GROWING IN GRACE
Are you tired of church as usual? I know I am. Pew Research says we’ve seen roughly a 7 percent increase among those who claim no religious affiliation over the last 10 plus years. We know this already. Church attendance is down across the board. As an annual conference we’ve challenged ourselves to a 10 percent increase in average worship attendance in order to grease the wheels of growth. But what, if anything, will make the difference?
I believe now, more than ever, is the season of innovation in the church. My friend Phil Schroeder in North Georgia says, “It’s the season of R&D in the church” (Research and Development). He’s right. Now, more than ever, is the time to turn over the tables and try new things.
Below are five ways I think we could start trying to be more innovative as we welcome the challenges of our current religious climates and even rise to the occasion as we engage in work for the sake of God’s kingdom:
- “The way we’ve always done it…” doesn’t cut it anymore as an answer for why we do ministry. There’s an old saying that says, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” History is important in the life of a church. History gives us a sense of identity. In many ways it tells us who we are by way of who we have been. But history is informative for the mission of God’s church ONLY insofar as it informs us on where we could go. The trailblazers in our churches who have gone before us were once innovators. Before an idea became, “the way we’ve always done it” it was something new and radical and maybe even controversial. We need to reclaim that trailblazing sense of our foremothers and forefathers. We need to experiment with new ways of doing ministry.
- The only measurement of failure is failing to try. Thomas Edison reportedly made 1,000 unsuccessful attempts before he finally invented the light bulb. I had to look that up on the Internet. Do you know why? Because he’s never known for his failures – he’s always known for the success he had because he refused to give up. Author John Maxwell calls this practice, “Failing Forward.” That is, the art of taking failures for what they are – opportunities to learn, not as deterrents for trying. I would challenge your church council to come up with four to five wild ideas (within reason) based on your passions and community needs and give a couple of them a try. If you fail, ask these questions: 1) Why did we fail? 2) What could we do better next time? 3) What went well that we might want to try in the future? If you can create a culture of evaluating everything you do – even, and especially, the failures – you’ll be well on your way to being an innovative church.
- Shift your focus from the things you lack to the gifts present in your community. We’re doing this at Trinity Church with the leadership of Rev. Stacey Harwell-Dye. Instead of wringing our hands about not having enough – enough money, enough people to fill out a leadership list, enough etc. – we’re doing a series of interviews in our congregation to discover the gifts already present. What we’re finding is remarkable: people, by and large, never get the chance to engage their true passions in the life of the church. We’re Methodists, which means we’re often married to our methods. The exciting stuff we’re discovering is that maybe we need to enter a new season of church life where we’re less married to leadership lists, old structures, and “church as usual” in order to turn people loose to employ their passions for the sake of the kingdom.
- It’s all about who is NOT here yet. Everything we do as a church should have a focus on those not yet with us. How are we visitor friendly? How could we engage our communities more? Who are we missing here? Why? How could we be a more welcoming congregation? I’m not saying we shouldn’t care for those already in our congregations. But the primary focus of ministry should always be on others. And a stronger sense of discipleship, when cultivated, will lead our members to see themselves as agents for the kingdom, not just recipients of its ministry.
- We need to grow deeper all around. If engaging new people helps our churches grow wide, then we can’t forget the call to grow deeper too. We need more bible study. But when we study the bible, do we worry about reading more (read the bible in a year) or do we worry about reading more slowly? A slower reading of scripture might lead us to have the words written on our hearts in such a way that our lives reflect it. We need more small groups. But do we need small groups in order to have another group of friends, or do we create small groups around cultivating life change? I don’t know about you, but I have plenty of friends. What I need more of in my life is a sense of purpose that leads me to be different. I need a small group to serve as more than dinner buddies or a gossip club – I need people who will lovingly hold my feet to the fire of God’s grace that leads me to a life of holiness.
My prayer for my church, for all of our churches, is that we’ll muster the courage to give ourselves for the sake of something bigger and grander than just preserving a building or keeping a church going for 10 more years. I pray that we can find the grace to risk something for the sake of God’s kingdom. If we do … I mean if we really give ourselves for something big and God-sized … I truly believe that God will take that offering, bless it, break it wide open, and share it with the world.
The Rev. Ben Gosden is the pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church in Savannah. He can be reached at email@example.com.