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. Great column and well-put… I might quibble with the opening (I think the church universal as well as all church congregations exist to live out the Kingdom of God), but the wider point is valid. How each church lives out the Kingdom is going to be unique.

  2. Dan,

    I think the cognitive dissonance between “mission of the church” and “purpose of the congregation” is a very real one.

    When you write:
    “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…”

    I agree fully with the first part– the CHURCH exists to make an impact. It’s the second part that becomes problematic. The “congregation,” which is both fully and only one form of Christian community, I would say, often DOES live up to ITS actual full potential– that is as we’ve been expecting congregations, as such, to function as Christian communities in the world for a good 1500 years or so.

    Congregations, as institutions, have been primarily about stability and delivering some version of Christian teaching and care among their members and for the local or wider community. Nearly everything in the congregational system– from expectations of members to the nature of clergy/laity relationships– supports these things as the activities and even raison d’etre of the congregation.

    Congregations are designed to support and generate what John Wesley called “ordinary” or “lower order” Christians. And that is about all.

    Nearly nothing in this ethos or past 1500 year history of congregations supports the expectation that all or even a majority of their constituents will follow what Wesley called “the more excellent way” and actually become competent, world-changing disciples of Jesus in their own right.

    Methodist societies and class meetings and bands were organized to generate that kind of outcome because congregations didn’t and wouldn’t. And by and large they still don’t and very likely won’t.

    With 1500 years of history backing up the “ordinary Christian” vision of what congregations are to do, it is no wonder (I think) that congregational leaders look at you funny when you ask about growth or discipleship. They’re not set up to deliver much of either– and with all that experience backing up what they’ve been doing as institutions all this time, my strong hunch is trying to get very many of them to change this will continue to be a painful, difficult, and mostly losing battle.

    Do I think congregations can and should consider doing more or different things? Absolutely. Do I believe they may have been enslaved by their form? Probably– but I also know that the congregational form, even as is, can and has continued to deliver many good things. Intentional discipleship to Jesus just generally hasn’t been among the top 5.

    My concern is we may be enslaved by an even worse notion– that the ONLY way for the church as a network/system to deliver on its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world is for congregations as such to take that on as their primary task. In a world where congregations, as institutions, have such a terrible track record at that sort of thing for such a long time, but other forms of Christian community have a much better track record at it, mightn’t our efforts be better spent at fostering other forms of Christian community that DO deliver more effectively on discipleship, and then building networks between these and congregations for the enrichment of all?

    Yes– congregations can do better even toward their “ordinary Christians” goals than they do. And they should. And a huge part of that is in fact becoming intentional and seriously organizational (incarnational) about it as your food pantry illustration recognizes.

    But let’s not get our congregations freed from slavery to routines, poor habits, or lack of intentionality about things they’re actually well-designed to do only to enslave them to a notion of church that puts all the expectations of the whole church squarely on them.

    Let’s instead leverage what they really OUGHT to be good at by design (public worship, basic theological education, systems of mutual care, and being valued institutional players making local impacts), and ALSO what others in a larger connexion might be good at by design (district leadership, conference structures, general agencies, disciple making systems that focus in a laser-like way on that end– which is really hard for congregations to do or deal with unless they become far more sectarian, and I just don’t see our wider American culture or our UM ecclesial system supporting that idea anytime soon!).

    Congregations can and should be better at what they have been designed for. And they can become friendlier to cooperative efforts to address things they haven’t been designed for or aren’t as likely to take on well, or even at all. Working toward that seems like working toward a more plausible and hopeful future.

    • We’ve had this conversation before, and we don’t disagree… but I will continue to challenge the fact that we have established a denominational mission (purpose statement) that the majority of our churches have not come to grips with. I will say it again and again: we must at all levels of the system make a fundamental choice: change our mission to bring it in line with the lived reality of the congregations or change our congregations to align with our stated mission. I actually offered “grace-space” in this post by tacking on “or similar significant purpose.” The problem as I see it is that we did not use conditional language, but stated a mission that has little to do with the day-to-day reality of the majority of our churches. Cognitive dissonance abounds when we say we are one thing (articulated values) but behave in a completely different way (lived values). Health comes through synderesis; the integration of words and actions. We do a disservice to everyone when we confuse what we think we should be and what we are; what we aspire to from what we’re actually trying to be (open hearts, minds, doors anyone?) Every time I think you and I have resolved that I am not talking about what we used to be or what we were once designed to be or not to be, we end up covering the same old ground. I truly do not think we will find our future in our past, but I also don’t think we gain anything by ignoring the corners into which we have painted ourselves (institutionally speaking).

      (I reread this and it sounds snarkier than it is meant to. I was attempting to be breezy, but I just sound petulant. Sorry. I do have a sense of humor, I just don’t always use it well…)

  3. Dan,

    We’re not far apart– but I’m not sure we’re quite hearing each other yet.

    When you write:
    “change our mission to bring it in line with the lived reality of the congregations or change our congregations to align with our stated mission”…

    what I keep hearing is that it’s the congregations, and really almost only the congregations, who are expected to deliver ultimately on the stated mission.

    Right now, that IS what the Discipline says.

    My point– and I think yours– is that is a mistake.

    We do agree that the mission statement and the realities of our congregations are seriously out of sync.

    Where we may differ– if we do– is how to resolve the synchronization error.

    What I’m hearing you say is our only real choices are to change the mission statement to match what congregations can do OR to change the congregations to match what the mission statement says the church should do.

