It’s no secret that many churches are floundering. They are scrambling to keep up aging buildings, wringing hands over declining income, and sometimes showing concern about the decline of faith practices in their community. The busy-ness of maintaining the church, anxiety over changes happening among them, concerns about the future easily distract leaders and keep them from asking questions about God’s purposes for them. Churches lose their focus.
I know this personally. It has been so in a congregation, I’ve served for seven and a half years. In seven years we’ve dealt with two roof failures, the replacement of two boilers installed in 1946 and 1960, contractor incompetence that led to more than three years of major heating system repairs, difficulties with staff members, uncooperative leaders mixed in with those who want to lead and serve the church well, on-going financial struggles, and so much more. We have been a congregation that goes from crisis to crisis.
Crisis management leaves little energy for matters of mission and ministry. Times of anxiety leave leadership drained. Creativity falls to the wayside as attempts to bring equilibrium consume energy. Churches flounder as they lose sight of God’s purposes for their church in the local context. They get so caught up in the daily tasks of survival that they stop asking questions about God’s mission in their midst. Meanwhile, they lose connection with the community around them, turn inward and focus on providing benefits to themselves, and experience higher levels of clergy turnover.
A church with focus is a church that has direction. It stands in sharp contrast to a congregation consumed by crisis management. Whenever a congregation has a clear sense of why God has called them together they understand their identity and purpose. Clarity of mission comes as a congregation examines their existence in light of God’s purposes in the world. What is needed most in a floundering congregation is that which the congregation is not willing or able to attend to: a well-defined understanding of God’s mission for the church. Such clarity comes from active engagement with scripture, cooperative communal discernment, and honest dialogue that is so often missing in civil discourse today.
Purpose statements are found throughout scripture, giving the church many opportunities to understand God’s action in and for the world. One of my favorites is found in Peter’s sermon in Acts 10. Announcing that God shows no partiality in those whom God chooses, Peter lays out the gospel message of peace: how Jesus “…went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the forces of evil.” (Acts 10:38) After telling of God’s purposes in Jesus, Peter goes on to say that God commanded “us” (The church) “to preach to the people and to testify about him.
Three action phrases stick out in this purpose statement: 1) Doing good, 2) Healing all who are oppressed, 3) Giving witness to Jesus.
These three actions provide a great insight into God’s purposes in the world, becoming a strong statement for a congregation’s activity in the world. As the body of Christ, the church carries on the saving work of Jesus as it does good, as it heals all who are oppressed by every and all force of evil, and as we give witness to Jesus.
The last phrase is often the one that gets the most emphasis. The church has a long history of giving witness to Jesus. Churches do good work all the time. They feed the hungry, provide clothes for the poor, assist people in emergencies. The church heals people oppressed by the forces of evil whenever it stands up for the marginalized, when it advocates on behalf of those who have no voice, when it pushes against the powers of greed and self-interest.
What might happen if churches stuck in cycles of crisis and conflict found a way to move out of their well-worn patterns and began thinking about their work in terms of these three actions? I think the church would discover that God’s purposes are a lot bigger than the troubles that seem to capture so much attention.
So, here’s my question—and I’d love to hear your comments about it—what do you think it will take for a church to turn away from self-consuming cycles of crisis? What does it take for a congregation to become more focused on God’s mission than it is on its own trouble?
The included picture, “Church Ruins” is by Anna Lee. It is used by permission according to its creative commons (CC BY NC-ND 2.0) license.