There are many churches around the country with similar stories to ours. 20-25 years ago you experienced the “glory days” with a full sanctuary, a thriving children’s program and 700 different Bible studies you could choose from!
Today, however, things look different. There are more empty seats in the sanctuary, the children have grown up and the Bible studies have been replaced by committee meetings.
You long for the days gone by, those days when all you had to do was make sure that the Sunday morning services were attractive and people would show up. Going to a church was way more “normal” in the life of the average American than it is today; it was just a matter of finding the one that met the needs of you and your family.
So what do we do? Where do we go from here? Will we ever return to what used to be?
In today’s post-Christendom, post-congregational American society, our ecclesial imaginations must be rewired. What worked to attract people yesterday won’t work in a society of people who are more concerned with sleeping in or spending a day with their children on the sports fields every Sunday.
Church is no longer a central component in the lives of Americans.
This reality can be depressing to those of us who pour so much of our hearts and souls into ministry, both clergy and laity.
I suggest that one of the greatest hindrances to moving forward in new and creative ways is our obsession with the past. What I am not saying is that there isn’t a place for tradition. Tradition is a vitally important element of who we are as the Body of Christ. What I am saying is that many churches like ours become hindered by the history of their “glory days.”
Have you seen the movie Men in Black? You know the little gizmo they use to erase people’s recent memories on the spot? Wouldn’t it be great if we could use one of those with our churches?
Granted, our memories shape who we are as a people, and I would in no way advocate actually doing this…
But, think about the results if we did.
Imagine if a church like ours was to have the memory of its last 20-25 years erased, and let’s say they started meeting in a sanctuary that required people to stand because there wasn’t enough seating (as opposed to meeting in their current sanctuaries with empty seats that used to be full).
This would completely change the focus of the questions we ask as ourselves as we attempt to move forward. We wouldn’t spend so much time worrying about what is missing, because we wouldn’t know anything different! Rather, we could focus on discerning what it is God is calling us to do today.
So, instead of asking, “What can we do to attract more people to our church, so we can return to the numbers that we used to have?” our questions might sound more like, “What can we do to be faithful disciples of Christ and make a difference in our community today?”
When we operate out of scarcity, our default questions tend to focus on the negative.
When we operate out of abundance, we recognize the fact that we have everything we need to be used by God now, today… not in the future when our seats are more full, not when we have a larger budget to work with, not putting any conditions on our answer at all, but saying, “God, we trust that YOU know what you are doing, so we are going to follow YOU into the unknown.”
Now, does that mean that we don’t want to grow? Of course not. God calls us to make disciples, which means growing in number. But, we leave the growth the God. We do our part by being faithful disciples, and we allow God to add those numbers to our church family.
We can’t confuse the end with the means. We often think that growth in numbers is the means to a healthy church that can make a difference. Instead, we should see growth in numbers as one possible end, or result, of a church that has been faithful and is making a difference with what it has.
Luke 16:10 says, “He who is faithful in little will also be faithful in much.”
When we are faithful with what we’ve got, God will bless us to be faithful with what God decides to give us.
But it takes trust. Sometimes the only way of finding out what God has in store is to step out in faith without knowing what lies ahead.
I’ve heard this kind of trust compared to the headlights of a vehicle that only illuminate a particular distance into the darkness. The only way to find out what lies ahead is to simply keep driving.
Or you can think of it like the training wheels of a bicycle. A child can go their entire life riding a bicycle with training wheels. It’s familiar, comfortable and safe. That child will never realize the feeling of freedom that comes when those training wheels are removed until they actually try it! Then they’ll realize what they have been missing and they will never want to go back.
It’s the same way in the church. We like what it feels like now because our imaginations are limited to what we’ve seen and what we’ve experienced.
What if God actually does know what God is doing?
What if God actually does know where God is leading?
Then we need to pray for the courage to see beyond our own histories, to trust in the plan that God has in store for our futures, and enjoy the blessing of being used by God today.