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A weekly newsletter I receive regarding ministerial matters arrived via email right on schedule this morning. While its contents varies from issue to issue, I find it enriching to consider the topic presented and the comments emailed in by other readers. When I feel compelled to do so I also add my thoughts to the discussion.
The topic raised today concerned church growth in general and seeker-sensitive congregations specifically. Church growth was clearly defined as increasing the number of people attending worship services and programing opportunities. Seeker-sensitive congregations are those that employ innovative measures to make church growth happen, including music, language and social programming that is accessible to people who may never have been part of a church community before.
While the intent makes sense to me, there is something familiar and uncomfortable about the method. Perhaps it most closely resembles a clearance sale at Wal-Mart: they aren’t really clearing everything out, but are hoping you will be interested enough to come in and peruse the full price merchandise. The term “false advertising” comes to mind. However we present our churches, we need to consider what we are really offering to people as the body of Christ. Who are we, as people of faith, showing ourselves to be as we place out the welcome mat to come love and serve the God of Abraham, Isaac and Sarah? More than anything, how do we perceive God as directing us to service in creating fellowships that exemplify God’s word in action?
Blessed with three fine pastors growing up in the Midwestern United States, the words of one of these ministers came forward in my mind as I pondered these questions. While accepting an award a number of years ago, he summed up for the gathering before him part of what he had learned in forty years of ministry. First, we are to be about a servant leadership, not just as clergy, but as leaders in our faith. He was quick to point out that servant did not equate with slave, because service to God and God’s community are a choice. One who serves gives of the gifts they have been given. While many more people talk of a service orientation today, my pastor spoke of living with purpose and faith throughout his ministry.
Second, he pointed out the necessity of recognizing how much community matters. Having moved among congregations as a parish minister, then a church administrator and finally as a bishop of the church, he saw that coming into a new congregation with the intent of shaking things up with no purpose was disrespectful to the relationships that had created the very fiber of the community. How congregational members interact with each other represents the historical and present faith of its being. That’s an incredible resource for a new minister, and a new parishioner, if s/he recognizes the gift laid out before them. It isn’t a matter of fitting in, but a matter of knowing you are the next piece of the ever expanding puzzle.
Third, and I think most importantly, what we do in the church must have a theological basis. While music, language and programming choices are crucial to ministering to people where they are at, the simple fact is that the church is not a social club, a baseball team or a part time restaurant. The church functions in these capacities at times, but we are not organized around the central theme of entertainment for all age groups. We are the church, a body specifically created to bind the faithful together in loving purpose and faithful praise of God who called us into being before the beginning of time. If we lose that sense of direction in our efforts at initial translation to those seeking faith as their journey, we have not served God, honored our community or lived by what we believe. If we translate faithfully, who and what we are will become clearly apparent, and the sojourners will know that they are home.
When we are talking about church growth it is not solely a numbers game. If all we are interested in doing is drawing in the masses to a well-orchestrated clearance sale, we will surely have a temporary surge of warm bodies and excitement. But that is all. Church growth is about more than numbers. It is about service, community and an embodied, articulated faith, nurtured and attended to, and shared with those who have questions, and who want to know more.