Nov 6, 2019

The Key to Church Growth? Get Out of Church

As a society, we're enamored with quotes. The inspirational ones get put on posters or shared as memes on social media. Politicians are always going for sound bytes or short quotable quips they hope will go viral. And lest you think people of faith are immune to the allure, just check out the cabinets in any parish kitchen. They're filled with mugs emblazoned with out-of-context Biblical quotes.

Don't get me wrong, quotes are great! We get a sense of what someone is thinking or we're inspired by something both profound and pithy. The danger with quotes is that we sometimes lose the broader context. We pull something out, but often miss deeper meaning and nuance.

Which brings us to a particular quote that I've come to see as defining my entire approach to ministry. It's attributed to theologian, scholar, social justice advocate, and Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple (1881-1944). I don't know whether or not I've taken it out of context, and I actually don't care, because I find it challenging and full of truth just as it is.
"The church is the only institution that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members." 
It's jarring, right? Because we think, wait a minute -- we are the members of the church. What do you mean it doesn't exist for us?! But that's not what Temple says. He says the church doesn't exist primarily for those of us who are its members. It exists primarily for those beyond our walls.

In practice, a lot of people would disagree quite vehemently with this quote. It’s not that they wouldn’t want to help the poor and downtrodden and needy. And it’s not that they don’t think it’s important to share the Gospel with those beyond the worship space. But, frankly, it’s countercultural to think beyond ourselves to such a degree. To support an institution like your own parish financially, emotionally, and spiritually and to think all the effort should go elsewhere is tough. We want if not all, at least SOME bang for our ecclesiastical buck!

It’s challenging to think about the church as a missionary society rather than as a club. We crave community and the allure of a comfortable place where we can go and be with like-minded friends week after week. And there’s no denying that this is an important aspect of parish life (hello coffee hour!). It's also true that Jesus called disciples not in isolation but into a community. It is the community of the baptized that gives us hope and encouragement to live lives of decency, faith, and kindness, and it is this community that offers pastoral care and help during times of crisis.

But think about Jesus’ approach. He didn’t say “Follow me” to a bunch of unsuspecting fishermen and then build a little stone chapel where they could gather every Sunday before going their separate ways. He invited them to follow him into a new relationship with the divine, into a new way of being, into a place of living hope, into a life of transformation.

For us, the altar must act like a slingshot, propelling us to go out into the world to serve its needs with love and compassion. Otherwise we become little more than a quaint, insular preservation society, preserving our own tastes and preferences rather than responding boldly to the divine call to love one another as Jesus loves us.

Now, there must have been some days when Jesus' first followers looked at one another and said, “Don’t you think we have enough disciples? Can’t we stop this endless tour of the countryside? Into the boat, out of the boat, how many times do we have to cross the same body of water?” But Jesus kept at it. He never stopped sharing the Good News, he never lost the hunger to change people’s lives. And that’s what he calls us to do as well, by whatever means or technology necessary.

As church buildings crumble, I believe that the communities of faith that will thrive are the ones that
take seriously the commitment to those who are not its members. The ones that are intentional about reaching out to draw people in; the ones that are passionate about sharing rather than hoarding this Good News with which we’ve been entrusted.

In a sense this concept of the church as an institution not primarily for the benefit of its members, is nothing new. In the Great Commission (Matthew 28) Jesus tells us to “Go make disciples of all nations,” thereby imbuing the church with a sense of urgency. As Jesus takes leave of his disciples he doesn’t engage in a group hug; he encourages them to go out and draw others in.

Of course, if this was all Jesus told us to do, we’d have to sell all our church buildings and hit the road. But he doesn’t. This is balanced with the call of Matthew 25 to serve those in need (“Just as you did it to the least of these you did it to me”) as well as the invitation to care for one another and bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2). I think this form of pastoral care is well-imagined when Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law (Matthew 8). He makes a home visit and comforts a member of his community.

In any vibrant community of faith, there will always be tension between looking inward and looking outward — between outreach and pastoral care and invitation. Parishes are most effective when they hold these three not in destructive, but creative tension. Not by saying “no” to one at the expense of the other but by saying “yes” to all three. This doesn’t mean burn out the clergy and lay leaders in trying to be all things to all people, but rather identifying those with gifts in each area and encouraging them to do the work they have been called to do. These three areas are not, and have never been, mutually exclusive.

But to Temple's point, that outward thrust towards those who are not our members must be fully present. Not because we want more pledging units or because we want people to help fund a future capital campaign, but because we have a gospel mandate to reach out our hands in love, to offer hope to a hurting and broken world, and to invite those beyond our walls to "come and see."

I encourage you to reflect on Temple’s quote, perhaps with fellow parishioners or church leadership. In what ways does it resonate with you or challenge you? How are you, in the name of Jesus, doing things to benefit those who are not members of your church? What are the ways in which your parish acts like a club and how does it resemble a missionary society? How are you sharing, rather than stockpiling, the message of hope embedded in the Good News of our Lord's Gospel?

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