Living Into a New Identity
Finding the Purpose of Our Ministry Beyond the Pandemic
This is a difficult time for many congregations. Following the problems of the pandemic, we have for the most part resumed our regular worship and activity patterns. There may be some differences, such as the continued use of masks or the way we take communion, but in most places life in the church has tried to get back to normal. Kind of.
Unfortunately, normal doesn’t always look like it did before. In some places, members are missing, giving has suffered, and attendance at worship and other activities is slow to respond. This has been especially painful in smaller congregations, where connections are deep and relationships matter. Online worship was essential to our continued ministry, but for some it is still easier to watch at home instead of getting the family ready and going to church. Financially we made it through those difficult months by encouraging online giving, but now we find that the connection between worship and stewardship is tenuous at best. In many communities it was difficult to continue face-to-face mission projects because of Covid and pleas for donations took the place of volunteers doing important work in difficult places. Now when we ask for help it can be hard to inspire the kind of dedication that those ministries once had.
The challenge facing many of our congregations is not a matter of faith and belief. Christ still matters in our small and rural churches. The bigger problem is the tension between activity and convenience. Our old models still work for some, but technology has proven that sitting in a sanctuary is not the only way to worship God and that serving on committees and being a part of the congregational “work force” may not be as inviting or as inspiring as we once thought.
The answer is not to give up and stop serving God, so the question we face is this – how can we be the church in this place, even if our numbers are down or our resources are fewer?
Many small and rural churches are suffering from an identity crisis. As pastors we feed that mindset in the ways we refer to our own ministry settings. In talking to others about the work that we do, one of the first questions we frequently ask is, “How many members do you have?” as if that is the most important of all identifying factors. Too often members of these smaller churches undervalue the work and ministry they do, simply because they are trapped in a system that puts more of a premium on the number of people in the seats and less of a value on the quality of their faith or the things they do in the name of the Gospel. But what if we ignored the numbers and focused primarily on mission? What if we looked at the work that we do in our context through the lens of service to Jesus Christ, rather than quantifiable categories?
Smaller membership congregations have the opportunity to renew their own sense of spiritual well-being by intentionally thinking about the purpose of their faith community. It goes without saying that worshiping and glorifying the Lord is our primary purpose, but what happens if attendance numbers are low or musical gifts are absent or the quality of worship is uninspiring for reasons that are unrelated to the gospel itself? These factors can accelerate the sense that a church is in decline. Worship is essential, but if worship is the only way the congregation expresses its life together or its presence in a community, then a decline in worship may be an indicator that the life of that congregation is less important than before.
In this post-pandemic world, churches can learn to express their vitality by discovering additional ways to express their mission to Jesus Christ. While worship is generally an internal expression of a congregation’s calling, other means of outreach can feed the flames of their faith and assert the importance of the church in that community. Let's be very clear - making disciples and providing pastoral care are essential functions of every faith community, regardless of size. And mere activity should never be mistaken for the real business of the church. But activity is the language that the church speaks in its effort to be visible to the larger community. Through visible activities the church is able to make inroads into larger circles, often filled with those who have a marginal, or even no faith commitment. This is an opportunity for mission and evangelism local-style, even if we never use those words. A low-membership church, even one that has been in danger of closing, can experience a renewed sense of life and purpose, when its members rededicate themselves to a particular work that distinguishes them within that context.
Every small and rural church should ask this question - If we did not exist in this community, what would be missed?
If the answer is nothing, then the writing is on the wall. That church is a good candidate for decline and eventual closing, since it contributes little to the cause of Christ or the community itself. But if the answer reveals an aspect of ministry or service, then the conversation has a place to begin. Vitality in any church, particularly a small congregation, is directly related to identity. And identity is related to the ways our efforts to represent Jesus are perceived and received by ourselves and by those in the world around us.
Many churches still live in the shadow of their golden years. They look back on a time when the pews were full and the Sunday School rooms crowded and think that the same type of ministry is possible today. But with very different resources, the 30 member church cannot live the same life as the 200 or 300 member church that they used to be. The question is not "How can we do what we used to do," but rather, "What can we do well in this place to bring glory to God?"
What does this look like in real life? A sense of service in the name of Christ is unique to every faith community. In one place I served it was our commitment to meals on wheels and the impact that had on the shut-ins around us. In another, it was realized by renewing our commitment to the young people of the community, regardless of faith or denomination, and providing a place for them to gather a couple of nights a week. In other towns it might mean providing weekly volunteers at the local nursing home or helping with a Thanksgiving meal for people in need. Some congregations have an annual meal or event that everyone looks forward to, like a chicken supper or a roast beef dinner. On the outside they may seem like simple fundraisers, but in reality the ways that church members are drawn together to make the event a success and the perception in the community that this Christian church is doing something for others in the name of Jesus, makes the event a success in ways that reach far beyond the number of people served or the amount of money raised. Even a few loyal volunteers can have a big impact.
Those churches that have no distinguishing activities or types of outreach can gain a sense of vitality by asking a couple of different questions – what does our community need, how can our church fulfill that need, and how could such an outreach serve the cause of Christ?
Being a small church is not the same thing as being a dying church. Because numbers only tell a part of the story. The real key to finding vitality in small packages is in identifying our unique calling and in realizing how that serves Jesus in this very special place. We are beginning to learn that the call of our churches beyond the pandemic is not to return to normal, but to discover what new forms normal can take as we live out our faith in the name of God.