There is much conversation in my church right now about whether we are a declining church body and whether or not we will survive this decline. So, purveyors of statistics tell us that we are in for a long slow, steady dip before we hit rock bottom and recover. Not exactly the message you want to hear if you are a believer faithfully caring out the work Christ left the church to do. Here’s the thing, the numbers are the numbers, right? We have to trust the numbers, the numbers wouldn’t lie, right? Na, Na I say the numbers are lying. Here is what we know about the church. Chuck Colson summarized it nicely in his book, The Body, 1992, Word Publishing, p. 70.
“Yet membership in a confessing body is fundamental to the faithful Christian life. Failure to do so defies the explicit warning not to forsake “our assembling together.” His understanding of this prompted Martin Luther to say, “Apart from the church, salvation is impossible.” Not that the church provides salvation; God does. But because the “saved” one can’t fulfill what it means to be a Christian apart from the church, membership becomes the indispensable mark of salvation.
“So highly does the Lord esteem the communion of His church,” Calvin wrote,” that He considers everyone a traitor and apostate from religion who perversely withdraws himself from any Christian society which preserves the true ministry of the word and sacraments.””
If we measure the success of the gospel by church attendance and dollars in the offering plate, then we have to also admit that the life-saving message of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins is not working. That is what the numbers say, right? No matter how faithfully you preach and teach the gospel and administer the Lord’s Supper and baptize, it won’t change the numbers. We continue to see a steady decline in the numbers of people coming to church and supporting the work of the church. What we don’t want to deal with is that if we believe the numbers, our work is ineffective. The gospel has lost its power. Stop and think about that for a moment. Is that what is deflating morale in our churches? We see the numbers, and our answer to stop the decline is to do what God called us to do, and it is not working. The numbers do not define the power of the gospel. Attendance is not a reflection on God’s word. The lower offering numbers do not mean we have no mission left to accomplish. It’s lies all lies. God made us a promise, and God keeps his promises. In Isaiah 55,
10 Just as the rain and the snow come down from the sky
and don’t return there without watering the earth,
making it conceive and yield plants
and providing seed to the sower and food to the eater,
11 so is my word that comes from my mouth;
it does not return to me empty.
Instead, it does what I want,
and accomplishes what I intend.
The numbers do not define us, they serve as useful data. But God’s mission is still needed. If anything, the numbers prove that God’s mission is needed more than ever. The church is facing stiff competition for the heart of culture. This writer captures the challenge well by comparing the church to sports.
“Football in the fall. Basketball in the winter. Baseball in the spring and summer. This pastor has been an avid sports fan all his life. But I’ve had it! I quit this sports business once and for all. You can’t get me near one of those places again. Want to know why…
Every time I went, they asked me for money.
The people with whom I had to sit didn’t seem very friendly.
The seats were too hard and not at all comfortable.
I went to many games, but the coach never came to call on me.
The referee made a decision with which I could not agree.
I suspected that I was sitting with some hypocrites — they came to
see their friends and what others were wearing rather than to see the game.
Some games went into overtime, and I was late getting home.
The band played some numbers that I had never heard before.
It seems that the games are scheduled when I want to do other things.
I was taken to too many games by my parents when I was growing up.
I don’t want to take my children to any games because I want
them to choose for themselves what sport they like best.”- Author Unknown, At Calvary, Covington, KY.
One of the most hurtful things the idea of church attendance has planted in the America Christian psyche is that “if you are not growing as a church you are a failure as a pastor and congregation.” So, we play the comparison game with our younger self. So, how were we doing 10 years ago today? Imagine doing that in your life now. Compare your fifty-year-old body to the body you had in your twenties, how is that comparison going to turn out? And we judge our shepherds on the number of new converts. And our church body on the number of new churches planted.
If you want to stop that madness, then we need to find new ways to gauge the congregational health and denominational health. By putting the health report numbers of attendance and weekly offerings in the Sunday bulletin, we are asking those reading it to judge our success based on those measurements. And we are buying into a false narrative about the effectiveness of the Word of God. When the church continues to miss the mark of the weekly recording of those numbers it only serves to further demoralize the membership and even an entire church body. So, if you don’t want to be judged by those figures and feel like you are losing the battle, start tracking other things. Not to mention the numbers are Holy Spirit driven numbers, and we can’t control His work anyway.
Instead, track numbers that help hold your church accountable for those things that the church in Acts was measuring: people studying God’s word, the number of individuals engaged in living life together in community, the number of people helped with the offerings of God’s people, the number of prayer gatherings and the number of answered prayers. Imagine measuring in church what God is doing among his people vs. the number of individuals coming on one day a week? Isn’t faith a 24/7 thing not just one hour on Sunday?
Discussion questions for your leadership:
What are the things we want to measure?
What steps do we need to take to accomplish this shift in our culture?
