Wednesday, September 16, 2009

What are we really trying to do? (Part 1)

And the church is his body; it is filled by Christ who fills everything everywhere with his presence. Ephesians 1:23

The first church I ever pastored was a small country church in a small, small town. I was a youth minister and college student at a Baptist university when they asked me to preach in view of a call. The church only had a handful of members and could only pay gas expenses for me to get there and back on Sundays. The building was nice and new, not very big, but more than adequate. They needed someone to preach and I needed somewhere to get preaching experience. It was a good fit.

We would meet on Sunday mornings at ten o’clock, all nine of us. We always divided into two groups for Sunday School, then we came together for the worship service. We would sing three or so hymns and pass an offering plate. Sometimes, one of the two young girls would provide the special music. Then, of course, I would stand in the pulpit and preach to the eight. We would sometimes sing a hymn of invitation and then the service would be over. That would be it until next Sunday.

Once we as a church had found a rhythm and a good flow to our services, we began to grow. Well, not really, but we did double and triple our worship attendance. I can tell you it wasn’t growth because there was a small layer of accumulated dry dust in the bottom of the baptistery. It had not been used in years. However, as inactive members began returning to our services, the sanctuary began to fill up with enough people to warm the building. The extra envelopes in the offering plate meant that the burden of paying the bills was being eased.

We never did baptize anyone during my few years there. Though it bothered us, it didn’t sting too much. Now, that is a terribly unfortunate statement, but there is some truth it. We had the illusion of progress. Things were changing and improving. In all of that we had accomplished something that made us feel . . . comfortable. We succeeded in what we were really trying to do.

Truth be told, I was always just a visitor there in that little town. The church had been there long before I arrived and planned to be there long after I had gone. It was, and wanted to be, a perfect picturesque fit to small town religion. These people love God, but it was culture that defined the church, and it was culture that set its priorities.

The unspoken non-negotiables of the church mandated that there be a building with a steeple and that its worship service be held on Sunday mornings. The service was to last an hour and included comunal singing and a lecture. The church had to be registered as an organization with several national and state entities and have regular business meetings.

With these cultural prerequisites, our outreach was reduced to seeking people who were willing to come and be a part of what we were already doing, on our schedule, in our way, on our property. This was not Kingdom building, it was organization building. What mattered most was building and maintaining the organization. This is what we were trying to do, and that is all we ever did.

This is why every church must continually ask the question, “What are we really trying to do?” It probably isn’t what we think. No wonder so many churches are stagnant and dying.

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