Two major research projects have essentially defined my ministry for the past ten years: congregational vitality and seeker spirituality. A recent job change offered me (forced) a unique opportunity to pore through a veritable mountain of surveys, interviews, and site visit notes to determine what to keep and what to shred. Though I have analyzed this data and studied the information many, many times, something brand new caught my attention — something that both projects share in common — what I am calling “the urgency element.”
The best way to define the urgency element is to share a number of quotes from some leaders of the healthiest churches I visited, from spiritual seekers commenting on what they find most appealing in a church, and from spiritual seekers who have given up on finding a meaningful relationship with a church, but are instead creating alternative communities of faith.
“Andrew (hurricane) caused us to realize, ‘there’s a crisis somewhere every day.’ We have unlimited opportunities to serve other people. That simple realization turned us around — changed us completely. All of our ministries seek now to give some kind of aid to those in need.”
“If physical health is so important that we seek the best doctors, shouldn’t our spiritual health warrant the best spiritual leaders we can find? Shouldn’t we hold pastors to the same high standards we hold doctors to? I mean, is this important or isn’t it?”
“Our congregation redefined ‘comfort.’ We used to think of comfort as a noun that applied to us, you know, making sure we were feeling taken care of and happy. Then, we started defining ‘comfort’ as a verb, you know, ‘to comfort,’ meaning helping others feel compassion and consolation. When giving comfort became more important than being comfortable, our whole ministry got better.”
“Kids are hungry, NOW. Women are being abused, NOW. People are dying of AIDS, NOW. If a church isn’t doing something about these things NOW, then I don’t want to have anything to do with it.”
“I want to make a difference. I don’t want to talk about being like Jesus. I want to be like Jesus. I have yet to find a church that really does what Jesus said to do. Most churches I have been a part of waste their time arguing about what Jesus said.”
“We started ‘Fuel for School’ pretty much by accident. Three women found out that most of the kids at the school across the street didn’t have breakfast or lunch, so they asked if they could make oatmeal and tuna fish salad and peanut butter sandwiches, and let families know that their kids could come to the church for breakfast and lunch. I said ‘yes,’ — and got in big trouble with the trustees, but we worked it out — and within a couple weeks we were running out of food every day, so we asked everybody in the church to pitch in, and then a couple other churches offered to help, and before you knew it, we were serving a hundred kids two meals a day. Everybody in the church is involved — its brought back people we haven’t seen in years (we thought some of them were dead).”
“I want to be part of a church that matters. I want to be part of a church that saves both lives and souls. I want a church to teach me how to help as many people as I can.”
“We started tutoring a few kids who got placed on academic probation. When we showed some good progress, the school asked if we could take on some more students. We asked how many were in danger of failing and were told there were 64 kids needing help. We asked the members of our congregation — we’re really not very big — if anyone else could help, and we got about a dozen people. Then I started getting phone calls — from inactive members who offered to tutor, from members of other churches, from a retired teacher who was Jewish. We were able to help all 64 kids, and fifty-eight of them passed all their subjects. That was about six years ago, and we still tutor. We average about 40 people in worship each week. We average about 60 volunteer tutors each week. We’ve even set up a scholarship to help promising students with special needs go on to college or vocational school.”
“Real religion isn’t about who is ‘saved’ and who is ‘going to hell.’ Real religion is who is loved, and fed, and listened to, and respected. It isn’t enough to pray for somebody’s soul when they are hungry and sick. The church I used to go to regularly prayed for the hungry, but I never really prayed until I prayed with the hungry before serving them a meal.”
These are representative of well over 100 similar types of responses. Each has an element of urgency that motivates and inspires both individuals and congregations to action. A passive Christian faith is of little or no interest. It is the urgency of the need that results in a radical discipleship. In the same way that a crisis event, such as hurricane Katrina, elicits a heartfelt, generous, and sacrificial response from a wide variety of congregations, the healthiest congregations and the most effective communities of spiritual seekers display such compassion and readiness to respond as a natural expression of their identity. As the body of Christ, these traditional and non-traditional faith communities organize to serve the needs of God’s people in whatever form they appear. They never question “should we or shouldn’t we?” The only question they seem to ask is “How?”
Where do we experience an urgency to respond as the incarnate body of Christ to our communities and world? Where are the needs so great that we cannot help but respond? Where do we find the opportunity to serve so compelling that people can’t wait to get involved? Where is our desire to please God so intense that we seek ways to care for those who need God’s healing the most? Answering these questions may be the key to the health and vitality of our congregations. It’s worth some thought, right NOW!