Once there was a small church with a large sanctuary. About 30 to 40 people attended worship each Sunday, scattered throughout the sanctuary. When I visited this church, I noticed how uncomfortably empty it seemed. It was too large a space for this small group of people. I wanted to rip out the pews, carpet the floor and put in flexible seating so the environment was more conducive to a smaller community. However, knowing how radical a change that would be, I suggested that perhaps, as a first step, they all sit on the same side of the sanctuary in the front half of the space.
It didn’t go over so well. One or two members in particular were not willing to move out of “their spot” and the rest of the church wasn’t willing to push them on it. I recall thinking that this church would never make the changes needed for growth if it couldn’t even accomplish a little thing like getting people to sit in a different pew on Sunday morning.
Kenda Creasy Dean, our speaker at annual conference session in June, challenged us to become a church that would connect to younger generations. She offered a lot of good information. But her reference to the parable of the rich young man has haunted me.
You know the story. A young man comes to Jesus and says, “I keep all the commandments. What else do I need to do to be a part of the kingdom of God?”
Jesus says to him, “Go sell all that you have and then come and follow me.”
The young man, reflecting on all that he had, went away sad.
Dean asked, “What is stopping us as the United Methodist Church to be the kind of church that goes out to meet people wherever they are, that is open to new possibilities, that lives with a deep sense of hope, that is committed and intentional in forming a new generation in the faith?”
And the answer that came to me was: our inability to let go.
I often ask churches that want to reach new people, “Are you willing to let go of your building, your music, your traditions, your personal preferences, the way you do things, if that is what it takes to reach new people? For the sake of the mission, are you willing to leave behind who you have been for who you might become?”
Old ways or new people?
Most churches struggle with this much like the rich young man did. We like a lot of things about our life and community. We have a hard time imagining them radically different. All we feel is the potential loss when posed with this question.
And yet, if we aren’t willing to let go we will be less and less relevant for younger generations. They are interested in a community that offers meaning and hope and makes a difference in the world, but what they often experience in our churches are committee meetings, fundraisers, and fellowship events. They wonder, “What does any of that have to do with God?”
So what are we going to do about that?
I challenge to you to make a fearless and searching inventory of all that you do as a church and ask yourselves, “Why do we do this?” and “Why do we do it this way?” and “Is it helping us reach new people?” If the answer is no, I suggest that it is time to stop or change what you are doing.
Unless of course, we prefer to walk away sad and miss out on participating in the mission of God.
Cindy Gregorson is director of ministries for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church