More on Metrics:
In my work with congregations, besides stewardship programs and evangelism causing a rip in the congregational space and time continuum, talk of vision and vision planning also creates havoc. With stewardship, the issues are guilt and often a struggle with trusting God to provide. In evangelism, we feel inadequate. Believers do not feel equipped to talk about their faith with any level of confidence. Vision is problematic because it feels too corporate America. Fortune 500 companies have visions, goals, and strategies. Churches are faith-based. We trust in the divine direction of God. Planning is taboo. Goals are ungodly. Measuring outcomes seems to reduce people to products, right? Vision is often misunderstood. Vision was God’s term first. Let me explain what vision is from a biblical, Christian worldview and explain its role in the life of the church.
A Biblical View of Vision
There is a place for vision in the church because vision comes from God.
2 And the Lord answered me:
“Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets,
so he may run who reads it.
3 For still the vision awaits its appointed time;
it hastens to the end—it will not lie.
If it seems slow, wait for it;
it will surely come; it will not delay.
4 “Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him,
but the righteous shall live by his faith.” Habakkuk 2:2-4
We act as though comfort and luxury were the chief requirements of life when all that we need to make us happy is something to be enthusiastic about. – Charles Kingsley, Bits & Pieces, December 9, 1993, p. 16.
Vision is often misunderstood. How do you define the concept? Vision is characterized by a ministry focus geared to share the gospel with those souls who are outside God’s grace. I love this more in-depth explanation. “What is a vision? Where do they come from? Visions are born in the soul of a man or woman who is consumed with the tension between what is and what could be. Anyone who is emotionally involved – frustrated, brokenhearted, maybe even angry – about the way things are in light of the way they believe things could be, is a candidate for a vision. Visions form in the hearts of those who are dissatisfied with the status quo. Vision carries with it a sense of conviction. Anyone with a vision will tell you this is not merely something that could be done. This is something that should be done.” (From Visioneering) When vision is the driving force in the ministry front, it can create energy and deeper engagement from members.
Why Does Vision Matter?
“But the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for the many act out their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible…”– T.E. Lawrence.
When our vision is from God, it reflects God’s passionate love for people. It aligns our hearts with the heart of God and refreshes our desire to reach the community in which God has placed us. It is compelling and motivates us to action. Things get done because the vision is integrated into the life of the congregation. It becomes the driving force in all decisions. We will take all of our resources of money, people, time, and talents and focus on this one thing God would have us do. Leaders and laity have a clear picture of what role they can play in carrying out God’s mission. This becomes the first item discussed at the council meeting or voter’s meeting even before we get to the news about the finances. The vision becomes the thing that must be done!
Christ Church, Anywhere, USA needed to discover God’s vision to give energy to a congregation that had become stagnant and aimless. Maybe you can relate to their situation. Perhaps you are looking for answers. It is possible you see around you, and you see the writing on the wall. Like a line in my favorite Christmas novel by Charles Dickens, “I see a vacant seat,” replied the Ghost, “in the poor chimney-corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die.” So many congregations see the grisly reminder every Sunday of the fate that awaits if the images remain unchanged with continued dwindling attendance, shrinking income, and eventual death.
So, what do you need to do? You need to start by asking the right questions. Do you have a good vision statement that points you to your reason for existence? Who are the people God has called you to connect with in your community? Once you figure out if your vision statement is pointing toward those outside your walls is this vision from God?
These are the fundamental questions a compelling and inspiring vision statement will answer:
• What are the results you see when this vision is accomplished?
• Who in the community is being impacted by this vision?
• How are you developing a discipleship culture? That is a culture of equipping the saints, multiplying and sending the followers of Christ into the mission field.
• How are the members living out the vision and what impact does it have on them and the community we are called to serve?
The power of a “God-sized” vision is that it gives energy and direction to the church. It unites and inspires people around God’s plan. As we hear from the wisdom of Solomon, “Where there is no prophetic vision the people perish,” Proverbs 29:18. If you need help with that process, there are many options. Lutheran Church Extension Fund has a method called VisionPath. I have also led congregations through a process. No matter what path you take, vision can energize a group that is just going through the motions. If you want to talk more, let me know, and I can point you in the right direction.
I love to study movements and I have run across one that really intrigues me. It is a vision that has the goal of sending believers into neighborhoods to live, breath and eventually reach, with the gospel of Jesus Christ, their unconnected neighbors. You might think this is revolutionary if you have not been aware of a movement started nearly seven years ago. As I was when I attended a convention on Church planting, Exponential. This idea was at first soundly rejected, before becoming the featured topic two years later. The movement is a shift from Sunday morning worship being the gathering event to a celebration of what God is doing in the life of the believer and a time to receive the gifts of salvation.
It is a good idea before we go any deeper to define missional community. There are many definitions out there because missional communities take on a life and direction of their own. These communities are diverse and shaped by the direction and passion of their leaders. All that being said, here is a definition that resonates with my heart.
