You have made the choice to do your homework and really seek to understand what has happened to your church. You have chosen to share your new awareness with the pastor, church leaders, elders or any number of people. There is the sad realization growing that there needs to be something done about the loss of people in the pews. But the truth is that it is not just about the people in the pews. The mission of the church is not to fill pews. The mission of God for the church is to make disciples. The problem is that people are becoming less engaged in that mission.
Why is that? Truthfully it could be one of a number of things or a combination:
First, when people are less connected to the Word and sacrament and less connected to one another they inevitably are less connected to Jesus. They are not following Him. Their “discipleness” is waning. That could be a problem. Evidence of this epidemic is found in research identifying that those who used to say they believed in God and were non-practicing are now checking the box listed as “none.” If you are not nurtured in the means of grace, your faith will fade or worse. That societal reality combined with what has happened in your church often ads up to a discouraging situation.
Secondly, no church begins with the plan to slowly die. Yet that often happens. The enthusiasm is high at its beginning and people join. There is lots of energy around what is happening, people invite their friends and there is a zealousness for sharing the gospel and following Jesus. Then over time satisfaction sets in and other priorities take over. The church begins to experience “mission drift.” The main thing fails to remain the main thing. Perhaps the church slips into being more of a social club. People begin to be concerned about what they want instead of what God wants or what would be most helpful for God’s mission. Paul sacrificed his desires, wants, comforts and preferences so that some might be saved (1 Cor 9:19-23) but we want what we want when we want it. Now years later churches find ourselves in a decline.
Thirdly, There may be a “circle the wagons” mentality. Things are weakening, we don’t have the money or people like we did before. The ages are getting older. So we can’t do that, we ought not do this, we can’t afford that, we can’t get anyone to lead that. Related to that syndrome is a an aversion to risk. With fewer people and resources there is less resilience to failure than there used to be. People are more critical. Emotions get frayed. People wear out and drift away from discouragement or just play weariness fighting to make a contribution. It’s too much work.
Fourthly, we haven’t even mentioned personal or church wide crises. Families experience challenges that break them up and it is the same in the church. Yet rather than find comfort in God’s Word and promises our sinful nature points fingers and blames. That also takes our eyes off the ball of God’s mission.
So after repentance and a return to God’s Word and worship, what can those who remain in a weakened church actually do? In a world that wants silver bullets the best I can offer is that no matter which one or combination of the above is at play, the strategy is to shift the existing culture from an internal focus to an external focus.
Sound difficult? Sound too simplistic? Sound counterintuitive? Maybe. Yet often the best way to care for self is to care for others. The best way to meet your needs is to meet the needs of others. The best way to feel good about yourself is to (in the name of the Lord) do good to others. This isn’t the time to sit in meetings arguing about what to do or how to do it and insist on a voter’s meeting for approval. You will waste so much time and energy and likely nothing productive will happen.
So start with a few and start small. Like the proverbial snowball going downhill it will gain momentum and build until it takes over the whole church and by God’s grace their personality will be known to be what God wants it to be: loving, caring, selfless, authentic, genuine, humble or as Jesus says, “salt and light.”
Start small doing what? Something new. Something positive and selfless and loving. Baking cookies for the fire department, sending thank you cards to the teachers at the school across the street, a few helping to start a blessings in a backpack program. Something new. Celebrate and share the story in church. Keep it going. Ask for help and thank them when they do. Make it an event. Then…then do your homework to be even more intentional with externally focussed ministry. But that is for another blog.
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Scott Gress is called by Lutheran Counseling Services and partners with the FL-GA District of the Lutheran Church as an independent contractor. He specializes in Leadership Training, Consulting, Coaching and Coach Training. Contact Scott to continue the conversation or experience a free sample coaching session. 561-542-4472, firstname.lastname@example.org or scottgress.com