Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Survival skills

We visited a church the other day. It met in a nice, large facility - too large for the number of congregants. The neighborhood had changed since the church was started some years ago. The congregation had aged. The pastor was some 40 years younger than most of the people at worship. He was enthusiastic in his presentation, personable, and a capable preacher. We happened to visit on the Sunday of the church's quarterly business meeting which was held right after worship. So, the sermon's focus was on vision and commitment. It was clear the pastor had vision and was looking for commitment. He was not interested in staying the same, doing ministry as usual. During the service he referenced a new denominational program he wanted to use to help them discern their vision. This was not a new program, the program's literature stated, but a new process. Still, the new process had to be explained, adopted, and then recruitment for it's implementation could begin. I have been there, done that and I knew the energy required by pastor and congregation to pull it off. I already felt tired. Churches face a multitude of challenges today. Aging churches with older facilities and the costs that come with them, and aging members feel the need to attract younger people just to survive. And younger pastors will not settle for "just to survive". That is not why they were called into ministry. That is not why they went to seminary. That is not what they were trained for. From my perspective as a veteran of many denominational programs (or processes) to help the church discover it's vision and grow beyond just survival, I sat in that church thinking that many of the people were just surviving, or trying to. Survival is not a bad thing, is it? Surviving on a retirement income, with reduced options for the future; surviving with health concerns, for themselves and even older parents, perhaps. Surviving in an uncertain economy and an unstable world filled with threats to life and peace. Surviving with doubts that are no less troubling when they attack a faith held for many years. I talked with a pastor once who had been in the same church for many years; it had held it's own but had not grown much. He was feeling discouraged. We talked about the importance of preserving the faith through faithful preaching and pastoral care. There is always a tension between what church leaders want a church to become and what it is. It is not easy to discern what God's vision is for a particular congregation. What that vision is does not usually come from the leadership, or a packaged program. It comes from the Spirit working in the midst of the church body. We, who are the church discern it, we don't impose it. With all the struggles and challenges in our lives and churches today, helping people survive may be what we are called to do.