Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Adjusting to reality

This article in Leadership Journal really struck me, partly because it goes against the grain of the past 30 years of Protestant Christianity. It is about a new pastor at a church that aspired to be a mega-church and never made it there. They built the building, but for reasons you can read in the article, it didn't happen.

So the new pastor comes in and decides that they can still be very effective, just not as a megachurch. The process of change is wrenching, but it can lead to great kingdom growth as the congregation reaches out to the lost and hurting world around us.

I've been thinking about this article as I watch the circus in our state capitol. In many ways, Michigan is like this church. It isn't what it once was, nor what it dreamed it would be. So where do you go from here? I offer some suggestions from the article that are applicable to many churches, the state of Michigan, and individuals who are dealing with the disappointment of a life that didn't turn out the way they had hoped.

1. To be honest about our current condition. This can be hard for a church with such a storied past.

People kept asking: Why have our long-term members left? When are things going to get back to the way they were? What's wrong with us? (Translation: Why have all of these people and businesses left?)

Such questions can squelch even the most sincere brainstorming sessions. The hard truth we've tried to communicate through all of this is that the glory days of the past are exactly that—past glory days. We're not to try to return to them. Garnett will never again be the church it once was. We have to do the difficult thing of letting go of our former glory in order to allow God to do a new thing in us.

2. To relinquish our rights as members to a church building that we are no longer able to pay for by ourselves. The Garnett Church of Christ building is becoming the Garnett Event Center.

Already, several other churches are using our facilities on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon: a Messianic Jewish community, a charismatic Hispanic church, a rock church called Rolling Stone, and a new church plant.

Throughout the week, a number of other events, some church-related and others not, are held at our building. Not only is the rental income from these events helping to pay the bills, but it's also giving us a hospitable presence in our neighborhood. (Translation: No longer will we have a dominant position with a dominant industry fueling our state coffers. We will have to go out and compete for each and every business that we hope to lure here.)

But not without some difficulty. Everyone, myself and all ministry staff included, must reserve any classroom or meeting space equally with those in the community who are using or renting space.

The way we're trying to see it: this building no longer belongs to us. It belongs to our community. This isn't easy to explain to a charter member who's been helping to pay off the building for 20 years!

We've started a bi-lingual preschool that has grown to 50 students, half Anglo and half Hispanic. We've projected beyond our ability to speak Spanish, putting "Bienvenito" (Welcome) on the front doors and asking Spanish speakers to help us translate for different events.

We made it our goal to pray for every family that comes into our weekly food subsidy ministry and to invite them to serve with us.

3. To recognize that the most life-giving activities of our church aren't necessarily going to happen in our facility. Church leaders in event-driven and personality-centered churches tend to gauge success by headcount, the number of people who show up. This is what leaders talked about, and subsequently members tended to judge success by how pews and collection baskets were filled.

With Michael Frost (author of Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture) and Alan Hirsch (The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st Century Church), we have been forced to ask new questions: What if events of church, personalities of church, and Sunday assembly went away? What would be our view of the Christian life? What would we do as Christians, and who would we be?

We're working with the local fire department to arrange Spanish classes for them so they can better serve and communicate on daily calls. We're partnering with Habitat for Humanity and our city to build and renovate houses and help people to get back on their feet again.

We are learning to see our community, and individuals, not as needing handouts but as valued people who can together with us serve our Lord and our community. (Translation: Not everyone is going to move all of their operations here. We may have to settle for a tech center and the manufacturing will be done in a lower-cost environment.)

4. To learn to be missionaries in our own culture. Across the street from us, Fire Station 27 is the busiest station in the city. Fire Chief Michael Baker said, "This is a big church and the neighborhood is waiting … waiting to see what you are going to do for this community."

This comment has been forcing us outward, while we are at the same time redesigning our space for community groups to enter. Church Shepherd Robert Garland replied to Chief Baker that "we want to be a better neighbor to you and this community." (Translation: Treat the people we have more hospitably instead of crying about what we used to have or didn't get. Don't stomp on the businesses that are here as we chase our next "fix" of a large employer that is using us as a negotiating ploy.)

And really, that's the first step to becoming missionaries: getting to know our neighbors' needs.

Todd Hunter of Alpha-USA articulates well what we want to do: "I want to help people become the cooperative friends of Jesus, seeking to live lives of constant creative goodness through the power of the Holy Spirit for the sake of the world."

That's what we're determined to do: equip our congregation to be Christ to neighbors, co-workers, and family members, rather than trying to coax people into signing up for every church program possible and burning families out with church involvement.

We've had to ruthlessly ask of each ministry venture, "Is this an energy drain? An event without purpose? A building-centered program that determines success by how many populate this building?"

Anything aside from a Christ-centered approach is out in favor of teaching one another how to be incarnational presence of Christ, in practical ways in our jobs, neighborhoods, PTAs, and sports teams.

I know it isn't all directly applicable, but it does ring true for our elected officials, and many pastors and leaders of churches that are not where they dreamed they would be.

For the churches, fix your eyes on Christ and his dreams and plans, not yours. Remember the conversation between Peter and Jesus in John 21:

The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."

Jesus said, "Feed my sheep. 18 I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go." 19Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, "Follow me!"

20Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, "Lord, who is going to betray you?") 21When Peter saw him, he asked, "Lord, what about him?"

22Jesus answered, "If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me." 23Because of this, the rumor spread among the brothers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, "If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?"

24This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.

25Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.

If you are Peter, the prospect of crucifixion is not something that he relished. Jesus was making the point that it isn't about him, or Peter, but about God, who sent Jesus and called Peter. We would do well to heed that advice. I know I would.

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