Question: How are churches like navels?
Answer: Both congregations and belly buttons come in basically two styles – inny’s and outty’s. At least with congregations, outty’s are missionally preferable.
Missiologist Win Arn surveyed the members of nearly 1000 churches, asking the question, "Why does the church exist?" 89% said the church exists "to meet the needs of me and my family." He then surveyed the pastors of the same churches and their responses were the exact opposite - 90% said the church exists to win the world for Jesus Christ. That is a significant problem, wouldn't you say?
The most critical factor determining a congregation’s missional health is whether its energy is focused outwardly in mission or inwardly in self-preoccupation. Theologically, the church exists for others. But obviously many church members think otherwise. There are several contributing factors.
For example, we live in a consumer society. Everywhere we look, we are given the message that it is all about us: my needs, my dreams, my comfort, and my preferences. When we go to a store, we keep coming back as long as it suits us. If not, we go looking elsewhere. When people come to church, they bring this same cultural consumer orientation. It’s all about me.
And to be sure, when we first come to Christ, it is all about me: “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) We all come to Christ out of our brokenness, our emptiness, our confusion, our guilt – and Christ meets us at the point of our need. Then, Christ invites us to learn to live life his way, to pick up our crosses in sacrificial service – to recognize that there are Kingdom purposes bigger than ourselves and deserving of our commitment. It is an indictment of our discipling processes that many persons are part of our congregations for decades and somehow unashamedly can’t acknowledge that as Jesus’ apprentices we are called to become more like him. It is so not all about us.
My friend Jack Stephenson, lead pastor of Anona UMC, has often stated that where a congregation is in their life cycle largely determines the direction of their energy flow. The chart above tries to capture his thoughts. In the growth stage, a congregation’s energy is focused missionally out into the community. As a congregation matures, there comes a season when increasingly more of the congregation’s energy is consumed in caring for their members, maintaining their facilities and continuing their beloved traditions. The congregation may even grow for a time, but the trajectory begins to turn in upon itself . . . and eventually to decline. As the congregation looses touch with the very community they have been sent to serve, the congregation’s energy dissipates as people, money, resources and hope hemorrhage from the congregation until finally it is empty.
One of the reasons that the Salty Service Missional Vital Sign is reported monthly is to hold before every congregation the outward call to serve others in Jesus’ name. I spoke to the pastor of a congregation in the NC District at annual conference who excitedly told me of how for the first time in many years, their congregation has heard the call to serve others and is finding ways in their community to do just that. She said that the energy in the congregation is growing as they seek to have a Kingdom impact in their community – particularly through adopting a neighborhood elementary school. When a congregation starts making the missional choice of giving themselves away in service, their missional energy is refocused and the congregation’s lifecycle literally can begin again.
Is your congregation an inny or an outty? Is your life together driven by warring personal preferences or drawn out of itself in your common ministry to others?
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Dr. Jeff Stiggins
The Center for Congregational Excellence