The Bible is filled with stories about people who were amazed and perplexed. Think about Moses standing before a bush that was burning, but that was never reduced to ash. Think about the Israelites standing on the shores of the Red Sea when it opened to provide a path of escape from the Egyptians and that, then, sealed off the way back to everything that they had known. Think about the people that Jesus healed and how people who were watching it happen responded by saying, “Who is this man?” Think about the people who witnessed the day of Pentecost – a day when tongues of fire fell from the sky, a day when the followers of Jesus spoke in languages that they had never learned, and a day when people thought that the only way to explain what was happening was to conclude that the disciples were drunk.
We live in swiftly-changing times. Once healthy and thriving churches are facing uncertainty and financial difficulties. Attendance is shrinking, and many churches have lost touch with the communities that they serve. New faces are seldom seen in worship. Many people in the Church are scrambling to find a way to save what’s left after two years of struggling through the pandemic. And when people see their churches growing smaller and struggling, the first thing that they are tempted to do is draw inward and protect what they know and love. But, sadly, drawing inward only makes the problems and the challenges worse.
Understanding mission and having a clear vision of ministry is vital in times like these. Churches that are focusing upon what they believe Jesus wants them to be doing right now are doing better than churches that are not doing that. Churches that are asking, “Who are we?” and “What is Jesus calling us to do?” are finding new and exciting doors to the future while other churches are continuing to shrink. I believe that every church needs to be asking itself: “What parts of our ministry are leaving people amazed and perplexed, and wanting to learn more about Jesus?” That’s what ministry is about. People get excited when they believe that they’re doing God’s work with their own hands. People want to financially support and be a part of what’s happening when they believe that their time and financial resources are being used in life-giving and life-changing ways. People want to learn more about Jesus when they are invited to “come and see” what Jesus is doing with their own two eyes. Mission and having a clear vision of ministry create focus, energy, excitement, and passion.
If your congregation is struggling, right now, you are not alone. Many congregations are facing significant challenges. But years of struggle and decline do not have to write the last chapters of your church’s history. If you are looking to turn the tide, here are some ideas:
First: Gather the leaders of your congregation and spend an evening in prayer. Ask God to send the Holy Spirit to close doors that need to be closed (think about the Red Sea being closed to prevent the Israelites from returning to Egypt) and to open new doors to the future. The Church of 2019 is not coming back. We need to open our hands and to let go of some things that are no longer working, so that God can give us something new.
Second: Study the community and the people that you serve. Can you clearly describe the people who live within 10 miles of your church? How old are they? How old are their kids? What challenges and concerns do they face? The average age of an adult in the community that surrounds the church I serve is 49 and the average age of their first child is between 20 and 25. How can that information shape ministry? What percentage of the people in the community that surrounds your church are divorced? Are you building your ministry as one that primarily ministers to married adults with children? Do unmarried and divorced people feel welcomed? Are people in your community at an age where the care of their parents is as important as the care of their children? People in their late 40’s and early 50’s reexamine their priorities, fear that they are becoming irrelevant, are facing an “empty nest” for the first time in their lives. How does this shape the ministry of a congregation? What kind of “Good News” do people who live within 10 miles of your church building need to hear?
Third: Pray about your ministry and about how you are engaging your community. What message of “Good News” are you proclaiming? If children are going to school hungry (nearly 50% of the children in a community that surrounds the church that I serve are going to school without breakfast) could you provide food for them to eat on weekends and over the summer (when schools are closed)? If people struggle with addictions are you providing a place where groups like Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous can meet? How are you showing children and young people in your community that they are important to God? How are you showing people who are lonely that they are not forgotten? What is Jesus telling you to do, right now? Pray about it. I realize that there’s no congregation that can solve every problem and challenge, but every church can pick one or two challenges to focus upon. Stay focused. How is/can the ministry of your congregation bring a word of “Good News” to those who live within 10 miles of your church building before you reach beyond that radius? Think of that 10-mile radius as your church’s “parish.” How can prayer lead to action?
Fourth: Make a plan, establish clear and measurable goals, tell people what you are doing, and tell the story of how God is at work in the world and in your church. We live in a society where “the best story wins” and we, as people in the church, can never forget that. People are drawn to stories that are engaging and that help them to feel that they can be a part of something both exciting and good. Don’t forget to use the power of electronics! Update your church’s website. Realize that people are spending more and more time on electronic devices and figure out a way to use those devices to tell the story of what Jesus is doing with you and your congregation, right now. Create an exciting story by engaging in life-giving and life-changing ministries, and don’t forget to share what you are doing. Never forget that “the best story wins.” People want to be a part of something exciting; and, when they feel that they are a part of something that is important and that is changing lives, they are more likely to volunteer their time and support what’s happening financially.
The Bible is filled with stories where the people were left amazed and perplexed. And the challenge that’s being set before the Church is to live into that amazed perplexity today. God is doing wonderful things in the world. God is enabling people to do exciting things that they never imagined they could do.
Which parts of your congregation’s story are leaving people amazed and perplexed? Which parts of your congregation’s story are leaving people at a point in life where they want to learn more about Jesus, be a part of what’s happening, and know that what they’re doing is making our world a better place for us all?