Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Connection: Church Growth and Spiritual Formation – Part One

During a recent visit with my mentor, Calvin, he drew my attention to the article written by our D.S. on the front page of our District Newsletter entitled The Church's Mission: A World That Is Lost. The article speaks to the decline of the church as result of it seeming to have lost its mission focus: taking the Good News of Jesus Christ OUT to a lost and hurting world. The article states that churches both large and small will continue to decline (and die) because of their failure to understand this reality.

Indeed, with rare exception the prevalent vision in a number of local churches seems to be one inwardly focused on the escalating plant maintenance issues associated with aging edifices, compounded by the tough economic times in which we are living. But hey, who can blame us - we're just being good stewards of that which has been entrusted to us to care for, right? That argument might hold water for the 'bricks and mortar' issues of the church, but the central focus should never be consumed by the building with the steeple, but instead on the souls of the people. While only a few of us are called to serve on the board of trustees, ALL of us are called to serve as the ministers of the church, reaching out to those in need of the Gospel, all around us.

Calvin had drawn my attention to the newsletter article because of the reference our D.S. made concerning the remote churches in rural locations that defy demographic standards and church growth expert's predictions by continuing to bloom right where they have been planted. This conflicts with conventional wisdom which dictates a move into major population center in order to maintain an effective ministry to the masses. So, how can this occur when we have many churches in decline while prominently planted within well established population centers?

The article continues "there are a significant number of folks in the congregation who do not believe it is an imposition to be concerned about others' spiritual well-being, concerned enough to dare to bring them to the fellowship of the Body of Christ." Truly,

this is the mindset required to genuinely live out our call as the authentic church. Unfortunately, all too often the paradigm shift required to relinquish a bricks and mortar centered version of ministry to one which embraces this mission focus is regarded as too radical by many of our local churches with aging congregations already in crisis.


How do you see CLMs serving as a catalyst for change of the prevailing inwardly-focused culture and empowering our churches to embrace the mission that we have been called to?

1 comment:

MTPat said...

You have posed pointed questions about how Methodists can become effective at the very practice our heritage demands, that of discipleship. In part one, you point out that our DS has honestly called us to task for focusing our worship inward. All Methodists who have a heart for evangelism and outreach have been frustrated at times by the stronghold the status quo has on the denomination. One factor which contributes to this is the aging of the saints. I must add that the lack of spiritual formation and the diminishing of Christian practices in many of the our churches is a contributing factor. I think that we are also seeing the effects of an aging pastor pool, which puts pastors who have a strong institutional church background in churches who need a strong dose of intentional Christianity. As you have shown in "Part Two", it is not location, location, location. Location can help with church growth in numbers, but church growth in depth of spiritual practices and evangelism is not related to where, but to how, and to some extent, whom. The how requires us to focus our efforts on Prayer, learning, testimony, and the whom requires getting people out of the pews and into the community. I am blessed with a church which has a small part of its congregation that is not afraid to try the untried and is willing to get its feet dirty treading the path of Christ. We have a pastor who is much younger than the median,who, while having drunk the wine of Seminary, is also willing to see new paths through the eyes of such publications as "Ezekial's Bones" also touted by Dr. Fort, and "Experiencing God". He is willing to listen, even to learn, from the Laity in the church who are ready to step out of the box, a refreshing view indeed. However exciting the practice of evangelism is, and it is very exciting, it cannot stand without the support of a focused system of small groups, varied worship experiences, and opportunities for spiritual formation. We cannot go out and bring folks into a new relationship with Jesus Christ, and then drop them into a snoring, institutional church. We can do pretty effective evangelism with 20 or 25 hard-working dedicated people, but providing the newcomers with authentic worship, learning, and spiritual formation requires help from members whose relationship with Jesus Christ is the primary focus of their life, not a hobby practiced on Sunday.
How we see the CLM's role in this transition? I think there are a number of ways consistent with my remarks above. While many of us see preaching as one of our callings, I know that I do, that may not be the most effective way to effect the changes required. Opportunities are going to be limited for many of us. But developing outreach ministries, such as community prayer walks, unconventional church services, mission opportunities, and even street corner evangelism are within our reach. Our ordained pastors are limited in the time they can give to these ministries by the needs of the "aging congregations" and by administration of the church. The time left for new ideas and the challenges of discipleship is not enough in most cases. This, it seems to me, is our opportunity. We can also provide a means for identifying and developing those in our churches with a heart for other's "spiritual well being". Much of this work will be in small group settings, even one on one in some cases, and is too time consuming for the only pastor in a community church. Lay people need to be at the heart of the type of intentional Christian practice and outreach you bring up. As CLM's, we are in the perfect position to find and develop those lay people. Location is not the answer. The answer is in the how and the whom. The how is through developing intentional, authentic, Christian practices as espoused by Diana Butler-Bass and Bill Kemp. The whom is a praying, spirit led group of Lay people with the leadership of both an inspired pastor, and a well equipped, dedicated CLM.