“A missional community is a way to organize the church to gather and send groups of people on a common mission (i.e. to engage artists in the city, renew your neighborhood, or help the homeless downtown). Simply put missional communities are a group of people who are learning to follow Jesus together in a way that renews their city, town, village, hamlet, or other space.” -from “Called Together” by Jonathan Dobson & Brad Watson
I can hear some of my pastor friends yelling at their computers now as they read this quote. That is what the church is already doing! My pushback is yes, some churches do that quite effectively, many do not. We are exceptional and well equipped at gathering people together. Stop, and reflect with me. Is it just us? How effective are we at sending? Every Monday morning when I considered quitting the ministry, it was based on the fact we have a good gathering event. Although since we are being honest and transparent here, those gatherings got less and smaller each year. What caused me to want to quit every Monday were the internal burning questions: “Why I am doing this? What difference am I actually making for the kingdom? Are we changing hearts or just going through the motions? Will anyone leave this gathering today and make a difference in the world?” Those were my internal struggles and yes, I know this wasn’t my doing, it is all the work of the Holy Spirit, but how was I, the one called to shepherd and equip this flock doing with the sending part?
The words of Luke 4 haunted me, Luke 4:18-19
18 The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed,
19 and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (CEB)
How do we send our missionary people out to reach those people Jesus connected with, daily? Being an urban pastor, those people were outside the walls of my gathering. We literally had to step over them to get to our fancy new cars to go home. As a sent people we are called to reach out to the poor, to clothe the naked, to speak good news to the marginalized, and set the oppressed free. Missional communities are just one method to send the gathered out on mission. I will spend the next several weeks showing you how to develop leaders for this movement and how to use this as a tool to model what the early church did in a pre-Christian world.
Other posts on missional communities:
People often asked me, “why did you become a pastor?” The answer is simple. I felt called to preach the gospel to people hurting and broken like Tony Nolan. Listen to his inspiring story of transformation.
In this talk-performance hybrid, drummer, percussionist and TED Fellow Kasiva Mutua shares how she’s breaking the taboo against female drummers in Kenya — and her mission to teach the significance and importance of the drum to young boys, women and girls. “Women can be custodians of culture, too,” Mutua says.
We had ten proposed actions for the Board of Directors and the district president to execute, voted on and passed at the Northern Illinois District (NID) Convention. For some of those overtures, where simple bylaws changes, there was not much to see. One created a way to bolster a district ministry, which supports pro-life options. The rest of the proposals were all about maintaining the institution.
I didn’t pay enough attention when I was a parish pastor to my district and the critical decisions we voted on at the convention. Shame on me for that past failure and I apologize to all the missional leaders I let down by my lack of attention. What I saw at our convention was a church suffering from symptoms of anxiety. What anxiety does in your life is leads you to search for certainty. You want to do everything possible to control the environment around you. At our NID convention, we had overtures designed to control a church faced with an uncertain future. George Muller said, “The beginning of anxiety is the end of faith, and the beginning of true faith is the end of anxiety.” To ease our mind, we passed resolutions to preserve control of an idea of what we believe the church should be to make us feel secure. It was all about survival, but my question is, “What are we preserving?” I know many think we are saving the church itself, its rich history and doctrine. Are we really? And If so, who are we going to pass it on to, who will hear our message? As less and less European immigrants come to the country, where is our real mission field?
I get that we want to keep the truth of God’s Word at the heart of our church body, and rightly so, it is the foundation of our faith, but you can’t do that with the law. Traditions alone are not enough. We can’t circle the wagons and wait for the world around us to come back home to the church. The way we pass on the church we so dearly love is by professing that truth to a brand new, outside of God’s grace people group.
I am struck by the words of Jeremiah, “Happy are those who trust in the Lord, who rely on the Lord. They will be like trees planted by the streams, whose roots reach down to the water. They won’t fear drought when it comes; their leaves will remain green. They won’t be stressed in the time of drought or fail to bear fruit.” Jeremiah 17:7-8 (CEB)
Imagine if we put our full energy and the congregational gifts, of time, talent, and treasure into gathering together and figuring out ways to better reach the unconnected in our community. Instead, I fear we are trying to control a declining institution by fear and legal maneuvering in a convention. The institution doesn’t have to decline. There are people outside of our church buildings who have not yet been introduced to the Savior we love. Our gospel is still compelling. Our Savior still holds salvation and forgiveness in His wings. The harvest is even more plentiful.
In the end, I realize the reason I never cared about convention results was I cared more deeply for the mother in my school whose child missed significant amounts of school because mom was addicted again to drugs. I am not implying others don’t, nor is this post meant to condemn anyone. I wish we could work together for the betterment God’s kingdom. Someday, maybe we can all walk away from a church convention feeling, “Wow, God has given us a clear missional direction, let’s go after it.” Instead, after this convention, many left shaking their heads feeling like they were hit by a truck and asking, “what just happened.” I pray we can come together, talk together, seek God’s plan for our church body together and then go after the ones outside of God’s grace TOGETHER! We are so much stronger when we do what God has called us to do…TOGETHER!
Other posts on the church:
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