Brace for Impact

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.

24 replies

  1. Dan, your post, Brace for Impact, is being discussed just like what you have written about Core Process. After a few conversations, the word, accountable, kept appearing. To borrow from Michael Mather, some looked at accountability as “the facts on the ground.” Others look at accountability primarily in how UMC members work the process by which we go about our mission. For the way our discussions are going to answer your first question: “Why are we here?” it may be that the study group in which I participate will have to reach a better understanding as to the UMC process for accountability. Saludos a todos.

    • Accountability is a value neutral word — that we immediately impose our values into. Working with groups on either coast in the United States, I find that the word “accountability” is viewed primarily as a positive. The metaphor I would use here is of a sport’s coach, a personal trainer, or a music teacher. Accountability is the process by which improvement is promoted, measured, and guaranteed. Accountability is how we keep our goals before us. In the south and the midwest, the word “accountability” is viewed more often negatively, with punitive connotations. Accountability means forcing people to do what they don’t want to, and punishing them when they fail. Why this difference? I have no idea, but I have found it true in my experience.

      The point I always try to make is simple: actions without consequences are meaningless. If I can make a promise (like membership vows), never keep it, and there are no consequences, then my promise is worthless. If I claim a value (love of neighbor), but do nothing for any other person, what value is my value? If performance depends on my involvement, then I need to be reminded of my responsibility to the greater good. Being expected to do what I say I will do and act in alignment with my stated beliefs is not punitive or unfair. As Christians, we need to find a way back to accountable discipleship, where what we say, do, believe, and think actually matters.

      • And this helps the discussion and the next steps as well. Thanks.

  2. I really appreciate the opening post and the comments on it. I’m grateful to Dan for writing about these issues and inviting us to think with him. I will touch on something that is a part of the original post that has gone unremarked upon, so far. Dan I like your example of the two congregations – one offering a food pantry and the other offering meals. But I’d like to suggest another way of thinking of these things. And I want to tie it to comments that I see reflected in some of the other comments on your original post. I want to say that while our congregation has all the human foibles and troubles of most human communities – I am overwhelmingly in awe of the ministry that I see in and through the lives of the people of our congregation (imperfect as we are). From my point of view the central ministry of our church is not what we do in programmatic or (so-called) mission efforts as a congregation – but what the people of our congregation live out in their daily lives, work, home and communities (some of which may be things that happen in and around the life of the church building – food pantries and feeding programs for example). My experience in over 25 years of professional service to the church in low – income urban communities has led me to believe that the “feeding ministries” that I have been a part of have done very, very little in terms of feeding the hungry (actually in talking with our local hospital we discovered that there is no one that they see from our neighborhood – or our city for that matter – for starvation — but that they seem a very large amount of people for diabetes – which the food pantries I have served have often made worse). So, what does it mean to “feed the hungry” in places where our problem is not that people don’t have food, but that overwhelmingly the food that people have (including the food we often offer) is crappy (i.e. unhealthy)? And if we are going to adopt “the clearer mission” it seems hard to improve upon witnessing to “blind eyes seeing, the deaf hearing, the dead being raised, and good news to the poor.” I worry that we have downsized our expectations from “good news to the poor” being a recognition of the amazing real gifts of those who don’t have much money to that of providing a free meal once, twice, three times or more a week (which is not bad news – but I’m not sure it is the good news of which Jesus speaks).

    If worship would spiritually, intellectually and practically be effective (I don’t really see these as separate – but for the sake of conversation in our culture I’m going to write about them in this way) I think it would “feed” the ministry and witness to the Gospel of the people of our parishes in ways that would encourage and strengthen the ministry of our folks out in the world. Let me give you an example. Seana Murphy is a woman in our congregation who runs the 21st Century Scholars Program for the State of Indiana. This is a program for low-income young people and their families – they sign up in middle school and if they meet a series of benchmarks by the time they graduate they will have a significant part of their college education paid for. Now running that program is not her ministry. It’s the way in which she does it. She really sees and believes in good news in the lives of the poor. When ever a job opening comes up (and there are lots of jobs in this program) she hires a parent of a young person in the program. She has invested in the imagination, talent and passion of the parents – and they hold gatherings of parents several times a year – that are run by, planned by, and carried out by – completely – the parents (these low-income parents that folks are so often demeaning as “irresponsible” and “bad examples” – etc… – my experience of bad parenting is that it has very little to do with income levels). All of this is to say that this ministry of Seana’s is doing more to support the power and presence of God’s Spirit in the lives of the people of our state – than the tutoring programs and summer programs, etc…that we have run for generations.

    Our neighborhood has a remarkable amount of programs run by several congregations – some have received national recognition and large scale investment. Most of these efforts including our own have been going on for 40 plus years. And yet the facts on the ground have changed very, very little – and to the extent that they have changed – they have gotten worse. That’s embarrassing. And when Dan challenges us to make an impact – I think one place to really focus some attention is moving away from structures that focus primarily on the ministry of the church in programming – and starts focusing on the ministry of the church in the lives of the people who call themselves followers of Jesus Christ. And who gather for worship that inspires, encourages, shines a light on, blesses, and gives us eyes to see a whole new world.

  3. Reading some of your other posts, I get the impression you think most people in the Methodist Church don’t want to be disciples. Do you truly believe that the majority are passive consumers, seeking to be served rather than to serve? I left ministry three years ago because of this very thing. Not only did people NOT want to be disciples, they actively opposed anything that might require them to change. They used up more energy fighting me than they would have used had they supported our mission work and Bible study. As long as they could come to church one Sunday each week, if convenient, they were happy. More than half didn’t do anything but worship, and they resented being asked to give money, to help out, to come to adult Sunday school or to do anything any other time of week. In my last church, most people would have been offended by the question of what difference were we making. Most of them didn’t care if we made any impact at all, just as long as their needs were being met.

