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
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