Why are we here? I don’t have one answer that applies equally to all congregations, but I believe this question is THE question every congregation should discuss and wrestle with. Why do we exist? What difference are we making — in the lives of our members and friends, in our community, in our denomination, in our country and in our world? How do others benefit from our existence? What is our witness? What are we known for? What do we WANT to be known for? What are we doing about it? This string of questions is all about identity and purpose. They remind us that we are here for a variety of reasons — but if we are not consciously aware of the reasons, it is extremely difficult to tell whether we are doing a good job or not.
It can be quite disconcerting to ask church leaders what difference they are making? Where they are clearly aware of the differences they make in individual, communal, and social settings, the question generates great energy and excitement. Leaders fill newsprint with ways both big and small that lives are touched, people grow, hope is given, healing happens, transformation occurs, relationships are formed, bridges built, new possibilities emerge, and the gospel is shared. It can be amazing. But often the response is guilty silence. People clear their throats and refuse to make eye contact in the wake of the question, “What difference do we make?” Perhaps one person might offer, “well, we’re a friendly church — we all love it here,” but that’s about the extent of the feedback. Sometimes, people turn hostile, firing back, “why should we have to make any difference? This is our church and it takes care of us. That’s good enough for us.” And while an isolated individual might say and believe this, it is quickly evident that the majority of people present don’t agree. We all know, deep down inside, that the church exists to make an impact — to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” or some similar significant purpose. We know it, and we feel embarrassed when we have to admit that our own congregation is not living up to its full potential.
But part of the problem is that we don’t even take the time to ask key questions about our purpose, our witness, and our impact. Many churches are going through the motions — continuing to do what they’ve always done because they’ve always done it that way. Why do we offer worship on Sunday morning? Because we’re a church and that’s what churches do. But what do we want to happen to all the participants when we worship? What expectations do we have? We don’t have any expectations — worship isn’t a means to an end (relationship to God? oneness in Christ? empowerment by the Holy Spirit? strengthening Christian community? equipping us to live our faith in the world?), but an end in itself (an hour each week with three hymns, two scriptures, an anthem, and offering, a 20-minute sermon — shorter if possible — world without end, amen). What is Christian education all about? Give our kids something to do — learn Bible stories. But what are we teaching them to do? Sit quietly and listen to teacher so they know how to live a good Christian life. What about adults? Oh, our adult classes are as much about fellowship as learning. A decade ago I spent a month in the East and West Ohio Conferences doing some survey work. One of the questions I asked hundreds of regular church attenders was, “how have you grown in your faith in the past five years?” Unbelievably (at least to me) almost three-out-of-four people (73%) responded that “I haven’t really thought about it before. I can’t say I have grown in my faith. I am pretty much the same today as I was five years ago.” Of the one-in-five that reported growth (19% — 8% “weren’t sure”) it was almost universally person and individual (I know the Bible better, I pray every day, I come to church just about every week, I think I am nicer now, I wear a cross, I carry my Bible with me everywhere I go, I give more money to the church/to missions). Only 29 out of 889 (3%) people reported that they actually served more people or actively engaged in ministry to others. This research revealed a very simple, basic fact: we don’t talk about the reason the church exists in most of our congregations — we just assume everyone knows.
It is almost impossible to measure success without clear goals and objectives. What difference do we WANT to make? What impact are we trying to have in people’s lives, in our community, in our world? What are the tangible fruits we are trying to grow and bear and share? There is a huge difference between churches that say (real example) “we want to have a food pantry” and “we want to provide meals to 250 people each week.” In the first church, members make occasional donations and food is always on hand to give to people who come to the church seeking assistance. Their ministry doesn’t require much organization or support, and they are proud that they are doing something good. They have responded to requests 39 times over the past twelve months. In the second church, they had to figure out what it would require to provide food and supplies to so many people. They needed space for storage and distribution, a work force of volunteers and a coordinator, a strategy for soliciting and receiving donations, and good estimates of what all would be needed. They made the food pantry a central focus of their ministry and realized that the only way they could be successful was with help, so they reached out ecumenically and partnered with other Christian churches. In the same twelve months as the first church, they responded to 4,316 requests, providing food for over 10,000 people. The second church is the smaller of the two congregations. Which is making the bigger difference? The one with the clearest vision for what it is trying to do. The success has nothing to do with available resources, people, time, faith, pastoral leadership, etc. It has to do with vision, determination, intentionality and a clear sense of purpose.
Once we decide what it is we want to do, then (and only then) can we figure out the best way to do it. This is known as “form follows function.” Too many of our existing churches are enslaved by their form — the preexisting systems and structures that limit what we can accomplish. How we are organized determines what we can do. New ideas must conform to the existing structure. New ministries must not disrupt the status quo. The very things we did a generation ago that made a difference dwindle and die (“if only we could have a Sunday school like we used to have,” “I remember when we had to set up folding chairs in the sanctuary on Sunday morning,” “we used to draw people from 25 miles away to our church suppers,”), but the structures we used then are the structures we are stuck with today. Inasmuch as humankind was not created for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath was created for humankind, we were not created to serve our church structures, but our church structures were intended to serve us to make our ministry, witness and impact effective. We don’t serve the church, the church serves to transform us into Christ for the world. We are supposed to be making a difference. We should be making an impact. If we are not making the difference we believe God wants us to make, then we need to step back away from “the way we’ve always done it before,” and ask the key questions about identity, purpose, witness, and impact. Then, as we discern who God is calling us to be and what God is calling us to do (function), then we can ask “and what is the best way for us to be effective (form). When what we do reflects why we’re really here, we can’t help but make a greater impact.