A little different kind of a post for me, but maybe it will be of interest…
Awhile back, I sent a resume to a church and received the following questions in response:
–Churches across the country are struggling to maintain attendance and growth. Do you agree that Churches of Christ are also fighting this decline? Give us your thoughts on what is driving this.
–What specifics might you focus on, at the congregation level, to change the direction of decline? Specifics might include demographics, worship styles, education, outreach, etc.
–In your personal experience or observation of other congregations, what have you seen to make you feel these things would work?
I thought they were good questions and actually enjoyed formulating my answers.
I thought I would share them with you as a topic of discussion…
Yes, I agree with the premise that churches are struggling to maintain attendance and growth. Certainly, churches of Christ cannot be singled out any more than any other group of believers. We all have our fair share of problems.
Obviously, I cannot answer for every church in every place. There are often economic factors that change populations. Socially and culturally, we face an often-disheartening system of values or a lack thereof. Morally speaking, church members tend to be just like the people around us.
From that perspective, instead of leading, guiding and illuminating our culture, we are either reacting to it negatively or living in it no differently.
And, where we have focused on minor issues, argued among ourselves, participated in power struggles, missed the major issues, and failed to live out the story of Jesus individually and collectively… We have quite simply lost our influence and ability to deliver a life changing perspective.
In some ways, we have lost our place at the table while we have celebrated the irrelevant.
In the midst of and as we moved out of the immediate heartache and despair of our family tragedy, my faith wavered. I never lost my belief in God, but I certainly began a period of questioning exactly who and what He was. Some of those questions remain and are good reminders of what is real and important.
Personally, I discovered that theological arguments, debates, and discussions matter little to people living on the jagged edge of holding it together or losing it entirely. And, I discovered that more “church members” are in that category of folks than we could possibly imagine. Some of them are quite cognizant of how much they struggle even as they do their best to hide it from themselves and others (the biggest lie told at assembly times? I am ok, doing good, etc.). Many more are just one difficulty away from finding out their faith isn’t as deep as they might have surmised.
What was important to me were simple but deep theological questions with life-altering impact.
• Does God really love me?
• Does God really care?
• Where is God when I needed Him the most?
So what is the answer?
A theological buzzword bandied about these days is missional.
Everything is missional. Missional coffee, missional programs, and on and on it goes. I suspect the validity and intent of what being missional is all about gets lost in the clutter of ecclesiastical systems.
Take a look at these excerpts from Alan Hirsch in Leadership Journal, Fall 2008…
A proper understanding of missional begins with recovering a missionary understanding of God. By his very nature God is a “sent one” who takes the initiative to redeem his creation. This doctrine, known as missio Dei—the sending of God—is causing many to redefine their understanding of the church. Because we are the “sent” people of God, the church is the instrument of God’s mission in the world. As things stand, many people see it the other way around. They believe mission is an instrument of the church; a means by which the church is grown. Although we frequently say “the church has a mission,” according to missional theology a more correct statement would be “the mission has a church.”
Many churches have mission statements or talk about the importance of mission, but where truly missional churches differ is in their posture toward the world. A missional community sees the mission as both its originating impulse and its organizing principle. A missional community is patterned after what God has done in Jesus Christ. In the incarnation God sent his Son. Similarly, to be missional means to be sent into the world; we do not expect people to come to us. This posture differentiates a missional church from an attractional church.
A missional theology is not content with mission being a church-based work. Rather, it applies to the whole life of every believer. Every disciple is to be an agent of the kingdom of God, and every disciple is to carry the mission of God into every sphere of life. We are all missionaries sent into a non-Christian culture.
Being missional is about restoration. Not restoring a church, but restoring a world to God’s ideal. That starts individually and then collectively within our own family and church family. Being missional is about taking responsibility for our own little corner and shinning the light of Jesus there.
I believe churches of every stripe will continue to decline when our focus is on anything else than connecting people to Jesus. That’s the answer for the hurts and despair so many experience. That’s the answer for struggling marriages and faltering families. That’s the answer to a crumbling society and culture that is completely out of tune with God.
Jesus. That’s the answer to decline.
Certainly, I have my favored church systems. I like a more contemporary worship experience. Those things help me connect, if you will. But we could spend an enormous amount of time designing and tweaking our assemblies and still miss folks who are looking for something different.
Somehow we have to help people connect outside the assembly. Using pressure and guilt to build attendance does not facilitate spiritual growth. Restoration and renewal of the heart have to be our focus—and not a one-hour a week assembly time that caters to whomever has the loudest cry for doing things the way they like.
In my case, after our loss and becoming a single parent for a while, Wednesday nights became a curse. It caused me to rethink our purpose in doing whatever we do. If people want to gather on Wednesday nights, then by all means let them gather. By the same token, if this strung out family of four has no family time, no opportunity to just be together, then spiritually, emotionally, and physically, they might best be served by dedicating that evening to just being family.
Outside of the Sunday morning assembly, small groups—with a focus and plenty of dedication—can be great tools in helping people connect to each other and a higher purpose for life.
But, this restoration and change we seek—no matter the tools we use–can only begin when people are sold out to Jesus—and want to make a difference in the lives of others.
As shepherds and ministers, our job is to model the Christian life—to let our light so shine that the world may see Jesus. Let restoration and renewal begin with us.
Don’t be afraid to toss the traditional formats; don’t be afraid to embrace them either. The purpose isn’t how. The purpose is Jesus.
Les Ferguson, Jr.