The last couple of “church growth” type trainings I have been to offered many different workshops with ideas of things that have been wildly successful at helping other churches grow. I walked away with lots of ideas that were really creative and innovative and wrong for my congregations/context. The problem with these workshops was not that they offered ideas but that they did not provide any way to be able to translate these ideas into a different context. Sharing ideas is great but most of the time, most of us don’t know how to take these creative ideas and translate them in a way that makes them matter in our specific context.
We want church growth to be easy. We want to tell pastors if they will just move their office hours to the local coffee shop or show up with ashes in a public place or move vacation bible school to the local park, we will somehow convince people that our church is worth going to. We call it “getting outside the walls of the church”.
I am troubled because church growth today feels sort of like planning my children’s birthday parties. If I can pin just the right combination of really great things that someone else has done, all I have to do is buy the supplies and execute the ideas. Unlike my children’s birthday parties, which usually end in rave reviews (hey, I know how to steal other people’s ideas in a spectacular way!) , I think we have a great risk of feeling not just disappointed but of missing opportunities that would matter in our community.
Now full disclosure, I love the idea of having my office hours in a coffee shop because for me, my imagination and productivity are off the chart when I am in a busy environment. I don’t like the ashes-to-go for really selfish reasons. I cannot imagine receiving ashes without the liturgy and service and community that comes along with gathering. For me, (and I realize that others have very valid arguments that discredit this) that dark smudge on my forehead is too emotional year after year to be able to receive it on the run or to offer it in passing. I love the idea of VBS in a park. I think it is an amazing way to get outside of the walls of the church. I think churches should be in their town parades and handing out bottles of water at the beach. I believe we ought to have people with umbrellas in our parking lots when it is raining.
I LOVE stealing other people’s successful ministry ideas. I am pretty sure 99.9% of my ministry thus far has been exactly that.
Ideas are easy.
Ideas no matter how creative and innovative and well executed they are are not going to save our churches from death and dying.
If we care about the cause of Christ we cannot expect reaching out to “make disciples of Jesus Christ” to be easy.
It demands we build relationships.
So when we show up in the park with VBS, it is no surprise we are there because we have been there playing with the kids, talking with the parents, building relationships all along. When we show up with our ashes one day a year, it is no surprise because we have been on that corner before, offering prayer, handing out muffins, sharing love, building relationships with the people who are there day after day after day. And when we tell our pastors to have their office hours in a coffee shop we should not expect them to be “productive”, we should expect them to turn that coffee shop into the modern day Cheers. We should encourage them to be a part of a community outside the church “where everybody knows my name”.
Beside me is last Sunday’s paper. I haven’t read it and probably won’t. Every Sunday after church I go to the local gas station and buy a paper and a cup of coffee so I can talk to the high schooler who is at the cash register. We are essentially strangers but it is important to me that I show up and check in with her. She tells me when she is not going to be at work and why. She shares some of her troubles. We have a relationship. It may or may not ever lead her into my church. But more than anything I hope it leads her to know that she is loved an important and worth listening to.
We cannot pintrest church. All great ideas have to go through the hard work of seeing how they can help us build relationships with those around us. Then success is redefined not by the number of people who participate but by whether or not we are more connected with the community around us.
“I am the church,
You are the church,
We are the church together.”
Even if we never do anything new or creative or innovative, if we are committed to building up relationships and making connections, I believe God will use us to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Pintrest can never claim that.