Have you heard any of these thoughts expressed? “We’re doing fine. We’re just going through a rough spot.” “God has brought us this far, He will not abandon us now.” “We can hang in there, we have hundreds of thousands (millions) in the bank.” “Once this pandemic is over…” “That was a wonderful sermon…we are loving people…I don’t know why more aren’t here.”

Is there some truth to the above statements? Sure. As another saying goes, where there is life, there is hope. Yet, with the above statements, there is something missing. There is something that we are not seeing. And it points to a flawed way of thinking.

When it comes to church and ministry, we inevitably approach it with certain assumptions that bring structure and organization to our activities. One such assumption is that ministry happens in groups and focussing on a crowd is the most efficient way to do ministry. Consider these examples: We think of evangelism and automatically think new worship service, and what will attract new people. We think of fellowship by trying to think of a venue or activity and even the food menu that will appeal to the most people. We think of discipleship by thinking of the Bible study that will be of interest to the largest cross-section of the congregation. For a community service activity we immediately think of a date and time when most people can be off work or join in the effort. Let’s face it, we are biased into thinking “crowd” and “group” when we think of doing most anything in ministry. It makes sense, right? Feed all of the people at one time like a herd coming to the feed trough. Enough for anyone who wants it. It’s efficient. We are a group of people after all. But does that work?

In the Bible, we see a great crowd in the book of Acts on the day of Pentecost. Jesus spoke to the crowds who wanted to see the miracle worker. Yet elsewhere we witness stories with individuals or very small groups. That seems to have been lost on us. Perhaps the crowd mentality crept in and took over in the American church post-WWII. The war was over and the baby boom was on. We think of the great crusades of Billy Graham and others. But is crowd strategy still viable? One thing is for sure. The pandemic has stopped gatherings cold. But the truth be told, this approach to ministry has long since become an ever weaker strategy. Even pre-pandemic, the numbers have been dwindling and the crowds we have drawn have likely been pretty underwhelming. No matter the activity. The pandemic just made the inability to gather impossible to ignore.

Yet we try. Our brains think ahead and attempt to plan as if we can gather again and it will be successful. But just like before, if something doesn’t meet our hopes or expectations  we wonder if we should have ordered pizza or used PowerPoint or video or had more comfortable chairs. But this thinking is way off course. People are not coming (or tuning in digitally) because not only are they not interested, they aren’t even thinking in the direction of church. It’s just not on their radar. In fact, for many, they don’t want it to be.

But this is a hard thing. Our brains are wired to plan and strategize with groups and gatherings. And if we dare imagine that’s a flawed strategy then depression and anxiety are sure to follow because we have no clue what to do instead!

So what do we do?

1 Think Relationships: Relationships that model love and serve customized spiritual nourishment

Even pre-pandemic, by far the most effective way to engage people in the name of Jesus was through personal relationships. It’s easy to put on a program, an event, or even a worship service. But a relationship is a lot of work. It requires time, patience, working through misunderstandings and miscommunications and the messiness of life from one side or both. It will elicit laughter but also tears. It will bring joy but also pain. That’s an investment and a commitment. Unfortunately, in our selfish world, even as Christians, that price tag is a bit too high for many of us to pay. We’ve got other things to do rather than invest hours and weeks and months and years in someone’s life. Can’t we just get that worship service and sermon right? (It’s easy to scapegoat the pastor, isn’t it?)

2. Be intentional about your own relationships with Jesus

There’s plenty of excuses. We’re satisfied with where we are. We don’t have the time for spiritual disciplines. We don’t want to become a Bible thumper (whatever that is). We’ve never had someone invest in us so we’re not sure where to start. We would be embarrassed with our family, friends and co-workers if we somehow got more serious about our faith.

Are you finished? Now is the time to take Jesus seriously and grow closer to Him. Talk to Him in prayer. Share your misgivings and reluctance and ask for help. Ask God for and seek out a more mature and faithful Christian who can disciple you, or said another way, debrief life with you through the lens of God’s Word. Seek someone who will pray for you and ask you the hard questions and be your greatest cheerleader. There are people out there like that. Ask and God will show them to you. 

3. Intentionally invest deeply in a few others and help them grow toward Jesus.

A first problem here is that we may not have a lot of people we know who are far from Jesus. But ask God to reveal them to you here too. Notice the invisible people who need love. What also makes this more difficult is that we feel an utter inability to witness and disciple another person one on one. It’s not how we lived as Christians. We may even want to scapegoat this to the pastor. No. The pastor is to equip you to do the work of ministry (Eph 4). 

It begins with a caring relationship with another who may be far from Jesus. It is a relationship where you share the deep concerns of life and also share how Jesus makes a difference for you (See part 2). This can turn into intentional conversations. Those can turn into sharing prayer requests and reporting what God has done. It may be meeting to discuss what you have both agreed to read in the Bible. In this type of meeting, you don’t teach as much as you both share about what you are learning. It may include at the right time inviting another into your circle or including them in your church family activity. Then God willing a baptism and profession of faith. It will require a lot of you. It may take years! This is not microwave Christianity! But people are worth it because Jesus died for them too.

Of course, this kind of growing disciples is very different from your “group” experience of just attending faithful worship and Sunday school. So this personal discipling process is not what you experienced or know. It’s no wonder then that we have nothing to draw upon except the program or group activities with which we are familiar. Well, it’s time to think differently. Society has changed. They’re not coming, are they? So it’s past time to focus on relationships and out of your own relationship with Jesus, seek out one person at a time, over time, and lead them closer to Jesus as you also grow closer to Jesus.

Scott specializes in leadership coaching, consulting, coach and leadership training. He is called by Lutheran Counseling Services and partners with the FL-GA District of the Lutheran Church and others as an independent contractor. Listen to The Coaching Leader podcast and contact Scott to continue the conversation or experience a free sample coaching session. scottgress@me.com or scottgress.com. Check out his YouTube channel and new online Church Leadership Training at scottgress.teachable.com


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