Over the past few years, I've been to many workshops done by authors, pastors, bishops and consultants on how we can "save" the modern church from its inevitable doom. The workshops all kind of play out the same way. The first thing we hear is that the church is dying, and that the only way to save it is by going out and dragging as many new people into our churches as we can so that all the new people can help pay the bills, run the ministries, and do the church stuff we're all told we have to do. Secondly, we all hear that we have to completely change everything we're doing to accommodate those new people, even if it has nothing to do with those who already attend. What I've learned from these workshops is a series of lessons that I know they didn't intend to teach, but end up being their unspoken assumptions about our existing churches. Here are those unspoken assumptions:
1. Most consultants, pastors and authors believe that unchurched people are more important, exciting and critical to the future of the church than the people who are already attending regularly.
2. They also seem to believe that the modern church is failing because of two main issues; The failure to bring in new people and the pull of culture that our "old, boring" ways of doing church can't relate to.
3. Finally, they seem to think that we as pastors should cast a vision for our churches that are revolutionary, drastic and that completely change the function and existence of our churches.
Unfortunately, many pastors and churches end up buying into these beliefs and do two harmful things that have perhaps accelerated our decline, rather than turned around our churches. First, we've begun only seeing our existing congregations as workers who must use all their energy, resources and time to go get these "better" people, and second, we've begun to think that everything we are as churches today fails to live up to some mythical vision of Christ's church in the world. These are really hard realities to wrestle with.
But what about the people who are coming to worship faithfully every Sunday? What about the people who are already doing incredible ministry in their communities, even in small numbers and small groups? What about the congregants and pastors who are at the bedside of the dying, comforting them and their families in the most critical moments of the their life? By focusing so much on our uncertain future, we've attempted to abandon the vast needs in front of us and the important work we're called to on a daily basis so that we can focus on attracting others to our location.
Should the church grow? Yes. Should the church be going out and sharing the gospel with others? Yes. Should pastors be more focused, more effective, and able to motivate people? Yes. Should our congregations become more devoted, more educated, more interested in caring for their communities than they probably have been? Yes. Should our worship experiences adapt to changes in culture that invite the needs of and draw more people? Yes. I can't disagree with any of these realities.
But what I think we often miss is that the church we have right now is the church that God has called into existence in this moment. The church that gathers on Sunday, no matter how big, or how small, can grow within itself through deeper study, more profound worship, more powerful prayer, more committed missions, and more faithful stewardship. A better future for our churches may not be about going out to get "better" people but probably should begin by making "better" people out of those who already attend. We, who are part of the body, need to make sure that we are growing as witnesses to Christ's light. Because if we do not show the ability to become transformed as Christ's church, what will ever attract those on the outside to want to go on this journey with us?
So while I am worried about creating a vision and future for this church, and while I do want everyone in this community to come to know Jesus as their Lord and Savior, I can't help but worry about and pray that this current church, this current body who gathers each week, will feel the power of the Holy Spirit in their lives, calling them to feel enriched by God, loved by Jesus, and called by the Spirit to a deeper level of discipleship than we currently experience.
I want to encourage us over the next year to imagine what that might look like. What might it look like for everyone to participate in our monthly Bible readings? What might happen if everyone prayed more regularly? What would happen if everyone became a little more committed to regular worship attendance, gave a little more to the mission of the church, gathered more often in fellowship and study? What would happen if we spent more time each day thanking and praising God while reminding ourselves of the gift of grace we've been given? How much different would this community become? How much more impact would we have on our neighbors if we all started living a slightly more authentic life? Growth needs to happen, but let it begin with us, as we seek to become who Christ is calling us to. Who wouldn't want to be a part of that, if we truly became that light to the world?