Protestantism has hit a snag.
Catholics have their challenges, but it’s a very different set. The Orthodox church in its various forms has its disputes but remains largely unchanged.
North American Protestants have hit hard times, like an ecclesial version of the 2008 economic meltdown. We’ve printed Bible verses on magnets, screen printed t-shirts, run food pantries and epic VBS spectaculars, hashtagged our sermons – and overall, in the main, numbers are down, scandals occasionally rock prominent pulpits – if not of moral failure, of exhaustion and burnout – and everyone has a different perspective about why.
Which means we must be very careful about how we go about our mission, because across the country our faith community is in crisis. And crisis breeds desperation.
So these few thoughts aren’t on the why’s and wherefore’s of politics and theology other than as they may shape our attitudes while we attempt to go about ministry in the midst of a colossal, tectonic shift. When a shift of this magnitude occurs, it is tempting to:
A) Cling to the familiar and hold on for dear life
B) Take my Grandpa’s card-playing strategy, getting more and more desperate to get out of the hole and taking wild risks
Investors could probably capture this dynamic in economic terms. Some steadily play the long game, waiting for the system to settle itself down; the infamous day traders took high-risk, high-reward gambles; and there’s always someone who, like in the memorable It’s A Wonderful Life scene, lines up to get their money out of the bank. The tyranny of the urgent doesn’t always create space for careful deliberation. There is a crisis; we must act now; and certain leaders will tell us we must act this way or that way to navigate the crisis successfully.
So what is the mood – not in all, but in many – what is the mood in many congregations?
If we’re not growing, we’re dying.
We’re losing an entire generation.
How are we going to pay for that building project?
The church across town is really giving us stiff competition.
I feel dead inside and my superintendent has called three times about whether we’ll meet our apportionment.
One bad flu season could wipe out 80% of our biggest givers.
If I could really get this congregation going, I might get on the coaching circuit.
That’s just being honest.
So some congregations desperately cling to the rituals and routines – events you’ve always done, a calendar you’ve always observed, a strategy you’ve always employed. There’s risk of loss through attrition, but it’s slow and not too jarring, and in times of crisis overextension can be fatal, right? So keep your head down – even if your teeth are gritted and volunteers are getting discouraged.
Other congregations show desperation in other ways: your outreach gets a little frantic, your events are held with little or no explanation as to how they tie into mission, and visitors notice the tightness of the greeter’s eager handshake. There’s risk that you’ve lost your way, your identity, your distinct mission, but as long as the numbers stay up, you can tread water, right? So keep brainstorming, keep in perpetual motion – even if your outreach isn’t translating into discipleship and your focus is blurred.
Meanwhile, the last group usually isn’t made up of congregations: it’s made up of individuals. These are the people who, for one reason or another, bail. And boy, is this a growing group. Maybe you know one of these people. Maybe you are one of these people. You volunteered for years, you were a leader, but slowly you noticed that doing God’s work looked a lot like doing whatever program the latest pastor was enthusiastic about. You spent hours and money for The Vision, but after one too many blowups, or one too many events that bolstered a leader’s ego but didn’t necessarily seem to build the Kingdom of God, you were exhausted. Finally, you were done. You go to church occasionally but wince when greeters learn you have A Background In The Church because they’re quick to share they need volunteers…Sometimes you even sneak into the back of a Catholic service just to be anonymous, to be on the receiving end of ministry, to go somewhere friendly but not desperate.
Oh, American Protestants. You’ve published every version of the Bible possible, from Princess Bibles to Hunter Bibles to Bibles For The College Student, and you’re so tired. So very tired.
Listen, friends, our culture is in a huge seismic shift. I know you’re weary. I know you feel overwhelmed. I know sometimes in the middle of the grocery store your heart hammers and you fight away the panic while staring at a discount bin. There’s extraordinary pressure.
But no matter how you feel, people are not objects of your ministry.
They’re just not.
As soon as we start talking about zip codes or housing developments or suburbs or regions, we immediately have to exercise extraordinary caution, because while talking demographics can be helpful, people are not objects. And they are not the object of our outreach.
If bottoms in pews are a rung on your upward ladder, then buddy, you’re in the wrong business. That is the way of bickering disciples asking who will get the promotion, not the way of Jesus, who saw Zaccheus through the crowd, perched up in a tree. That is the way of the Pharisees, who objectified everyday people, not the way of Jesus, who fell asleep in the bottom of the boat. That is the way of the wretched Simon, who saw the gift of the Holy Spirit and asked for it so that he could make money off of it, not the way of Jesus, who healed ten guys but was only ever thanked by one.
Maturity means knowing how to be patient. It means knowing that you may invest in a relationship for years before a spiritual question ever comes up – if ever. It means praying for people by name for months, years, decades, knowing that their choices may cause them pain in the meantime. It means seeing people, not objects. You can control and herd objects. People are harder. And God may bless your ministry with extraordinary tipping-point breakthrough – or not. But you don’t get to control the outcome. Research, use common sense, learn about your “target demographic,” then push it all aside and ask God who God wants you to see with new eyes -really see. Because people are not objects.
Let’s trust that Christ will build his church, whether you run yourself ragged or finally take a vacation with your family.
Let’s trust that Christ will build his church, whether you can afford to helicopter the pastor onto the roof on Easter Sunday or you can only afford to repair the roof – after a special fundraising campaign.
Let’s trust that Christ will build his church, whether you flip pages of a hymnal or read words projected onto a screen.
Let’s trust that Christ will build his church, whether you feel insignificant or whether you’re in a spotlight of honor and praise.
Let’s trust that Christ will build his church, whether you wear vestments or jeans.
Let’s trust that Christ has given us everything we need to reach the unreached. Let’s trust that Christ didn’t see us as objects to be collected, but as people with sacred worth. Let’s trust that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, no matter what new tech gadget we have to adapt to, no matter who is elected, no matter how effective our personal branding efforts are.
God, save us from the unreached object. Let us have eyes to see people, and to see them as you see them.