My friend Tony just wrote a nice piece about mission and church growth over at Sunflower Chalice. (You can read it here). In it he explores the connection and contrast between church success defined through the lens of growth versus the lens of mission. The comparison of the two perspectives is well summarized when he writes:
Rather than keeping “score” or measuring our success with how many members we have and how much money is in the budget, we should keep score by looking at how much spiritual growth is happening and how much service we are rendering to our community.
I have found that most of our established churches say they are interested in growth. When asking the follow-up question of “why do you want to grow?” the answer quickly travels back to budgetary concerns, the desire for more programs, or the need for more volunteers. These types of answers show a strong orientation toward the institution of the church itself. This orientation reflects a modern, secular, churched cultural paradigm, a paradigm which used to be so pervasive that it was strange to even question it. It was a cultural paradigm in which the public wanted to find a church, that the public exists to support the church, and to become a member of a church was an inherently meaningful experience.
That cultural paradigm is no longer pervasive in our society. We have moved into a post-modern, post-secular, un-churched world and for those of us who believe the church can be a redemptive experience need to be concerned with reorienting ourselves and our congregations to this new reality.
When I’ve done consulting with churches one of the first things I tell the leadership is that in the 21st century we have to realize that people don’t want to go to church. Belonging to a church simply no longer carries the inherent cultural meaning that it once did. However, that does not mean that the church is no longer important, it simply means that no one is going to go to your church in hopes of belonging to an institution and raising funds for the budget.
The fact is that we live in a time when the church has an incredible opportunity to have an important impact in people’s lives and in society, but as an institution it needs to reorient itself. What Tony refers to as mission can be simplified by asking the question of “what happens at your church?” People won’t go to church to belong to an institution, but they will become of a part of a community where something compelling is “happening.” In the world we live in, the more blatantly obvious and explicit this happening is the more attractive it will become.
For each church the mission, or “what happens” can be very different. Maybe what happens is a spiritual transformation, maybe what happens is that people are empowered to fight hunger, maybe what happens is that people are equipped to be change agents and leaders in the community. The point is that the spiritual but not religious, the nones, the unchurched, and the post-moderns are not spiritually degraded, in fact quite the contrary. The point is that their powerful spiritual yearnings will not be fulfilled by simple belonging to the institution of the church. That’s why they have generally given up on it. However that yearning will connect to a compelling experience that changes their life for the better. That spiritual yearning is searching, seeking, hoping for something to happen that matters.
So “what’s happening” at your church?