Recently, I had the privilege of talking to a group of church leaders about church revitalization – I will be posting a series based on this workshop in the coming days and weeks… But in the course of preparing for this workshop, I realized the very nature of REvitalization begs the questions: what happens to a congregation or part of a congregation that necessitates it? I mean, revitalization indicates that some part of the congregation is dying or has completely died, and as a result the whole church suffers. Just as many physical deaths do not occur in an instant but are the result of long-term illnesses that present early warning signs, so too the death of a entire congregation is often the result of long-term illnesses in one or many parts of the congregation.
After having been on the inside of many congregations during my life, I believe these deaths or diseases boil down to one thing: a congregation begins to die when it becomes issue-focused rather than people-focused. The issues can vary greatly. Worship wars, too great a focus on budgetary concerns, pastoral power struggles, denominational discontent or over-reliance, secular political influence, a preoccupation with the dangers of other world religions or secular practices, etc., can all become distractions from real ministry purpose.
Now, don’t misunderstand, the issues a congregation faces may be very important. Certainly, a church’s worship focus is paramount, being financially responsible is practical, ensuring pastoral integrity is essential, and on and on; however, I question the vision and mission of any congregation that spends too much effort waging war on any one “issue-based” front. The collateral damage in these fights is the souls of people who may be on the fringes of the congregation unsure about the validity of the struggle or the hearts of those in the center of the conflict who become bruised and bloodied by people claiming to be brothers and sisters in Christ. They are the souls of people who come to congregations broken by the sin in the world and in their own lives who are trying to find a safe haven of Christ’s love but instead find a battlefield of ideologies. If people are not nurtured and the pure gospel of Jesus Christ is not central to that nurture, separate from any issue-based agenda, then the danger to their discipleship is imminent.
What message do we send to those in the pews if the dominant conversations in which we are engaged are related to budgets? What are we saying about the discipleship of the individual if secular political discourse is the most prominent concern from the pulpit? What do we expect from people in our congregation if battles over worship styles cast a pall over our fellowship, our songs, and our Scripture reading? What will happen to a congregation if people aren’t greeted warmly as they enter a corporate worship gathering and are instead confronted with an agenda of discontent?
The result is simple: a march toward the grave.
When I read about the ministry of Jesus, I am struck that even in the context of theological discourse he is over-whelmingly concerned with the care of people. For example, I think about the feeding of the 5,000 as it’s found in Mark 6.
Contextually, Jesus and his disciples have been very busy. Healing, teaching, dealing with the death of John the Baptist. The text says they didn’t even have “leisure to eat.” So, they are trying to find some place to rest. They get in the boat and travel to “a desolate place by themselves.” But when they get to the other side of the sea, they find the crowds had followed them desperate to be near to Jesus, and he has compassion on them because “they were like sheep without a shepherd.” Tired as he is, Jesus still teaches them until it is very late. At this, the disciples ask Jesus to dismiss the people to the surrounding towns so they can find food to eat, but Jesus replies, “You feed them.” The disciples are faced with a budgetary issue as they question sarcastically, “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?” They would have had to work for months to buy enough to feed the people. Yet, Jesus sees the need of the people and miraculously supplies the needs of all.
There were a myriad of issues that could have been a distraction in Mark 6: political corruption, staffing burnout, money issues, but none of those things kept Jesus from feeling a deep-seeded compassion for those who needed him. Nothing kept Jesus from proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God and demonstrating that good news to the people of Israel.
Anecdotally, when I have talked to people who have left a congregation or, worse yet, left THE Church all together, more often than not I hear stories of neglect, hurt feelings, and a lack of care. Spiritually, they were not cared for as a shepherd does his sheep… they were starved, and so they left. Now, no congregation is perfect. Each and everyone is filled with people who have brokenness and sin-problems they are working out with God. There are no perfect pastors; we all mess up, get angry, and are tempted to pull our “little red wagon” of self-righteousness. I would almost venture to say that nearly every congregation and every pastor deals with some part that needs “revitalization.” The challenge is to ask the right questions and honestly assess the answers. The challenge is to look deeply at the self in light of Scripture and shine its light on the dark places in a congregation. The challenge is to diagnose potential problems before they become full blown illnesses and to treat the illnesses that are present with surgical precision.
There are healthier churches than others. There are congregations who, to the glory of God and for the fame of Jesus Christ, love people first and tackle issues second. There are congregations willing to submit their ministry practices and short comings to God and pray for resurrection.
My prayer for all congregations everywhere is that they would ask, “How can we love God and lover others with a passion that overwhelms all the issues we are facing?” My prayer is that God, through the work of the Holy Spirit, would give every congregation the courage and humility to radically pursue the answer he provides.