When I have the opportunity, I like to check out faith communities of other traditions to see what I can learn. Recently, I attended worship at a multi-campus Assembly of God church in my community. This is a church of over 5,000 people and I was one of the oldest people in attendance at that particular worship service. Yes, they had the coffee on as you came in and could take it into the sanctuary, and yes, it was excellent technology and multi-media with a “rock concert”-like band leading worship. But that isn’t what really captured my attention.
It was this: they were excited about being the church. It was apparent in several ways. They showed a thank you video from a youth conference the church sponsored the previous week and told the congregation this was how they were being kingdom builders. You could tell people were proud to have been a part of this. They shared how their pastor was in Egypt extending the mission of this church and this too was how they were kingdom builders. And the people cheered and applauded. They talked about Easter Sunday and urged the congregation to pray about who they could invite to attend with them so the message of Easter could be shared with those who needed to hear it. This church was clear that they believed God was up to something, that they had a message to share, and the world needed what they were offering.
So why was this so striking to me? When I visit our United Methodist churches, I find people who also love their church. But when I probe that story, what I hear is how deeply they love the people and the relationships formed in this congregation—I don’t hear, at least in the same way, this excitement and proud proclamation of what God is doing in and through this congregation and that there is this belief that God is up to something amazing that they get to be a part of. And when stories are told of the difference we are making, there is not a lot of applauding and cheering. It is almost like we take it for granted.
And, let’s face it—there is a lot of handwringing about our declining membership and what to do about it. We see the culture shifting and can’t help but wonder if church and God are all a little bit passé. We start to believe the story that is being written about the demise of mainline denomination and the Christian church in general. And in believing that story, I wonder if it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
DeWitt Jones, a National Geographic photographer, in the film Celebrate What’s Right with the World, states that we see what we believe. Most of us are familiar with the phrase, “I need to see it to believe it.” But Jones argues that what we believe shapes what we see and how we see. Do we believe there is good in the world? Then we will see it. Do we believe there is something to be discovered in this place? Then we will discover it. But if we believe there is nothing here that shapes what we see as well.
What I was reminded of at my visit to the Assembly of God church is that people want to be a part of something big. And when a church believes, really believes, God is up to something in the world, God says “There is a church I can use!” and great things happen. It is contagious. So, church, what story are we willing to let shape us and our future?
Cindy Gregorson is director of ministries for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church