I have been on the road, in conversation and consultation with churches. In my work, I am learning that there are three key pillars to healthy, vital churches. Sure, there are lots of things to be tended to and many issues, but at the foundation, I keep coming back to these three: clarity of vision and purpose, worship that connects and is inspirational, and a signature community outreach that the church is well known for in the community.
Many churches that I am engaged with have grown smaller and older. Finances are a challenge. Getting people to do the tasks to keep the church doors open is harder and harder. And the frequent lament is, “Why won’t people give, serve, attend . . . [fill in the blank].” Sure, there are lots of reasons why they won’t anymore that have to do with our changing world and the pressures of time. But I am not sure that is the best question. A better question might be, “Why would they?”
The biggest cultural shift that I have seen is the fact that we live in a culture of choices. We don’t have to like it. We don’t have to agree with it. But we do need to accept that this is our reality. Being a disciple of Jesus Christ and being a member of a church are no longer cultural norms, and we can’t expect the culture to do our work for us. People feel no sense of obligation to participate in a church, and if they do want to be a follower of Jesus Christ, then there are lots of options to choose from.
So that forces us to make the value proposition to people about why following Jesus matters and why being part of a church community is life giving and why a particular church is a community worth choosing. People will give their whole life to something they believe really matters. People will make time for what they perceive as important. People will give sacrificially when they see that can make a difference—make the world a better place. The question I have is: Do we have a compelling vision of what we are about and what we are offering to others that inspires, engages, motivates, and mobilizes people?
I am reading The Healthy Small Church by Dennis Bickers (Beacon Hill Press, 2005). In his chapter on mission-minded churches, he states that there are two hard questions that churches must answer and answer well. The first is, “Who are we here for?” Or another way to put it: “Why does God want this church in this community?” When a church has been in existence a long time, it can drift towards making choices that say it is there to serve itself. Bickers notes that a church that decides it is there to be in mission with God will reflect that answer in its budget, its planning, its staffing, its programs, its worship services, and the decisions made in its business sessions. In my experience, when churches get anxious about their future, they start asking of potential new members “What can you do for us?” instead of “What can we do for you?”
Who are we here for? What are we here to do? Keep our doors open or offer Christ? Bill Easum, a noted church consultant, has remarked, “I really doubt if God cares much whether our meager institutions survive, but I do know that God cares about Christians being light, leaven, and salt to the world.” Interestingly enough, when we get focused on being light, leaven, and salt for our community . . . when we have a vision of the difference we want to make and can make, people are interested and willing to join our mission. The church thrives and the community is blessed and God rejoices.
Next month: The other hard question Bickers says congregations need to answer.
Cindy Gregorson is director of ministries for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church