While more and more churches are catching on to the idea of reaching the unchurched for Christ, it seems the majority continue to be inwardly focused, mainly serving those already there. Don’t get me wrong, there is wonderful work going on in these churches. However, without a focus on being disciples and making disciples, they are not keeping the main thing the main thing. I am reminded of a story I heard in a talk by a management consultant years ago. I can’t remember who spoke or the content of the talk, but this little story stuck with me. It goes like this.
I was rushing from one appointment to another and missed lunch. It was 3 p.m. and I had a few minutes, so I pulled into McDonald's. No one was at the register when I walked in. In a few seconds a truck driver walked up and stood behind me. When another 30 seconds passed, he tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Hey Mister, can you see me? I can see you. Why can’t they see us?” I just shook my head. A young woman headed in our direction. I made a pithy comment about thinking this was fast food. Her response was instructive. She said, “Mister, we have a lot to do around here besides just serving the customer.”
The consultant went on to talk about how critical it is for service organizations to keep themselves customer-focused. When we stray from that focus, the bottom line always suffers. As I spend my time working with churches, I find this story rings true here as well. Churches have many reasons for existing today, and they aren’t all about making disciples. Many are far from Jesus’ call to mission.
You can state the mission Jesus gave us in many ways, but it is, in essence: Be Disciples, Make Disciples and Feed the Sheep. That is the main thing, the bottom line in churches.
Busyness is rampant in the church today. We try to do so many good things that we lose time to focus on what’s really important, or to align our time and resources around what God is calling forth. Or, even to spend time in prayer and meditation seeking God’s will.
Church officials are so busy dealing with conflict situations and working with struggling churches on life support that there is not time to help healthy churches on their journey. I got an email this week from a church leader in the midst of a vicious attack by the controllers who could not stand any move to reach out to new families in the area and develop offerings to attract the unchurched. Their regional officials refuse to support those who are calling for a new, healthy vision for this church. Sadly, I find this story repeated around the church.
No Synod, Region or Judicatory has the resources to meet the needs out there today. In the business world, we called it the Sales Manager’s Dilemma. In any sales organization, there is a normal distribution with low achievers, mediocre performers and stellar sales people. Most sales managers spend their time working with those on the lowest rung, when the best they can hope for these people is to help them get to mediocre. Better they should focus on those in the middle, and help them move to excellence. Regional offices are often overwhelmed by the crises in dysfunctional churches, leaving them little time or resources to help the basically healthy but struggling churches.
I firmly believe God blesses the churches that listen, discern, and follow the leading of the Holy Spirit. Churches that are plateaued or in decline have somehow cut themselves off from this blessing. When we get distracted from the main thing by our busyness and self-serving, we lose our connection to our local community, its needs and those around who are still searching for a spiritual home.
Throughout history, God has withdrawn His blessing from His people when they quit listening and obeying His direction. Mike Foss said recently, “Temptation is anything that distracts us from the mission God lays before us.” Well, there is a lot of temptation out there.
I have seen Synod leaders begin to do some healthy work in this arena by giving long-suffering congregations permission to die, and then suggesting they take the money from the sale of assets and give it for the starting of new missions. In the Southeastern Synod (ELCA) we have been able to launch many more missions than normal funding would sustain by the gifts of dying churches.
I suspect that churches become inwardly focused because their people are inwardly focused. I think we all come to church to see our needs met. However, in a healthy church, the focus does not stay on us. Healthy churches draw us into an experience of the living God. Over time, we reach a tipping point where we realize, "It's not about me." Through that experience, we are transformed. We yearn for a deeper connection. We begin to shape our lives around Jesus’ example. Slowly, our focus moves off ourselves, and to the others around us. We begin to be sensitive to the needs of friends, co-workers, family and our community. As we follow Jesus’ example, we live to serve those needs, and our lives become much richer and we experience the deep satisfaction that brings us peace.
Sadly, I’ve seen many longtime church members who have not made this shift. Churches that are stuck don’t act as a catalyst in changing lives. People are free to persist in seeing the church and pastor as primarily there to serve them. A culture of neediness grows, and people do not move toward health or a deeper spiritual journey. Instead, they stay where they are and attack anyone who seeks to shift the status quo so that Christ is at the center, instead of us. Codependency grows as people have needs, and many pastors need to be needed. It can become a vicious circle, difficult to exit.
Those who swim against the current to change this situation cannot expect a warm reception. Often, it seems that no good deed goes unpunished. You don’t have to read far in the Bible to see that the gift of prophecy is not well-received. How many were chased out of town, attacked and even killed for holding up a mirror and showing the people how God was looking at their behavior?
Transforming churches is a lonely and painful business. Finding kindred spirits can help us persist when things get tough. We learn from each other what we don’t learn in seminary or from our Church officials. Three times in the email I got this week, the woman fighting “the club” gave thanks for finding out that she is not alone, that others are fighting the good fight. She got strength by just finding that others are also taking the courageous stand. We inspire and are inspired by others when we find a network or community of like-minded souls. May God lead you to fellow sojourners on this path to discipleship and mission.