John Vest has written widely on post-Christendom—the time after the time when the Christian Church was large and in charge around the world (at least the northwestern portion of the world), which is now. He has started an interesting Lenten series on his blog that may be worth watching: “Giving Up Church for Lent.” He is not suggesting not going to worship on Sundays. Rather, he is suggesting that we need to find new ways of being the church. One of his most recent posts seems to hit the sweet spot: “Attractional Church No Longer Works.”
I serve a fairly traditional congregation, though theologically progressive. Over the past year I have been reminded that one of my primary jobs as pastor is to take care of the flock—that is, pay attention to the spiritual needs of the people in the church. This seems to be an overriding requirement of most pastors, even as churches are shrinking (like ours) and fewer people are wanting to come be a part of a church. But what is the purpose of the church? Is it to feed those who are already there? Or is it to share the truth, as we understand it, about God’s overwhelming love for the world/universe? In sharing that truth, then, aren’t we to also be emissaries of God and invite others into the realm of God’s love? As a pastor, I have to be honest with you: I have a really hard time doing that from behind my desk, from the church office, or even on Sunday mornings when 99% of the people there are already a part of the community!
John and I have our differences of opinion and theology (don’t get me wrong, I respect John immensely and I value the prod he is trying to give to the Church I know he loves). But I think this is one area where I think John, who thinks about this stuff a lot more than I am able to in my current position, and I are probably more in line with one another. He writes: “I believe that if churches started to experiment with being in meaningful relational ministry with” those on the fringes of our faith communities—or even those outside of it—those of us in the Church might learn more deeply what it means to be the Church. Ultimately, we are called to be in relationships: with God, with one another, and with a world that God loves.
The word Church literally means “gathering,” “to congregate.” In other words, to intentionally be in relationship with one another. What would it look like for a Church to give up “programs” for Lent, and instead invest all that money and resources into seeking out and being in relationships with people? That’s a provocative idea! As someone said in a comment to John’s post: something has to change. Indeed, the way we are doing church is not serving even our own base purposes: that is, embodying the love of God revealed in and through Jesus. This is going to be my Lenten practice: thinking more deeply about what that looks like in all my relationships, with my wife and kids, the congregation I seek to serve and be a part of, the community in which I live, and the world that God has given us. It starts with naming the ways I may not be embodying God’s love. And then, seeking to change them so I might be a better husband, father, pastor, and citizen of the world for the sake of Jesus.
I wish I could give up church—the endless meetings two and three nights every single week, the programs and newsletters that fewer and fewer people are paying attention to, the pressure to get people into the pews and filling the offering plates, etc., etc., etc. But, maybe I can more faithfully fulfill those expectations if I focus more on the relationships that these things are intended to foster, both in and especially outside the Church.