    I’m saying there’s at least one other choice– and maybe more.

    The one I’m proposing is one that Christians generally (via monasteries and a variety of religious societies) and Methodists in particular (through the Methodist societies) actually have a lot of experience over time in doing.

    a) Keep the mission statement for the church as a whole.

    b) Expect congregations to be accountable to the parts of the work toward that they can reasonably accomplish. My sense is that unless we blow up most of the existing congregations and start over entirely– and the collateral damage from that could be a terrific inhibitor in itself– it will be extraordinarily hard and unrealistic to expect most of them to deliver on all of it, or even on actually making disciples well.

    c) Expect other formats of Christian community, in network with congregations, ALSO to deliver on the parts of that THEY can accomplish– and for discipleship per se, that tends to mean highly accountable small groups committed to that end, and support structures for them.

    How exactly those are formed and supported in any given place may vary widely– but that this appears to be what it takes seems to me, at least, to be beyond dispute. I’m not seeing anyone, past or present, countering that view.

    And whenever I ask people at events I lead to remember times in their lives when their discipleship deepened dramatically, the vast majority (2/3-over 80%) reply that happened in a context OUTSIDE the congregation.

    I think you’ve seen similar results in your research.

    So this is not about trying to re-create the past. It’s also not saying the future is in the past. The past is irretrievable. Trying to retrieve it or re-live it would be an exercise in futility. The “sacred canopy” (plausibility structure) that underwrote much of that exists almost nowhere in much of the current US context, at least. I think we agree on that. And I think we’d also agree that the absence or serious decay of that broader plausibility structure is at least part of what accounts for the escalating decline of Christian institutions in the US and the Western World generally.

    So, I think what I am suggesting isn’t about recreating the past, but rather about learning from the many excellent and persistent models– attested to by our own people who ARE disciples– of how a far greater number and percentage of actual disciples (not just members or fans) get formed and deployed both in the past and in the present.

    Peace in Christ,


    • I think any “either/or” mission statement is problematic. I believe it is vitally important that each faith community — regardless of size, shape, location, composition, or temporal sphere — should have a balanced (internal/external; works of piety/works of mercy) sense of identity and purpose, and should understand that its reason for existence is larger than its own comfort and contentment. “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” is broad and comprehensive, allowing everyone to find a way to live it out. It may be in the form of the gentle “offer them Christ, and trust in the grace of God,” ideology or the Dalek “exterminate them” or the Borg collective (Star Trek, not Marcus) assimilation, or the good old European/Euro-American “divide and conquer” motif. Yet, what I learned while serving the Board of Discipleship is that we are a multi-cultural, multi-worldview, multi-theology church, and when I visited the immigrant Cuban and Haitian congregations, their mission was (appropriately, I might add) “create a sustainable Christian community in which to raise and educate our children, and welcome newcomers whenever we can.” For the South Bronx, “a safe place to choose life and escape violence” was compelling. Currently, the system is designed for the results it is getting, and we are a hierarchical denomination grounded in congregational deployment. Regardless of the fringe element — that has always existed in some form, and has often had much greater success forming community than the entities we call “faith communities” — we have got to reconcile who we say we are with who we are, and I believe it needs to be done sooner than later, or we will cease to make much of an impact anywhere for long… For me, the overarching vision/mission of the church is to equip people to live as the body of Christ — in as many forms, in as many ways, individually and collectively as possible. Proof-texting the Great Commission and deciding it embodies the whole of the gospel is questionable at best, disingenuous at worst, but it is what we did, and I believe we have done a poor job supporting our churches and conferences to explore the many implications for our future.

  4. “Proof-texting the Great Commission and deciding it embodies the whole of the gospel is questionable at best, disingenuous at worst, but it is what we did, and I believe we have done a poor job supporting our churches and conferences to explore the many implications for our future.”

    Here we completely agree.

    I’d only add that part of those “implications for our future” is to acknowledge the congregations as we have them aren’t the only or the best venue for forming people to live as Jesus (which is what making disciples means– not making professing members or “loyal institutional widgets,” but being discipled by/to Jesus). And we as Methodists, if we know our early history at all, ought to be the first to acknowledge that.

    In other words, as a matter of strategy, we’ve got to get beyond ignoring other partners or treating them as second class or subservient to congregations, as if congregations and the structures that support them (district, conference, General Agencies) are the only real partnerships we have or can possibly have here.

    We can and should do better “connexioning” than that!

    Peace in Christ,


  5. I will be reading many times your message and the comments. Thank you! While reading what all of you had to say I thought of a man well beyond retirement age who crosses the border from South Texas to a set of remote fishing villages about an hour from Matamoros. He does this 3 times a week to get food and other supplies to about 500 families living at several villages and islands. He has a problem. His UMC leadership at the local church level and at the district level will not accept donations made to the local UMC to reimburse him for food that he buys or freight for donated food. He has been a member there for decades. I am not sure why this decision was taken. It certainly makes it more difficult for this “ministry” to take place. We are handling some of this through the non-profit I volunteer with in Matamoros, but board members do not understand why his local church cannot help him in this work. I am not sure his lack of support has anything to do with what you wrote, but your words made me think of him.

  6. Blessings Reverend Dick,

    Would you please grant us permission to copy and distribute this article to the churches in the United Kingdom? I find that many of the topics you address are precisely those we must regard if we are to not merely survive into the future, but succeed. We find ourselves making less and less impact with each passing year. It is a fine framing you give to the topic.

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