Yesterday I attended my first ever “Visioning Retreat” through a local church. The retreat was an opportunity for us to gather together, dream, discuss, and reflect on what makes a church and how the church can engage more people. We all have been part of churches that were so vibrant, filled with joy and exuberance, and where we truly felt like we were part of something wonderful. We’ve probably also been to a few churches where we’ve felt out of place, discouraged, and like we had to hide our true identity. So what makes those experiences (both in relatively the same place) so different and how do we truly know whether a church is thriving or if it’s time for the church to radically reconfigure everything they have previously done?
SIGNS THAT A CHURCH IS DOING WELL
Different people have different measures of success and it is important to note that success does not always mean the church has hundreds of people attending it. A church can have 50 people on a given week and still be thriving. Likewise a church can have 500 people every week and yet not have a sense of cohesiveness or deep fellowship. My own personal definition of success is: a church which is faithful to the unique calling and vision God has placed in it at this time, for this season, in this geographical location, and for these people. My criteria for how one can measure this is as follows:
A church which is truly successful will:
* Engage with the people who are already there and encourage people who don’t yet attend to come in
* Work within the established traditions to create new, fresh, innovative ideas
* Seek a wide-range of voices and discuss a variety of relevant and interesting topics.
When a church is doing well:
* There is internal diversity and yet a sense of unity, peace, and calm
* People feel they can be their authentic selves and the fullest version of who God has created them to be (they will not need to put on a “mask” or a “false front.”)
* People in the community will know who they are, why they are there, and generally what they believe and why
* People will be excited to be part of this community and will want to draw others into it
Conversely, when a church is not doing well
* There is murmuring, complaining, back-biting, gossip, and comparing
* People keep referring to the “good old days” and cannot move forward
* People are unwilling or unable to change, to embrace new ideas, to be challenged, and to grow spiritually
* There are no (or very few) children, youth, and young adults within the congregation which signals in a very real way that unless things change and fast, this may very well be the last generation that will worship within the walls of this church
MY TOP 5 LIST
One of my only experiences of finding a new church was when I moved to Edinburgh. Although I’ve worshipped in many other communities, the majority of them were for university and seminary placements so I was essentially “told” where I would be going. The fact that I had to find my way around in Edinburgh really taught me a few things about looking for a church. Like I said, everyone’s priorities are slightly different, but here are my major priorities:
#1: I admit, theology is important to me, but it’s not the very first place I look. The first thing I looked for when I started “church shopping” was where I felt most at home. When I walked into the church I wanted to be noticed as an outsider. I wanted people to greet me, introduce me to the pastor, and tell me about all the wonderful programs being held. I wanted people to pick up from my accent that I “wasn’t from around here” and ask me where I was from (without assuming I was an American). For me a friendly welcome is important. I need a place where I can network and see friendships and relationships as being a possibility. I do not want to feel like an outsider or like the church is made up of cliques that I can never fully enter into.
#2: Once I feel comfortable in the church itself, the next step is to see what their preaching is all about. As a self-proclaimed nerd, I value a church community that makes me think, but also that allows me to feel. I like a church with a solid Bible study or other small group opportunities I can be a part of. I like to learn from the experience of others, but also want to share my own experience. In short, I am looking for companions on my journey.
#3: I look for a church where I can be my most authentic self. Being a woman with a very strong calling to ministerial leadership is seldom an easy task. I want a church that affirms this calling and can support me through it. I do not want to debate and have to justify myself every other minute.
#4: I look for a church that gives me opportunities to serve. In the second bullet, I mentioned how important it is for me to have a space to grow and develop as a young Christian, but now I need to mention that being an activist at heart, I need to keep busy or else I’ll turn restless. I like a church that has a proven track record for helping “the least of these” and that has many different opportunities to plug into service. I want a church where being Jesus’s hands and feet is a reality, not just a talked about idealized fantasy.
#5: Lastly, I look for same age peers. Although I believe it is important to have people from a wide variety of ages and life stages, we also need some people from our own situation. I can gain a lot of wisdom from elderly people (and typically I enjoy hanging out with older adults more than with people my own age), but still…as someone who is single with no children I want people I can discuss jobs, schooling, and the stress of #adulting with. Not just people who are raising three young kids themselves.
REACHING OUT TO OTHER CHRISTIAN GROUPS
Churches cannot be self-sufficient, they will only survive when they become more inclusive than insular, more aware than aloof. When I was in Edinburgh, I discovered a very different mentality for church growth, that I never really witnessed here in Canada. That’s because in Edinburgh I discovered that we’re all really on the same page. Our only mission and goal is to see lives changed and hearts transformed and we are willing to go to any length to see that happen. Thus, we warmly welcome people into our churches, but we also acknowledge that God may be calling different people to different churches at different times and that our church might not necessarily be the place they are called to be.
Here’s what I mean. It should never be about:
* Who has the biggest program
* Who has the biggest budget
* Who has the best teaching
It should be about churches learning from one another and cooperating with one another in order to see the Kingdom Come!
When I moved back to Canada I became involved in a really wonderful Presbyterian church. I love many things about them, but what I probably love the most is the way they work with other churches. That’s why:
*Although we have no young adult program of our own, the leaders encourage us to join other local young adults groups
* Although we didn’t have a Christmas Day service, the pastors encouraged us to attend other local Christmas Day services (and even wrote where they were in our bulletin)
* Although we have a lot of cool programs, we’re also invited to take part in other cool activities at other cool churches
What do we get in exchange for this?
Well, in Edinburgh my church (which was Church of Scotland – Presbyterian) always “advertised” events that happened at the local Baptist Church. Theologically they were two very different churches. The “feel” was different in both. BUT when the Presbyterians spoke about a Baptist conference people went and that meant that when the Presbyterians had an event the Baptists also came. So instead of being two insular churches, we were really two churches that reached out to one another in love. I believe that if every church did this, we’d get a whole lot further rather than just being stuck in the mud.
Even the most established and thriving church must contentiously consider the issue of “visioning” from time to time. The structure of the church changes depending on the needs of the generation and the culture. If people do not feel like the church is “connecting” to them, they won’t come. Plain and simple as that.
A lot of people in my generation (20s and 30s) have already lost the value of church. And that’s why I think it’s important to reimagine what church has the potential to be. It doesn’t always have to be formal, we also crave the informal. We need to be pushed, but we also need to be embraced. We need to be taught, but we also long to teach. And most importantly, we long for a place of connection, where we can truly say “this is it. This is where I need to be. I’ve arrived.”
Growing churches grow because they are faithful to the unique vision God has given them at this time, for this people, and in this geographical location. Every church’s vision is slightly different which is what makes them unique. Yet, we cannot allow this sense of “unique identity” to tear us away from what is truly important – the saving of souls and the eternal destiny of all. We must cooperate with other churches in order to see our role in the larger picture. When we become more inclusive and less insular this is when we will truly thrive and that is, what I believe, Christ wants most of all.