on which churches were depending, evaporated.  Thus we have churches that used to be vaguely aware of a problem coming down the road, that now face an immediate crisis of viability.   They are suddenly and frantically seeking ways to gain new members.
            First of all, a church that wants to gain members because it needs more givers to help pay its bills is already finished.  People outside the church don’t care about maintaining an old building, no matter how many warm memories it has for long-time members.  “We need your money!” is hardly an attractive slogan.
            What potential members do care about is participating in a community where they find healing, acceptance, support, and love, and where they are given opportunities to live out their own callings from God.
            Secondly, churches that say they want new members, but at the same time expect these new members to simply take over the maintenance of the current worship styles, programs, and facilities, are deluding themselves.
            New people will have different backgrounds and experiences.  They are likely to seek different modes and expressions of mission and ministry.  “Come and keep this place the way we always liked it,” is hardly attractive either.
            And yet from inside the church this is often exactly the mindset.  We have this institution.  It needs to be maintained.  We don’t have sufficient resources to do that ourselves anymore.  So we need to bring in new people to do it for/with us.
            The fact that this approach has not been particularly successful should not surprise us.  Everything about it is wrong.  Once we see the church as an institution to be preserved we have killed it as a community of Christ-followers.  It is hard to find anything Jesus was interested in preserving or maintaining.
            There are institutions that are concerned with maintenance and preservation.  People are even willing to pay money to keep them in business.  Museums work like this.  Now, I love museums.  But a living church is not a museum; Jesus does not institute a place where people may come and observe some carefully preserved historical or artistic artifacts.  Rather, the church is intended to be more like a dojo or a zendo: a place where people come to learn a skill.  It is more like an artist’s studio, than an art gallery.  It is more like a campfire around which we share in conversation, than a classroom where we receive a body of information.
            Let’s review some of the ways our mindset has to change.      
            1.  The church is not primarily an “institution.”  It is a living community of those who trust and follow Jesus Christ. 
            2.  We do not possess it.  The Holy Spirit possesses us and forms us into God’s people. 
            3.  Maintenance and preservation are not the mission to which Jesus calls us. 
            4.  It is not up to us on our own to do this mission; it is a gift from God. 
            5.  The whole nature of our invitation to others is a call to witness to the transforming love of God revealed in Jesus. 

            The first thing Jesus calls on his hearers to do is “repent” (Mark 1:15).  Repentance has to do with changing both the way we think and the way we act.  We have to change the direction of our lives.  This means getting over the mindset that sees the church as an institution to be maintained and preserved.  It means beginning to see - and remake - the church as a living community of witnesses, who trust and follow Jesus.
            The primary point of church life is not gaining more members.  An organism that grows for the sake of growth is cancer.  Rather, Christians are called to live together faithfully in love and justice.  The early church knew this.  When Christians live according to Jesus’ life, example, and commandments, it becomes a visible witness in the larger community.  People see it and want to be a part of it.  Growth happens as a by-product of the church was doing what it was called to do.  
            Therefore, the most important component in church growth, the one upon which everything else depends, is that the church be a place where people encounter and experience the living presence of Jesus Christ.  That’s the first thing we have to get through our heads and into our behavior.  Job-One is to actually be the church.  The first step in growing a church is creating a supportive community rooted in this transformative good news of God’s love for the world revealed in Jesus.   The church is thus a community centered on Christ, and embodied in practices of prayer, healing, forgiveness, learning, compassion, justice, peace, equality, and love.  If churches actually did this, the biggest problem we would have is where to put all the people who want to be a part of it.


BoomerChef said...

Who can disagree with your statement about what the church is called to be? On the other hand, we are dealing with church members who are very heavily invested (labors of love over decades, perhaps with family members for centuries)in the institution and it's hard for them to listen about the true church when they're staring at an unpaid gas bill without resources. We must honor their devotion even as we talk of other realities.

Beloved Spear said...

Amen and Amen.

John Edward Harris said...

Would you please come and preach this to the congregation I serve. I have been trying to tell them this for three years and they are not listening to me.