Maybe it is because of our Western, American culture -- with its concern for systems and success -- that church leaders often focus on programs and numbers, sometimes at the expense of the very people these systems are meant to serve. When I received my first appointment to a congregation as lead pastor, I remember thinking that my job was to keep the programs that I inherited running and to make improvements to them so that they involved more people. But what if the best way to make improvements in a program is to focus on the people the program is meant to serve? After all, isn’t that how Jesus did ministry? Jesus focused on people – individual, God-created people – not on creating successful systems that involved masses.
Please don’t hear what I am not saying. We need to think systemically, organizationally and programmatically. But programs (like the Sabbath) are meant to serve people, not people to serve the programs. In the remainder of this blog post, I’d like to suggest several areas where it may be in order to evaluate whether our priority on people needs to be recovered.
Our hospitality ministry: I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have clear signage, clean bathrooms, friendly greeters, tidy lobbies and good coffee (especially the later). But all this can get rather mechanical; as if bushing these buttons will automatically make our churches grow. Jesus didn’t deal with people with ulterior motives: so that they could teach Sunday School or help pay down the mortgage, lower the congregation’s average age or help the church grow. Jesus focused on individuals, what was going on in their life and their need for God. Zacchaeus, the Samaritan woman by the well, Lazarus, the man sitting beside the pool of Bethsaida: these were real people for Jesus, not fodder for his ministry programs. When we push all the church growth buttons, we must not forget that it is for people’s sake that we do it, not for the sake of our programs. Are we taking the time to get to know individuals, learn their names and hear their story? Otherwise, we are just winding them up to serve our program. And people notice, when on the way home, they feel even more lonely and disconnected than they did when they came to church with the faintest of hope that maybe they would find there the beginnings of a healing relationship and embracing community.
Our child-care ministry: Many congregations have child-care ministries of various sorts. They run the gamut from secular organizations that rent church facilities and are in no way part of the ministry of the congregation to very deliberate holistic ministries of the congregation to the families of their community. Being the landlord of a child-care ministry may earn the congregation some money, but unless the people of the congregation are intentionally building relationships with the children and families who come there, it is a stretch to call it a Jesus-style ministry. Why? Because it is within relationships -- relationships with people whose names you know and with whom you have allowed space in your life -- that the Good News of God’s love is made real. Relationships – not programs -- are the bridges across which the Gospel moves out and into people’s lives. Without the congregation intentionally building relationships, the child-care ministry may be housed at the church facilities during the week, but the people who use it will likely remain quite separate from the Body of Christ that gathers there on the weekends.
Our youth ministry: Many may be surprised to discover that by the time they graduate from high school (if not before) the vast majority of youth once active in protestant youth groups quit going to church. These days, most never go back – even after they get married and have children, as was the case in previous generations. This is a disturbing new trend this century. The silver lining comes in exploring why those few who continue coming to church through their early adult years do stay. In short, it seems to be because they had developed personal relationships with the pastor and other adults in the church beyond their youth counselors and felt that they were a valued part of the whole congregation relationally. Hear the difference? The youth that are active in the youth group only and are not connected relationally to the larger congregation tend to drift away around graduation. Those youth who are involved in relationships and roles in the larger congregation beyond the youth group are the ones who tend to stay connected to the church – though it might eventually be to a different congregation. Having an active youth program may not pass the Gospel along to the next generation – if significant relationships with persons outside the youth group are not intentionally woven by pastors and other adults in the congregation.
Our outreach ministry: Congregations find an amazing array of ways to respond to the needs of people in their community in the name of Christ. Like Jesus, his disciples have compassion on the suffering of others. As we house or feed or cloth persons, are we focused mostly on the housing, feeding and clothing or on the individuals who in this season of their life are homeless, hungry and without clothing? I remember going to a feeding program in our community several times as a young pastor. I stood stiffly behind a table and ladled food onto plates which were passed down the line and eventually handed to persons who came to find food. I helped feed them, but I never sat down and ate with them, learned their names, heard their stories, and let them into my life. The emphasis was on feeding them, not on the child of God who right then was in need of some food. As Jesus said, “Humans do not live by bread alone.” The feeding is important, but encountering a fellow person with respect and wonder, affirmation and openness is what Jesus did . . . and it is what we are called to do in his name, even as we feed their physical hunger.
It isn’t a matter of choosing people rather than programs. It is a matter of choosing people first, relationships first, never forgetting that first here is a man or woman, a boy or girl created by God and for whom Jesus died no less than us. As you think about the ministries of your congregation, are people getting this amazing message from you?
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Dr. Jeff Stiggins
The Center for Congregational Excellence