Church leaders, I understand the impulse to throw your hands up in despair, change occupations, or hold out until retirement, at which point you’ll wish the next generation good luck and be done with it. Statistics declare gloom and doom and decline across all mainline Christian denominations.
Yet, I’m optimistic. God is leading us down a new path of enormous opportunity — one that calls us to some risk-taking, reinvention, and greater imagination. I see churches finding success on this new path. A few examples:
Urban Village Church in Chicago began as a single campus, but soon discovered that growth would mean creating space for different kinds of people. Instead of using the “big box” megachurch model, they created a series of smaller campuses throughout the city that could authentically engage the communities in which they were located. Today they have four campuses throughout Chicago that benefit from being part of a larger, diverse body called Urban Village Church.
St. Lydia’s Dinner Church is another great example of imagination and risk-taking. Pastor Emily Scott noticed that people in Brooklyn rarely ate dinner together in a home because most people didn’t own a home large enough to host such gatherings. But so much happens when we break bread together. She decided to start St. Lydia’s Dinner Church as a space for people in the neighborhood to get to know one another, worship together as they prepare and eat the shared meal, work for justice together in their neighborhoods, and support one another through the joys and challenges of life in Brooklyn.
Today, they now offer four evenings of “dinner church” gatherings. Having visited St. Lydia’s, I can say that it was one of the most powerful and moving spiritual experiences of my life because of its simplicity in liturgy, its power in creating connection between us all, and Emily’s gentle leadership encouraging all of us to dig a bit deeper in our reflections of life with each other and with God. In this case, the form was transformational as it perfectly embodied the function of Christian community.
It is time we question form but remain true to function. Keep our core commitment to transform lives for the sake of the Gospel while allowing for entrepreneurial formats, structures, and experiences. In a break from form, but not function, I offer five don’ts for church leaders:
1. Don’t settle for mediocre worship.
Transforming lives is not a nice byproduct — it’s the primary mission of the church. Pastor Mark Trotter once said:
All of us need a purpose that is large enough to include God and long enough to include eternity. We need a purpose that makes life worth living and gives meaning to our dying. We need a purpose that calls forth our true stature and elicits the hidden fire within us. We are called to life with imagination and courage because we have a purpose that endures past sunset.
When was the last time you caught your breath in worship, surprised by God showing up in unexpected ways? We live in an age where science can tell us much about our world; yet our souls long for awe and wonder. We long for purpose that is bigger than ourselves which comes when we worship together.
If we offered the world a transformational encounter with God every single Sunday, I suspect that we would have no trouble filling our buildings or expanding our ministries. Our job as church leaders is to create 52 transformational experiences every year. That’s 52 opportunities a year to change someone’s life as they encounter the sacred. That alone could change the world.
2. Don’t treat the congregation like volunteer staff.
We are literally administrating ourselves to death in the mainline church. Who joins a church because they want to serve on another committee? No one. Yet many of our local congregations offer that as the only way to participate in the life of the congregation. The vast majority of churches in the U.S. have 150 members or less. It does not take 26 committees to manage that.
The consequence of our obsession with committees means that, increasingly, younger people with children or careers won’t be able to participate. They simply don’t have time to attend meetings while also working, raising children, and managing all of the other areas of life.
Instead of committee members, turn your best people into leaders, free to live into the ministries the church should offer to the community. Instead of managers, give them a mission larger than the maintenance of the building, something focused on the transformation of your neighborhood. Empower your people to engage in life-changing work rather than institutional management. People have precious few hours in their over-packed lives. The Church should be the place they give their best energy to in an effort to make the world a better place. We are called to be God’s hands and feet in the world. Let them bethe church and change the world . . . hire a manager.
3. Don’t fear innovation.
Why are young people not attending church? Why is our technology outdated? Why are our national structures broken and our regional offices bankrupt? These are not mysterious questions without discernible answers. These are organizational systems in need of innovation.
I’ve been so impressed by the new partnership of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) and the Episcopal Church who are now working together to start new ministries like the Baltimore-based Church on the Square, led by the Rev. James Hamilton. By addressing wellness issues, nurturing arts and culture, and improving the environment, the Church on the Square is enriching community life through faith, spirituality, and doubt. It’s a laboratory of innovation with Jesus at its core.
4. Don’t assume seminaries prepare clergy for ministry.
I appreciate seminaries for their important role in the formation of church leaders, but to assume seminary education is all one needs to engage in effective ministry is ludicrous. Seminaries are not equipped to train pastors in web development, financial management, building maintenance, landlord procedures, marketing and branding, media relations, database management, and, in some cases, nonprofit management.
Other degree programs do not pretend to teach students all they need to know. Evolving industries require continuing education opportunities to keep professionals up-to-date on emerging thoughts, tools, and trends. They offer robust programs that efficiently teach the more practical, hands-on skills. Why don’t we require the same?
That is in large part why denominational partners created the Center for Progressive Renewal some years ago. Today we have over 400 students engaged in online learning and hundreds more participating in regional events, coaching, and cohort gatherings. We must become life-long learners; curiosity about life is the breeding ground of innovation.
5. Don’t see technology as the enemy.
The reality is that our potential members already live in a worldwide web of meetings, video conferencing, Facebook, and blogging. They have embraced e-marketing and YouTube, Twitter and iPads. For us to not use these tools given their proven effectiveness makes us look obsolete and irrelevant, because that’s how we’re acting.
Think of the time you could save by using reliable contact management software rather than maintaining your membership lists on an Excel spreadsheet — or worse, a membership book. Think of the funds you could raise online rather than by collecting cash or checks on Sunday morning? Think of the impact you could make by incorporating a powerful film clip to illustrate a sermon, connecting the modern to the ancient. Think of the money (and trees) you could save by emailing your newsletter rather than printing and mailing a hard copy to every member. The intelligent use of technology could save one church thousands of hours and dollars.
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I do love the church, and I do not believe that we are presiding over its death. I do have faith that the progressive church can play a vital and important role in saving the church. But as leaders, we must have hope shored up by the courage to forge new ways forward. If the captain of a boat understood her job to keep the boat safe and secure, she would never take it out of the harbor.
Our calling is to risk the adventure of the open sea. Romans 14:8 reminds us that if we live, we live unto the Lord, and if we die, we die unto the Lord. Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. Believe in your own possibility. When it comes to the Church, I believe in resurrection.
Rev. Cameron Trimble is the Executive Director, CEO of the Center for Progressive Renewal. Cameron also serves on the board of directors for Convergence. Her ministry in national and regional church settings has given her a unique perspective on the challenges of cultivating leaders equipped to meet the needs of the future of mainline Protestantism. Rev. Trimble is an adjunct professor teaching church planting and renewal with the Pacific School of Religion and Chicago Theological Seminary and has co-authored the book “Liberating Hope” in 2011.