[Note: I know this lacks specifics. More will follow.]
As a pastor I have a confession to make that I suspect others need to make also, and it is this: I think I’m pretty important. I’m also increasingly sure that I’m not as important as I think I am.
Brand new research has show that “none” is now the third largest religious group in the Untied States. These are not atheists, agnostics, or the spiritual but not religious. They are people simply opting out of the conversation all together, much like I opt out of conversations about women’s shoes. I’m not opposed to women having shoes, I just don’t have any interest one way or another as to their shape or color.
Recently I was visited at my church by a Korean missionary. This was not a scheduled thing, she just stopped by. Now, what’s really interesting is that she wasn’t looking for support to evangelize Korea, or really looking for anything from us at all. Instead, she was a missionary, sent from Korea, to evangelize the United States. I must confess it took me a minute to wrap my brain around what was going on. After all, this backwards from how it’s supposed to work.
So, it would seem that we are increasingly a nation of religiously disinterested people, who are in fact so disinterested that other countries are now sending missionaries here to help us reach people about Jesus.
Now, back to me, because, after all, I’m the important one.
In the face of all of this there is increasing pressure on pastors to find new and creative ways of reaching people. I’ve been involved in several groups and attended many trainings about just this. Often times “successful” pastors are dragged out to share with us their great wisdom and we are all expected to go home revved up to do as they have done. Which is great in a pastor centric view of the world.
Add to this increasing calls from all corners for institutional forces in the life of the church to be brought to bear. Metrics that will hold pastors accountable. Reports commissioned from on high to offer us truths far to obvious to those of us in the trenches of congregational life. And the books. Oh, the mountains of poor slain trees offered up to print the books!
Now, I’m not against accountability. I’m not against maintaining high standards. I’d be the first to say the standards for clergy among the mainline churches is abysmally low. So should there be pressure, sure. The issue I see though is this, the pressure is coming from the wrong direction. All this effort coming from the top reinforces the notion that I’m the most important thing in my congregation, when the truth is the complete opposite.
Let me put it this way. If our churches were really places that gave life. If they were really places that lifted people up, gave comfort to the afflicted, and healing to the sick, loosed the bonds of injustice, would it be those above us spurring us on to do more, or those who gather around us in the pews? Was John Wesley spurred on by the church establishment or by the cheer of the unwashed crowds?
The gospels are full of stories of people begging Jesus to do more, people attempting to make him king, people who are so overwhelmed by the blessings they have received that they proclaim it loudly even after he tells them not too. If our churches were like that, would it be our overseers that would be driving us, or would it be the people?
Let me make another bold claim.
Jesus wasn’t responsible for the growth of the Christian church.
No, best we figure his church plant lasted no longer than three years and at the end of it he had amassed the amazing total of 12 committed members (okay, really 11 thanks to an embezzling treasurer). His metrics would have sucked.
Instead, it was the work of those amazing early disciples, the 11 and several women scripture unfortunately marginalizes, that set the Christian movement on the path to its amazing growth. Even when it was considered illegal to be Christian the church flourished as small committed groups shared the good news with others. Not because someone higher up told them they had to, no, because it was too important and valuable not to share.
So where I arrive with all of this is here. If the focus is on me and what I’m doing I’m afraid our church is doomed. Churches will rise and fall with the personality of their pastors and we will travel the same road of growth and crash we’ve witnessed in the non-denominational movement for years.
If we really want to reach people the church doesn’t need any more Jesuses (Jesi??), what is needs is more disciples.
It doesn’t need more institution to tell us how to do things right. It needs more boots on the ground living out God’s call. If you want to hold me accountable to something make it that. If you want to train me, train me to do that. If you want to empower me, back me up when feathers get ruffled as I fire up the willing.
I’m important only in so much as I am able to help people become more committed disciples. Revitalization will happen not when the institution demands it but when the masses sitting in our churches on Sunday morning do. Life will return and we will flourish when doing God’s work is more important to our members than doing church work.
The mass ambivalence of those around us will end when walking by a church is no longer akin to me walking by a ladies shoe store. (It doesn’t matter what sign they put out front I’ll never been interested enough to walk in.)
I am not the answer.
The gathered congregation is.
And someone needs to tell them that.
(Which would, I guess, be me.)