By Beau Underwood
In a previous post I offered a few opinions - perhaps even got a bit "preachy" - on the state of congregational life within Mainline Protestantism generally and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) specifically. The impetus was the struggle of congregations within a denomination seeking and needing to discern anew God's call within a rapidly changing American religious landscape. You would not need to apologize for reading those words and curtly responding with an answer along the lines of:
Okay, so now what? All this idealistic language means very little given the realities of our congregational and denominational life. How is any of this relevant? What can any of us actually DO? You do realize that simply announcing a refuseal to acquiesce to the status quo does not actually change anything, right?
Hence the need for this second post, focusing far less on theological exhortations and ecclesiastical admonishments.
These are my provisional thoughts on how we might join God in the continued transformation and needed revitalization of our churches. Assuming present realities will not change overnight, this is an attempt to offer ways that you, me, and the guy down the street can contribute to solutions. Nothing here will be new or profound, but if this serves as a reminder of the basics or helps someone think about old things in new ways then my goal will have been achieved. Above all, this reflection is rooted in the conviction that our individual lives and our life together as Church should reflect the hope we profess (Hebrews 10:23).
1. Tame the Tongue - Our language needs to change. Cries of despair often dominate discussions. Many congregations sound like the liberated Israelites wandering in the wilderness who, fearing for their safety and facing starvation, long for returning to enslavement in Egypt. Nostalgia for an idealized past is rarely helpful in imagining the future.
Perhaps the only thing worse is when business parlance is injected into the narrative of decline. Then the conversation is all about "the bottom line," "declining revenues from fewer giving units," and the need to "change our business model." The last assertion usually implies a belief that a new, young, and energetic pastor/CEO can turn the company/congregation around.
This language is neither faithful nor compelling. It betrays the absence of hope and a lack of trust in the God who provides the manna from heaven when we find ourselves in the wilderness. When bad news of seemingly greater proportions dominates daily headlines and cynicism towards religion, government, and anything that has existed for more than five minutes abounds within the broader culture, the Church cannot afford conformity.
Our actual words and conversations must reflect our belief in a God who makes all things possible. Transforming congregations has to begin with rediscovering the neglected language of faith. Our words should point towards the God who liberates from bondage and rescues from death. Speaking life is essential to congregational vitality.
2. Commit to a Community - American Christianity has long been described as a religious marketplace (that darn business language is so hard to avoid!). When one church stops meeting our needs or when we get angry at a leader or conflict erupts the faithful quickly depart and show up at the church down the street. Oftentimes people stop attending church altogether - despite claiming they still "belong" to the congregation - or worship infrequently because it involves "too much work" or is "too demanding."
Now I'm the first one to say it is okay to sit in the pew in the back of the church and just take in worship, if that's what your spirit needs right now. But my larger point is that bring part of a community involves commitment. Caring for each other and supporting others through the ups and downs of life requires the investment of energy and time. Congregations can be unwieldy, messy, and even ugly organizations. If churches excluded sinners then all the pews would be empty.
I'm always deeply saddened to talk with leaders who are no longer connected and accountable to communities of faith. Especially in a denomination like the Disciples that claims to prioritize the mission and witness of local churches, making a commitment to participating in the life of a community - in the good times and the bad - is absolutely imperative.
When leaders fear an exodus of members at the smallest hint of unhappiness, the incentive is to avoid hard conversations and play everything safe. Risks are not taken and creativity disappears. This is a recipe for decline and death. But when leaders know they have the trust and commitment of the group then a wide range of possibilities will emerge. New ideas can be discerned and tried. Failures become learning experiences instead of opportunities to assign blame. Successes lead to robust ministries that allow congregations to serve neighborhoods and communities in new and needed ways. It all starts with a group of people committed to the Gospel and to each other.
3. Put your Money where your Mouth is - I have a confession to make that is unknown to even most members of the church where I serve: last year my wife and I fell short of our financial pledge. It was entirely inadvertent. We made a commitment at the beginning of the year, dropped checks in the offering plate when we remembered to grab one out of the drawer before leaving for church, and got a letter at year's end showing our giving and realized we had not fulfilled our promise.
Like many other millennials most of our financial transactions our handled electronically. We rarely carry cash or write checks but church was one of the few places we kept up the "old traditions." While our paychecks were deposited directly into our bank accounts and the mortgage payment automatically withdrawn, the church offering still required intentional action on our part. This was mostly done to help the church avoid losing money to a credit card processing fee, but it ended up costing the church anyways!
After discovering our error, we immediately rectified the situation by signing up for online giving. Now a monthly gift is made directly to the church with no action required on our part, providing greater cash flow predictability for everyone.
Why do I bother to share all this? Because ministry requires resources and stewardship is essential to discipleship. One of the most common laments in our congregational and denominational life is necessity of "doing more with less." This is the reality at least in the short-term, but it should not lead to resignation. Every member of the community should be encouraged to support the ministry in whatever ways are possible, including through regular financial gifts.
This also applies to our membership within a denomination. If we value the witness and work of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) then it deserves our financial support. After setting up our monthly gift to the congregation, I immediately arranged for a monthly gift to also be made to the Disciples Mission Fund. You can do the same by clicking here.
4. Explore the Bible - Biblical literacy in many churches is shockingly low. As Christians we don't know the stories that have guided our ancestors in the faith. How can our beliefs orient and shape our lives when the basics remain a mystery? The result is a shallow spirituality that quickly breaks down in moments of challenge or crisis.
Not only is understanding the Bible fundamental to Christian life, but in and through Scripture we find critiques to the conventional wisdom of our day and reminders that God's priorities are rarely the same as ours. Scripture casts down our 21st Century idols through ancient, enduring wisdom that forces humility upon us.
If we want to tell our story in ways that bring new life to our communities, we must first locate ourselves within the overarching story of what God is doing in the world. It is impossible to understand ourselves as Christians without understanding the narrative(s) of the Bible. There are numerous ways, new and old, to accomplish this but this core aspect of our life together cannot be ignored. In a time of religious ignorance, teaching the faith through the comprehension of our sacred texts is a non-negotiable.
5. Share the Good News - Evangelism is a dirty word in many Mainline Protestant churches. This is a sad indictment of our convictions and a major contributor to the decline of our congregations. There are some terrible, offensive, and overbearing ways of sharing faith. Many of these have been and continued to be practiced by far too many Christians. But we cannot throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.
Christian faith is the best lens I've discovered for understanding and living within a complex world. It has been a source of profound truth, beauty, wisdom, and peace. I have seen the ways that God has redeemed and changed the lives of people who discovered Jesus and made the choice to pick up their crosses and follow (Matthew 16:24).
We have so much to share with the world. Claiming to be Disciples of Christ means nothing if we aren't offering good news to the poor, release to the captive, healing to the hurting, and wholeness to the broken (Luke 4:16-19).
St. Francis of Assisi famously said, "Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary." In a hurting world that is drowning in despair our churches must be beacons of hope. As scary as this sounds to so many of us that requires letting others know about the new life we've found in Jesus Christ and inviting them to into it. Any serious attempt at being "a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world" necessarily involves showing and telling a fragmented world that wholeness is possible and helping people find it.
What other ideas do you have professing our hope? Let's get the church talking.