Have you ever seen the show “Rev?”
It was a BBC series about a Vicar in London and his small congregation. Kind of like “Vicar of Dibley,” but male and much more introverted. In one epsiode, the pastor invites a new young adult evangelical group to the church. During the set-up, the evangelical pastor talks about setting up spotlights, flat screens, speakers, etc., with the suffix: “Jesus is awesome.”
This is not to say that any of this is bad; but if you are either clergy or a part of an established church congregation, you’ve probably been in conversations about what we need to be doing to revitalize, grow, or simply survive. And probably the conversation has steered toward how we need to be more energetic and dynamic.
At some point, someone, typically in a pastoral role, says that we “just need to preach the gospel,” or we “just need to focus on being like Jesus.” And I believe that’s true…..however……firstly, I think more churches are doing that we sometimes generalize and/or clump churches’ declining on the basis that they’re just being stingy. However it’s always that one word that makes me squint like hearing that awful flat note in a solo:
“If we just preach more biblically.” “If we just be more missionally-minded.” “If we just give more.” It’s like what Jon Acuff refers to as the Just Prayer:
“Lord, just hear us tonight. We just lift up our hands to you and pray that you will just send your love down to us in ways we just can’t understand. Take us just as we are, Lord. Just, just. Just, just.”
The increasing concern I have over this is the idea that all this is easily solvable; and if we just keep hearing it from enough celebrity clergy on enough stages or in enough articles, it will finally click for the rest of us.
For example, one of the latest articles comes here–“Every Dying Church in America Has a Community Garden.” (https://www.faithandleadership.com/andrew-forrest-every-dying-church-america-has-community-garden?utm_source=FL_newsletter&utm_medium=content&utm_campaign=FL_feature) One of the points this pastor in the article make is that instead of creating gimmicks to get people to come to church, we simply need to make disciples; or, we “just“ need to make disciples. He never actually says that, but here’s what he does say:
- “We’re just trying to do things that Christians have been doing for 2,000 years.”
- “One thing you do is just tell the same story over and over.”
- “We’re just trying to do what the Lord told us to do.”
- “I’m also just deciding that the most important thing for me to do is try to be a faithful pastor now and try to help disciple our people now.”
The thing is, I don’t think this pastor is saying “just” intentionally, and it’s easy for all of us to do this when we talk about what we’re involved with. But the growing problem here is this feeds into an implication that there’s this handful of successful pastors and successful churches who are “just” doing the right things, while the rest of the congregations continue to die; and they wouldn’t if they would “just……”
And in the meantime, you’ve got a whole lot people in the audience now feeling horrible about themselves, or doubting themselves–maybe even their call–because they can’t be just like that successful pastor on stage.
What I never see or read about is a pastor on stage who’s telling their “success” story, and part of it includes: “Actually….I’m not really sure how this all worked. It could just as easily have failed as well as it succeeded. There’s a lot of this I’m still trying to figure out. I’m not the only one who should be up here. It was the right time, with the right people, and any other time it probably wouldn’t have exploded the way it did. I don’t know that this could ever happen again the way it did here.”
And I don’t write all this from an advisory role on the sidelines….I write this as someone who’s been to many of these events and read many of these articles, and often come from them thinking what a failure I must be…..if I can’t just…….And I know I’m not the only one.
Hacking Christianity today published an article written by a pastor in the same city as the pastor in the article about “Community Gardens,” who says they know each other, and offers an alternative perspective. You can read it here: (http://hackingchristianity.net/2017/04/if-dying-churches-have-community-gardens-what-do-growing-churches-have.html), but the writer points out some things that this pastor was able to have:
- A position of campus pastor that did not require weekly preaching since the very successful preacher of the contemporary worship service at the mother church would be recorded and replayed at this campus every Sunday;
- A beautiful, historical but newly remodeled, updated space (over $3 million renovation);
- A space without an existing congregation with its time-honored traditions, good & bad habits, preferences, history, pride, fears, doctrines, etc.
- A committed launch team from the mother church to ensure that all events were well attended;
- A tech, custodial, web design, graphic design, video, pastoral care, etc. support from the mother church;
- A no expectation of financial sustainability for the short term
Now, there’s always multiple sides to this. I don’t know if all/any this is true. I don’t know if these two pastors really do know each other, or how well. There could be a lot of things I don’t know about all this….and that’s exactly the point.
It is never “just.”
There are always other factors, complications, messy vulnerability, and screwing up–and that’s part of the story, too. If we keep this image that all we need to do in revitalizing the Church is “just”….whatever….we make get a few more lucky clergy who are able to “succeed” and get their moment on stage, but the consequence is another roomful of pastors and church members going back to their own worlds feeling defeated and alone.
But you’re not alone.
And you’re doing good work.