GROWING IN GRACE
Lent is the time of year where we look at our lives and do the hard work of being honest about things that might be keeping us from growing deeper in our relationship with God. Now, many use it as an excuse to deprive themselves of chocolate or caffeine or dessert. I say that’s fine so long as those things are hindering your faith life. If they’re not and you still want to give them up as an act of endurance for the next 40 days, then fine, at least add something new to your life that will help you grow deeper in your faith journey.
It occurs to me that while the church asks individuals to do this critical and honest work, maybe we should spend some time as the church doing it too. In other words, how can the church practice what it preaches about self-denial and transformation?
Below are five things the Church should think about giving up for Lent. Maybe you can read these and add a few of your own:
- Stop working people to death. Too often we associate discipleship and service with being busy at the church. Churches should really slow down and think about what it means to people when you ask them to spend two, three, or four days a week busy in a church building. Maybe it’s time to free people up to serve for the sake of others outside the walls of your building? Maybe it’s time for busy-work ministries to take a break? Maybe we should spend this season in prayer and maybe even in rest in order to actually be with God and one another instead of making those things one more item on a to-do list? Remember the wise advice of the Apostle Paul who said it’s by grace alone that we are saved, not by the busyness of our church programs.
- Stop viewing visitors and especially young families as investments for the future of your church. We do it all the time. Someone starts visiting our church and we get excited about the potential of what they can give the church. If it’s a young family, we foam at the mouth with anticipation of how they will bolster the size and vitality of our children and families programs. Stop it. Just stop. It’s selfish to view newcomers to your church as commodities to use for your own purposes. If a family is visiting your church, don’t find ways to make them busy (see above); find ways to connect them with God and other people. If a new person graces the doors of your church, don’t ask what they can give before they get to their seat. Give them time to connect with God. Let God’s Spirit do its work. Remember: while it’s important that people serve and become involved in the local church, it’s doubly important that churches don’t exploit them for their own gain in the process.
- Stop thinking young clergy are the key to bringing in younger members. As a young pastor, this is a real struggle. On one hand, you can’t help but become the face and voice for “all young people everywhere.” You share a life stage with other young people who might be visiting your church. And you act as a sort of interpreter for those who struggle speaking and understanding the language of young adult. On the other hand, it’s a burden to be expected to become a magnet for other young people. If churches think a young pastor is what will bring in younger people, they’re wrong. It’s the job of the whole church, not just the pastor, to reach out to others and engage them in the life of the church. Give your young pastors a break from this burden. And for God’s sake, give your more mature pastors a break from the guilt of not being a young adult anymore! You might be surprised how young adults can connect with people of all shapes, sizes, and ages if a church is committed to things like hospitality and serving others.
- Stop being so inwardly focused. This is a tough one. Any church of any size or age eventually has to deal with this temptation — it’s not all about us. We need to take stock of how many ministries are geared to serve those who are already members of our churches. We need to be critical of how much effort we expend worrying about paying our bills, maintaining our buildings, and serving the needs of those sitting in our pews. That’s not to say we don’t watch over one another in love and care for each other through life’s ups and downs. It simply means part of that care is lovingly reminding each other that we are called to love and serve others, even above ourselves. It’s sort of what Jesus was all about.
- Stop being petty. We don’t meant to do it. But sometimes in the wonderful meaning we find in being a part of a church, we become petty. We inevitably put too much meaning in a piece of furniture, a building, a room, the color of the carpet, a certain pew, etc. because these things are symbols of how much a church means to us. That deep love and meaning is a good thing. But being petty, sensitive, or argumentative over these things are not. Sometimes it’s not about winning an argument as much as it’s about reacting the way Jesus might. And that requires we remember Jesus had no place to lay his head, no sacred pew to sit on, and no sacred piece of furniture bought in memory of a family member to guard life Fort Knox.
Bonus - a practice churches could take on during the season of Lent:
LISTEN! Having been raised in the church and now serving it as a pastor, I can tell you this is something we need more practice at. And it touches on every aspect of church life:
- Can’t figure out why your attendance in declining? Try listening to people who are sitting in your pews. Better yet, call someone who has become less active or inactive and listen to their story.
- Wondering how to get more young adults and families to become involved in your church? Sit down with some young people and listen. Maybe you’re asking too much? Maybe you’re not asking enough? Maybe you’re asking all the wrong questions?
- Are people bored or is it hard to get them to serve in your leadership structure? Listen to some leaders and ask how you might actually be making it hard to serve. As a United Methodist pastor I can testify to the fact that we love our model of leadership sometimes more than our leaders or even the mission those leaders serve. Yes, leaders serve a mission, not a model or structure.
- Listen to people’s hopes and dreams. Listen to the ways they long to connect with God. Listen to their fears and and joys. Listen. Listen. Listen. Don’t speak. Resist the urge to jump into telling them how to live or what choices to make or what to believe. Just listen.
What items would you add to this list?
The Rev. Ben Gosden is the senior pastor at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Savannah. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.