Friends, I don’t know about you, but for me, sometimes, someone else writes a few words upon which improvement simply should not be made. Here is one church consultant’s perspective on what it can mean to be a living, breathing 21st century church. Let me know what you think.
September 30, 2011
Get Outside Yourselves
By Tom Ehrich
Take this as both true and profoundly challenging: Your congregation’s future lies outside itself.
Instead of spending so much time and money trying to serve present members, you need to be seeking new constituents. It’s a numbers thing: with an average age of 60 to 65, you will be out of business soon if you don’t drive your population younger by recruiting the new. It’s also a Gospel thing: faith communities exist to serve others, not themselves.
Instead of making worship better and better, you need to be finding fresh ways to reach and respond to those for whom worship is of little interest.
Instead of surveying present constituents to see what they want, you need to be listening to your larger community and naming the needs, yearnings, hurts and hangups out there. If you truly see your members as ministers, then you need to stop seeing them as consumers of religious goods and services. Instead, deploy them as agents of the Gospel outside the church walls.
Instead of trying to soothe the prickly, send them out into a world of flood and famine, economic injustice and mounting rage, and help them to see actual suffering.
On average, after 46 years of relentless decline, mainline churches have at most five years of life expectancy. If you spend that time perfecting your common life, your church will die. Plain and simple.
The typical mainline church needs to triple its constituency. Not just add a few like-minded souls, but add dozens and hundreds of people who almost surely will be different from you.
Those people won’t be walking in your front door on Sunday. They don’t even know you exist. You need to touch their lives – go where they are, respond to their needs, stop seeing prospects as guarantors of your institutional survival.
Instead of seeing people out there as “unchurched,” and therefore needing to be fixed, see them as God’s beloved from whom you have much to learn. Don’t be surprised if they are already serving God, praying to God, knowing God, without benefit of church life.
Instead of demanding that our clergy devote constant attention to us, we should ask them to lead us out into the community. We need them to be entrepreneurs, visionaries, builders of bridges, who hear the joys and sorrows of the world and imagine ways we can make a difference.
In short, we have got to get outside ourselves, stop focusing so much on our own comforts and desires, and start doing what Jesus did. This will be profoundly challenging. It won’t feel natural or right. Many will cry, “What about me? What about my needs?” Our congregations have little experience in saying to people, “This church isn’t about you. It’s about the people out there whom God is trying to reach.” We have much to learn.
Can we do this in time? Not unless we pick up the pace. Your budget for 2012 should focus entirely on growing your congregation. Anything that doesn’t contribute to growth needs to be examined. Your plans for ministry need to focus on touching more lives.
This isn’t craven commercialism. This is serious Gospel business. This is what Jesus intended for us to do. The small groups and house churches that growth will require are exactly what Jesus formed. The giving away of wealth and privilege that growth will require is the ethical heart of the Gospel. The dying to self and living for others is what Jesus said to do if we want to live. The building of bridges to people unlike ourselves is what Jesus died for.