A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…
There stood a church by a major road that said they wanted to grow. They had a beautiful old building and everyone in the community knew exactly where the church was, but few knew there was a congregation that still met there. They tried making better signs, but still, people zoomed by in their cars. Sometimes, people would stop and visit, and now and then some would stay and join the church. This congregation was not too small, but not very big. They held a Bible study and a youth group and four Sunday school classes. Still, they said they wanted to grow.
And yet… the church did not grow very much. Some were puzzled by this. Others were concerned, worried about finances. Most didn’t know what to do, except to say that they needed to advertise more. The church often said they wanted to grow, and immediately afterwards would add, “But we don’t want to be a megachurch.”
The church had traditions it practiced for years—a yearly retreat, a Christmas party—but the folks who had been there a long time never talked about what they were. The folks who had been there for a long time lamented that the new folks never came on the retreat. The newer folks said they were never invited, and they didn’t know where it was or what happened on the retreat. The Christmas party was held year after year, and everyone knew what they were supposed to bring except the new folks, who felt out of place if they came at all.
But the kicker was the time the church leadership purchased new mugs with the church logo, but gave them only to members and told the pastor and the greeters not to give them to any new people that day, because they were a gift for the church.
The church claimed to want to grow, but what it really wanted was to stay the same and not die. It wanted to keep the people they already had, and while they were friendly they were slow to welcome newer people into leadership, and sometimes those newer people faded away after a few years.
Maybe that church isn’t so far, far away after all, but way too close to home. We have become an internal institution with insider speak, hell-bent (for lack of a better term) on sticking to what we know because we don’t know what else to do. We don’t want to die, but we don’t want to do what it takes to change, because it means we have to change, and it means that the whole understanding of church we grew up with has to be turned inside out.
The first place to start is to stop. Stop using insider language. Start from within and work on moving outward. Start making sure that traditions are explained and not assumed. Start by assuming that not everyone always knows what everyone is talking about. The worst place insider language is used is in the talk of church membership. We assume everyone knows what membership means and why it is important. Even in my current church setting, though I have invited people to become a member almost every Sunday, it was only recently that someone who has been part of the church for a long time asked me about what it means to be a member and wanted to know if they could join. Even our membership language is insider language that needs to be turned inside out.
Next, look at those traditions and see if they are only practiced by a few (usually the folks who have been there a long time) and if it is time to start something new. Then look to moving outward. Moving ministries from inside the building, inside the time constraints, inside the leadership that has always done things one way at one time in one place and move back into the community.
We have to turn the church inside out in order for the church to be what it was intended to be: the body of Christ, the community of faith.
“But what about the people who have been here for so long? What about the people who have been part of this church their whole lives?”
When I’m asked that question, I often ask the person who is questioning me if they have talked to the senior generations in the church. In all of the ministries I have served, the oldest generation in the church has never been afraid of change—because everything already has changed.
We need to speak the truth. We need to stop talking about growing if we really just want things to stay the same. If we are the ones afraid of changing, then we must turn that fear inside out into hope. And if there is just one thing to change, one thing to start that you can do, its stopping our insider language.