Most United Methodist Churches spend less each year on evangelism and faith sharing than they do on paper cups and plates. Jesus said that “where your treasure is, there is your heart also.” What, then, does this say about the state of the hearts of our churches? It simply says that sharing our faith with those outside the walls of our church buildings is of little importance to us. How ironic when the central mission of the Church is to “go make disciples” that we have abandoned resourcing the area from which disciples are made. We have cut off the blood supply to the heart of our congregations and wonder why they are developing heart disease.
Here is a basic premise to struggle with:
The purpose of the Church is to reach those outside the Church.
If we fail to reach those outside the Church then we cease being the Church.
To put it another way, what if McDonalds, whose obvious purpose is to sell food, began focusing on keeping its employees busy and happy doing maintenance on their facilities, providing them with recreational options and challenging them to become better people while abandoning the areas of customer service and food sales. Eventually their customer base would shrink, people would quit coming in and those employees would be without a place to go to work because the restaurant would close, leaving them unemployed.
In local churches all over our country, their focus has shifted from reaching those who are not connected to Christ to a kind of inward looking, self-serving focus. They program enrichment and recreational activities to serve those already connected with little if any thought to reach those outside their walls. Their practices and rituals are so confusing that unless one has been part of the system for years, they leave you feeling bewildered and confused when you should be focused on worshipping God. Most of our churches hold to the philosophy that if the people in their community wanted to come to church, they know where the church is and when it meets, regardless of whether that most basic information is even on the sign out front. Little effort is made to accommodate those who haven’t been in church for years and have little or no understanding of the practices and rituals of the faith.
An example I often use to demonstrate this is an experience I had as a young pastor. I was asked to preach one Sunday morning in a rural church in northern North Carolina. This traditional United Methodist church was ideally set upon a hill in the midst of beautiful rolling farm land. As worship began I was handed a bulletin and took my place along side the Lay Leader who was leading worship that day in the absence of the pastor. When it came time for the congregation to recite the Apostle’s Creed, rather than facing the Cross as I had been taught to do, they turned their backs to the platform and faced the rear of the church. I was utterly confused. The rest of the worship service proceeded without further incidence but I could hardly wait to ask my host why the congregation turned their backs to the cross to recite the Creed. He explained that years ago, before the Creed was included in the hymnal, they used to have a large copy of it hanging from the balcony railing. In order to read it, the congregation would turn and face the banner and read it aloud together. Despite the fact that it was now included in the hymnal and that the banner had long been removed, the congregation continued to face the rear of the sanctuary when the Creed was recited. Imagine how odd this would seem to a first time guest who, probably sitting in the back of the sanctuary, suddenly had the entire congregation turning to face them and reciting a theological diatribe. In essence this congregation continued a practice that was long obsolete only because they had always done so.
Many churches have also forgotten that their central purpose is to reach those outside of their walls because for years evangelism was a dirty word associated with crying television preachers and over-exuberant door-knockers taking false surveys asking questions about your imminent death and eventual destination. Mainline churches sputtered along in a fog of denial that clouded the realization that their churches were loosing literally millions to other churches, or worse, to a complete lack of faith all together. An entire generation is coming of age without the benefits of orthodox faith formation, teachings of the Church or the valuing of Christian tradition. They are embracing cafeteria versions of spirituality that combine Eastern mysticisms, Buddhism, the New Age Movement and any other self-gratifying spiritual practices fresh off the shelves of Barnes & Nobles that affirms whatever experience allows them to alleviate their conscience and fill the spiritual void that is within them.
What then is the answer? What can your church, or my church, do to reverse decades of decline? We need to restore the hearts of our congregations. To help them realize that they are the hope for a world separated from Christ. Your church, with all of its shortcomings and limitations, is a conduit of the Holy Spirit designed to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with a lost, disconnected and dying world. The answer is not with another program, or another pastor. The answer is with you, where you are, doing what you can. It may not be grand or glorious, but it can be faithful. First, however, you must get ready. This workbook is designed to help you engage in the process of the recesitation of your church’s heart. Here are the key points:
Prepare for tomorrow
Realize the potential
Embrace past success
Paint the picture of God's future
Assess assets and ministries
Encourage constantly and consistently
Each area is one part of the process. This process is meant to be a systemic approach, that is, each area is dependent and interdependent upon the others to achieve renewal of your congregations heart focus. You are the expert of your local setting. You will have to rely upon your understanding of the indigenous peoples, traditions, customs and rituals to help guide you in making these heart adjustments. Just like every patient is different, so every congregation is different. Use the steps as a guideline to help you focus and evaluate and then begin to make the needed changes. Remember, it has taken years for most of these churches to get in the condition that they are in, it may take years of “therapy” for them to have their hearts restored. Do not be discouraged. The key to success is in persistence, not speed. I will spend some time on each area over the next few weeks, its time to prepare for God's move!