Who Are We?

Thanks to Doni for sharing this recent article on congregations and how they deal with the ongoing downwards trends in terms of regular membership and the often unstated but dominant issue of reduced financial resources.

As the pastor of now a second congregation in this situation, it’s an issue that’s keenly on my heart.  I know I’m not alone in this, either.  It’s an issue that affects a majority of congregations across all of the traditional, mainline denominations.  Conventional wisdom says it’s much harder to revive a congregation that has significantly fallen in number of members and resources than to start a new congregation from scratch.  Yet this is what I am tasked with doing in some manner, and what many other pastors knowingly or unknowingly are called upon to do.
Some clarifications first.  As I’ve mused in earlier posts, the job of a congregation is not to ensure it’s sustainability or legacy to future generations.  The first and most critical role of a congregation is to share the Gospel.  I believe a great majority of dying congregations do this.  The problem is not in sharing the Gospel necessarily, but in constantly sharing it with new and different people rather than preaching to the proverbial choir.  My job as a pastor and a theologian is not to fill the pews and ensure we meet our annual budget.  Too many pastors get sucked into this as being their main purpose.  Too many congregations expect this of their pastors – particularly new pastors.  My job is not to fill the pews – my job is to preach the Gospel, administer the Sacraments, and equip my parishioners to be sharing and living the Gospel out in their lives in the world, where all those people are who haven’t heard the Gospel or have walked away from church for one reason or another.  
I tend to think that this task would remain clearer and in it’s proper position as first priority for a congregation if there weren’t all of the blessings of a building and campus to maintain.  While these things can be important and necessary for a congregation that is just starting out and growing, they quickly eclipse the main mission.  Once established, a congregation is easily drawn into self-focus and self-satisfaction.  Sharing the Gospel to those outside the church seems to lose emphasis.  Perhaps this is a frightening indication that sharing the Gospel is often a means to an end – even before the building or purchase of a physical plant.  Maybe it’s just as much a means to an end in the early part of ministry – the end of getting a property, rather than the later end of keeping the property.
So I come to an article like this one and what leaps out to me is that the main focus appears to be on hanging on to the place.  To do this, any number of concessions are made.  Buildings are effectively repurposed into multi-purpose community spaces because they’re no longer needed throughout the week for the work of the church.  Partnerships are formed – ostensibly for the sharing of the Gospel, but effectively to continue to make ends meet.  I don’t hear about congregations that are reaching out to community groups with the purpose of sharing the Gospel – but rather they’re reaching out to be good neighbors.  And while being good neighbors is a critical part of sharing the Gospel, I think it’s dangerous to leave it at that.  It’s too easy to form a relationship, invite a group in to share the facility, and then never continue on to the step of sharing the Gospel.  The partnership is seen as enough.  It’s somehow an indicator that the congregation is being a “good neighbor”.  I wonder what this really means, both to those in the congregation as well as the community around them.  
The early quote from the member of a small congregation about how they know who they are, essentially, is critical.  But what is the identity that you’ve settled on?  Is it the identity as a small congregation who isn’t interested or able to really reach out into the community with the Gospel?  Is it an identity of a more or less self-sufficient few who are happy to make accommodations in terms of who uses their space, just so long as they can continue on worshiping in the location and style they’re accustomed to?  Are these proper identities, Biblically speaking?  Would St. Paul commend this group for their faithfulness, or challenge them to reconsider their identity?  Would it have been appropriate for Jesus to settle on the identity of his followers as a small group of 12 or 100 people, and not worry about sharing the message with a further audience?  I’m pretty sure a Biblical Christian would quickly answer No to this question.  So why would a congregation of Biblical Christians, a part of the body of Christ, settle for this sort of answer? 
Of course, there are worse answers to the problem of shrinking numbers and dollars.  The quoted Rev. Winslea models this further in the article.  The answer is inclusiveness, according to Rev. Winslea.  Why be so closed-minded as to limit our considerations of truth to just the Bible?  Why not include the Qu’ran?  Why not include “Buddhist texts”?  The first answer that comes to my mind would be that they directly contradict the Biblical witness.  In which case, you have to be dishonest in your use of either the Biblical text or these other texts – you have to pick and choose what you choose to use, because you can’t use all of it without explicitly denying all of the other texts you want to include.  It’s naive and foolish at the very best, and dishonest at the very worst.  I can find a lot of books that say nice things that sound as though they agree with what the Bible says.  But there are no other sacred texts that in their entirety, understood as they would like to be understood, support the Biblical witness entirely.  Once again the drive to be seen as inclusive and open-minded really only results in the evisceration of what you claim to believe, what you claim to exist for.  This is inevitable when your goal is primarily “increasing foot traffic” as opposed to responding joyfully to the mind-blowing goodness of God in Jesus Christ.  
We were blessed to be with Imago Dei on the last Sunday that they worshiped in their space in Franklin High School, before they swapped places with PDX4.  The pastor preached a powerful message on remembering the goodness of God and carrying that forward into their unanticipated and undeserved blessing of a new, more centralized space.  I think the solution worked out by these two congregations is one very reasonable way of dealing with a campus that is too big for your congregation any more.  I think it demonstrates a good sense of what it means to be part of the Church universal, rather than an isolated and self-reliant congregation.  I’ve been struck recently by what seems to be a lack of larger, strategic thinking of this kind within Christian circles.  I suspect this is an important deficiency that hopefully is going to be more and more addressed.
The solution of Redeemer Lutheran Church sounds promising as well.  I’ve been acquainted with various forms of ‘listening projects’ wherein a congregation learns to hear what the people in the surrounding neighborhood are dealing with.  The congregation then has an opportunity to decide how they respond to these needs.  While there’s a danger of replacing the Gospel with social Gospel, and the goal of salvation with the goal of better standards of living, these issues are not of necessity mutually incompatible.  If the early Christian church could sell belongings and give to those who had need, that’s a good indication that we ought to consider doing that as Christians today.  Perhaps even selling our buildings themselves, if by doing so we were better able to share the Gospel.  That would seem to me to be a pretty powerful witness to a community.
There’s so much to think about.  My wife and I ruminate on this often – most recently over breakfast tea today.  There is no single silver-bullet answer.  We are blessed and challenged as congregations in unique geographical and cultural settings to get to struggle with how best to share the Gospel, how best to witness Christian love to the least lovable, including those who are quite blunt about wishing we were dead as a faith.  Dialog seems so crucial, yet so elusive.  Letting go of the past is so painful to people for so many different reasons, as though the past could be erased with a building disappearing or a congregation changing locations.  The work of the Holy Spirit transcends all of these things.  When we can finally celebrate for eternity, I think we’ll be a lot happier about the additional people at the party than we will be saddened by the difficult sacrifices and choices that were necessary to help get them there.  

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