    • Reading your comment, D and D, I am reminded of Wesley’s notes from one of his “conversations” among his preachers.

      He noted that since the mission of the movement was to save souls – and they were not likely to come to us (the Methodists) – we have to go to them.

      Maybe we are settling down too easily with the souls we have – even if they don’t really want to be saved (or transformed) – and giving up too much on the going where the others are.

      One other thought.

      Not that this makes it easier, but all that energy spent fighting you was a sign of – if you’ll forgive my old-fashioned language – the devil getting riled up by what you were trying to do.

      I pray you have found other ways to be in ministry since leaving the pastoral role.

  4. By and large, Yes and Amen!

    But one quibble…

    Wesley in fact did, regularly and repeatedly, call for Methodists to invest themselves in the congregations IN ADDITION to their involvement in the classes, societies and bands of early Methodism.

    Perhaps the most-published tract that he and Charles put out (in part because it was included in all of their hymnals– and there were lots of those)– as well as separately, was “Reasons Against a Separation from the Church of England” (first edition, 1755). Here he praised the congregations of the Church of England for what the WERE doing well– including their public worship and their teaching of doctrine. And he warned that leaving these behind would be incredibly costly to Methodists. The fact that he and Charles had been so assiduous about publishing this so often and so widely no doubt played a big role in the almost complete rift in the relationship between John and Charles when John “set the Americans free” in 1784.

    Further, in the General Rules, the Wesleys specifically list “The public worship of God” and “The supper of the Lord” as part of “all the ordinances of God” that all Methodists were expected to “attend upon.”

    These two things were not available in the Methodist societies, class meetings, or bands– they were all private, not public, and the Lord’s Supper was no part of it– but only in the existing congregations.

    “Ordinance of God” is generally used interchangeably by John, at least, with “means of grace” throughout his writings. Both are either shorthand for or also synonymous with his longer phrases “ordinary” or “instituted means of grace.”

    So, yes, John and Charles DID commend the congregations and the things they were up to– including public worship– as both essential for Methodists (in addition and as part and parcel of their other groups and activities, if they wanted to remain Methodists!) and, indeed, as a means of grace.

    Both-and– always both-and.

    We’ve got a mission statement that CAN call us to “both-and” and a far greater focus on actual discipleship to Jesus again if we will let it. Here’s hoping we do!

    Peace in Christ…

    • Okay, that’s true, he did want us to invest in congregations, but his standards were a bit tighter than our own… Let’s also be honest that public worship was a bit more engaged and interactive, not the spectator sport we have created. Note that I have never argued against your comments of what congregations do, only that I feel they are not necessarily all a congregation should do. I have never opposed public worship or instruction in the faith. You know I am all for both of those things, but don’t particularly like the passive mish-mash they have become in our day and culture. I also think we should care for members — so that members might behave like the body of Christ to others outside the church. And I would like to see our definition of “community” expand a bit. I do acknowledge that Wesley refers to public worship as one of the ordinances of God to which we should attend; I am unaware that he used “ordinances of God” and “means of grace” interchangeably, or that “public worship” ever made it onto any of Wesley’s list of the means of grace, but considering that I have only read about 5% of all Wesley wrote, it’s a fair bet you’re right about this, too.

  5. The church in the USA is shrinking and overall making less impact than it could.

    But – and I’m not being cute here – isn’t that what “we” want? The fact is that most United Methodists are not concerned or not concerned enough by present reality to see the need to change. In a very real sense, most UMCers don’t think there is a true problem – more of a mild cause of concern.

    In his day, young John Wesley saw apathetic Christians and said they were not true Christians, but “almost” so. The older John Wesley – perhaps defeated, perhaps wiser – said they were ordinary Christians who he tried to lure onto the “more excellent way.”

    Part of clarifying “who we are” and “what we are trying to do” might require a better sense of our tolerance for having lots of “almost” or “lower path” Christians in the UMC.

    • Some of my other blogs have called us to be more honest about our numbers — stop calling ourselves a denomination of 7,000,000+ and admit we are less than 3,000,000 actively engaged, fully invested participants. I have very consistently called us to focus on what we have and what we can do instead of investing so much time and energy in dwelling on what we’re lost, what we lack, what we aren’t, and what we cannot do — and how do we get more. We are a church of “the lowest common denomination,” pandering to the less active and engaged (for fear of losing them) and under-serving those who truly do desire discipleship training and formation. Shame on us. Let’s cast and pursue the highest vision for Christian community that God can reveal to us, and do everything in our power to align our best efforts to make the vision a reality. Wesley would be appalled by what we call church (in my opinion) and the idea that we would remain an inward focused center for public worship, personal faith instruction, member care, and a positive presence in the community would be met once again with the challenge to spread scriptural holiness across the land. Wesley was much more concerned with “gospel” than with “church.” He didn’t instruct us to give money to the church, but to the poor. He didn’t list “public worship” among the means of grace. He could not conceive of the “Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior, apart from Christian community. There is no separation between works of piety and works of mercy. Compartmentalization is a modern conceit. Were we to hold one another accountable to our membership vows, we would clean house — 1/2 to 2/3 of our current members would not tolerate being expected to pray, participate, give, serve, and witness were we to push the matter. And so we don’t. Almost Christians are the Christians for us! But there is space for the whole gamut. We need to nurture beginners and novices in the faith. The problem comes when we allow people to stay at the beginner level for 10, 20, or 50 years. Then we pay a steep price.

      • I was just reading the General Rules this evening. At the end, Wesley instructed that those who refuse to follow the rules – do no harm, do good, keep the ordinances of God (including worship) – and refuse to be reproved should be shown the exit.

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