One of the surest signs of congregational vitality is when a congregation is connecting missionally to their community. That means the members of the congregation are involved in genuine relationships with people out in the community in ways that bless others, extend a merciful helping hand and share the Gospel invitation to explore who Jesus is within the fellowship dedicated to following him. A lot of congregations however gather in a community that they know little about and that knows little about them. They are like an island in the sea of the world. Why is it easier to be a sanctuary from the world rather than a mission to it?
Congregations quickly get consumingly complicated. Within a decade, most congregations are so complex organizationally that they swallow up most of the time and energy of their best people just to keep the church wheels rolling. Musicians, singers, ushers, greeters, nursery workers, teachers, small group leaders, committee members, more committee members, youth leaders, people to take care of the facilities, people to work in the kitchen. By the time all these functions get covered, there is hardly anyone left to connect to people in the community -- or so it seems in many congregations. Church work consumes all the available resources for missional involvement beyond the church family.
Communities change and ministry styles & strategies that worked well before just don't work so well any more -- except for those already in the congregation. I know of a couple congregations near where I grew up that were really cooking when I was a youth. They are struggling today, however. Interestingly, both seem so similar to what I remember when visiting them in my teens -- which is quite a while ago, now! It is like they found a way of doing ministry that worked well once upon a time and they just kept on doing it the same way year after year. The world has changed, but the people still there still like it. No longer does it attract persons from the community. It is as if they are selling 8-track players. But no one buys 8-track players any more, no matter how well made they may be.
Leaders choose personal preferences over doing what it takes to be faithful and fruitful in Christ's mission to make disciples who transform the world. It is easy in a consumer society to think that the church is only there to cater to our needs. What we want, what makes us feel comfortable, what we are used to can seem far more important than picking up our crosses to follow Jesus in sacrificial service to others. Who wants to follow Jesus beyond their comfort zone? And yet that is exactly what our Lord calls us to do if we are to follow him. As Henry Blackaby put it, "You can't go with God and stay where you are at the same time."
These are formidable challenges to missional effectiveness. It is easy to underestimate their power to rivet the status quo in place. And yet, in every district in our conference church leaders committed to following Jesus faithfully are discovering the Holy Spirit strength to be his hands and feet and voice in their community.
How about your congregation? How about you?
In part two of this five part series on connecting missionally with your community, we begin to look at what it means to do ministry the way Jesus did.
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Dr. Jeff Stiggins
The Center for Congregational Excellence