By Judy Zabel
He is risen! He is risen indeed! These words ring in our ears. How powerful they are when we think about what this really means. Jesus is risen! Though the Easter eggs are almost gone and the crowds have gone home, we are still resurrection people. As the song writer Avery Marsh once wrote, “Every morning is Easter morning from now on.” Do you believe it? Do you live it? I don’t know about you but I cling to this promise and truth whenever I am discouraged and tempted to give up hope. I hope you do too. We say we are resurrection people but are we ready to live like it’s true?
I recently read some tips on how to grow healthy, fruitful churches by Paul Nixon. He is a prolific author and coach. He always inspires me because his hope for the church never flags. He believes, as I do, that God is still moving through the church to invite people to new, resurrection life. He believes that churches have to organize themselves to be more effective in proclaiming and living the good news of resurrection in real time and in real communities. He offers these tips:
1. Create clear priorities. They are careful about investing their resources of time, talent and money in a biblical vision and mission. They align everything to these priorities. They don’t waste resources on continuing programs that are not bearing fruit. They don’t waste precious volunteer time on things that aren’t connected to their God-given vision and mission. They are not afraid to invest in the mission and vision because they believe in it and are energized by it.
2. Connect people to the mission and keep their eye on reaching the mission field. Our mission is not survival. Just as Jesus gave his life for us, we are called to give our lives for others. It has never been our mission to maintain our buildings. Our buildings are a tool for mission, they are not the mission. It has never been our mission is to keep everyone comfortable and happy. If this is our primary discussion at our Council meetings, we have lost sight of our God-given mission. Our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Our vision is to make Christ known in the world, to cultivate spiritual vitality, reach new people and heal a broken world. Our mission is not just words on a bulletin. Our mission is our purpose for existing and every decision we make should move our mission forward. If we are looking backwards to the good old days, we are probably not on mission. What business are we really in? Keep asking yourself this question whenever your eyes are turning inward. Your mission field is all around you and especially outside your walls.
3. Allow the Holy Spirit to move people beyond their fears. Too often we give into fear. Fears are normal. Change is hard. But we can give into fear or move through our fear to something greater. We fear that we won’t have enough money, time, energy and so we hesitate to try new things. Downsizing is ok if it helps you focus your ministry and give your best to what is most important. Downsizing is not ok if we are merely amputating to keep the body alive. Remember this: we can’t out-give God. Dream big and fully on God to get you there.
4. Encourage people to be persistent in the midst of God-sized change initiatives. God is always leading us to change for the sake of the gospel. Why? Because we live in a changing world. We MUST change in order to be effective. Change is hard. People resist change and many people think that the church should hold on and resist change because we offer a refuge from change in a fast paced world. How is that working for us? We are in danger of losing this generation. They are not buying our faithfulness to sameness. In our efforts to “not change very much because we owe it to the people who built this church to …” we are losing the grandchildren and great grandchildren. Friends, God has big plans for the church. BIG plans. Plans for a future. BIG like the resurrection! Let’s be courageous in persisting through the fear, the doubt and the uncomfortable comments that we hear. Let’s persist and let’s engage in some God-sized initiatives for the sake of the gospel and our children and grandchildren.
5. Model spiritual vitality. Does your leadership consistently model specific, significant, and bold spiritual practices? We say that we seek God’s guidance and strength but do our leaders pray fervently? Do we fast? Do we attend to the means of grace? Do we study and ponder the scriptures? When was the last time you offered a significantly challenging and robust Bible study in your church and encouraged your leadership team to engage in it long term for their own spiritual growth and vitality AND for the vitality of the church? Think we need to get to the “business of our meetings” rather than spending time in scripture and prayer? Spiritual vitality IS our business.
6. Get energized and jazzed by the people in your community. Most churches know the stats for their neighborhoods. They can tell me about how many young people are in or not in the neighborhood. They can tell me the percentage of people of color but they often don’t really know their neighbors. What would it look like if our churches were primarily concerned with blessing our neighbors instead of looking for ways for them to come to our church to help us pay the bills and boost our attendance? Some churches wait for people to come to them and then they really pour on the hospitality. Some even call it radical hospitality and yet they still decline. What if we went out and walked our neighborhoods and prayed for the people in those houses. What if we walked down to the bus stop and loved those kids waiting there? What if we took the time to help neighbors rake their lawns even if they aren’t members of our church?
7. Focus on improving how staff and key leaders team together to advance the church’s ministry. When a motor boat moves through the water at high speed, there is a wake. John Laster, church consultant with Horizons, says that high performing staff will always leave a wake of excitement and volunteers behind them. They will be leading effectively if they are creating systems of volunteers and lay leaders who will build capacity in the ministry. If you have staff that have the same number of volunteers year after year or dwindling volunteers and excitement, the church MUST look at this. Ask yourself this: If we were hiring for this position today, knowing what we now know about this staff person, would we hire him/her today? If the answer is “no” then it is time to make a change.
8. Make needed tough decisions even though it might upset some people. This is really hard but critical for the health of the church and our mission. If you are making mission based decisions, God will help you through the muck that comes with hard, painful decisions. Churches that close can usually look back to a time when their church was inspiring, growing and healthy. If you ask them what changed, it usually comes down to leadership—both lay and clergy. When leaders lose sight of the real cost of doing nothing or merely tweaking around the edges, which is usually a sign of church paralysis, they die. Some die fast and some die slow but they always die unless leaders decide to take courage and make tough decisions that will start a new life cycle once again. Transformation is never easy. Resurrection doesn’t occur without something dying. Are we willing to die to our preferences and comfort so that God can transform lives?
These tips from Paul Nixon have reminded me how important our work is. God can do far more than we can ask for or imagine. Are we ready for resurrection?
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church