I was recently asked, "Can a congregation regain its former glory once it is past its prime."
The answer to that question is as simple as it is harsh: nostalgia. Nostalgia is the only way for a church to "regain" its former glory. Unfortunately, there are all sorts of problems with this kind of nostalgia:
- Nostalgia allows us to paint a glowingly unrealistic picture of our past. We fondly remember our past glory as a special time without remembering the warts, problems, and conflicts of that time.
- Nostalgia often leaves us in denial about today. "If only we could do what we did back when..." becomes the mantra, even though our congregational make up, community around us, and area needs have all changed.
- Bottom line, we can't regain any former glory; we only do church looking over our shoulder at an overly idealized picture from our long ago yesterdays viewed through rose tinted glasses.
Bottom line: nostalgia interferes with us being the vibrant church God wants us to be today — vital in our community, vital with today's resources found among us, and vital to today's neighbors on our hearts.
Here's a more helpful question? "How can an aging or declining church Re-prime itself for valuable, God-glorifying, Kingdom ministry today?" [And to remind ourselves that this is an important biblical question, all we need to do is go read about the Seven Churches of Asia (Revelation 2:1-29; Revelation 3:1-22).]
Of course there are a couple of knotty, real life, questions about current circumstances — questions congregational leaders often have to face:
- How do we as leaders move beyond counting "buns and funds" as our only measure of success and still pay the bills?
- How do we help our congregation evaluate what we do in terms of faithfulness to God's call on us today?
Attendance and finances ("buns in the pew and funds in the plate") are real issues. We have to pay our bills, meet our obligations, and fund our ministries. We need to have sufficient number of people to do this. Unfortunately, when a church loses momentum, attendance and funding can easily become our only concerns. Pursuing God's call gets shuffled underneath our pressing realities and urgent needs. While pursuing God's call for us today — with prayer and faithful passion for that call — can often generate the needed momentum to inspire our folks to invest in a new era of spiritual vitality and ministry.
The crucial focus, however, must be our faithfulness to God's call today. We cannot return to yesterday's glory. Yesterday is gone. Nostalgia feels nice, but it is a drag on the work that God is inviting us to do with Him, now. So rather than trying to return to our former "prime," we need to Re-prime ourselves for God work for us today!
Re-priming is a process involving five distinct steps or movements:
1. Realizing we are in, or headed into, decline.I have a friend who loved to say, "Many church leaders have the baby Moses syndrome: they are a basket case in de-Nile." I know it's a corny saying, but it all too often hits the mark. We ignore, deny, or explain away the slow creep toward negative momentum and then look for some magical cure — a new program, a young shiny twenty-something preacher in a plaid short-sleeved shirt over a t-shirt and bluejeans, a new industry coming to town, a change in worship style, or simply doing the same thing we did "back when." This "magical cure" will supposedly restore us back to our former glory. Of course there is no magical cure. So the most important step in Re-priming is the necessary first step: We admit...
- That we are facing decline.
- That there is no magical quick cure that fixes things.
- That nostalgia will hold us back rather than propel us forward.
- That God has something important and fresh for us to do now.
- That God wants us to faithfully and passionately join Him in His Kingdom mission today.
Facing reality with faith and hope in the Lord is essential in changing the trajectory and emotional direction of our congregation.
2. Re-viewing our community and resources to reach them.Notice the hyphen. We're not talking about reviewing our past, but Re-viewing our now — Re-viewing our community, resources, and connections with fresh eyes and real facts. A helpful set of questions can focus our Re-viewing process:
- What is the community our congregation is called to serve really like today?
- Who has God positioned us to reach based on our location, congregational make up, our resources, and our gifts?
- What are the needs in our community today that are unaddressed and yet God would have us meet?
- Who are the forgotten and neglected in our community that God has equipped us through experience and expertise to touch with grace?
- What do we need to do to be known as receptive to our neighbors and our overall community?
- Who does God keep bringing to us to serve?
- What are some passions in our members that are making the difference in the lives of other people in our community?
- We can drive through nearby neighborhoods, asking God to give us fresh eyes to see what He sees. We can ask the Holy Spirit to lead us to people, groups, organizations, and churches who are already addressing some of the needs that the Father reveals to us — and we can learn from them.
Spiritual insight, hard demographic data, and information about identified and needed social services are crucial pieces of information to help us Re-view the community around us, properly. [Take a look at the Core Values Series and Search Process Outline. Check the links at the end of each article for more in this series.]
3. Re-listening for the call of God for our congregation.Prayerfully keep asking one crucial question: What does God want our congregation to do right now, right here, with these people? God didn't bring your congregation into existence by accident. No matter its origins, God has a plan and purpose for our church family in His Kingdom work. So let's ask for God to reveal this to us. Here are some ways to Re-listen:
- Prayer walk the neighborhoods around your church building and challenge your congregation to do this with you.
- If you live in a smaller community, cut up the phone book and begin to pray for people by name in your community whether you know them or not. You can later follow up and ask for specific prayer requests and let the folks know you are praying for them.
- Meet the people in your neighborhood naturally as you walk the neighborhoods. Don't intrude, but greet them. When given the chance, let them know you are prayer walking the neighborhood and ask if they have things they believe need to prayed for personally, as a neighborhood, or as a community in general.
Occasionally get together with other folks in your church family and share your experiences of doing these things. Ask God to guide your conversation as you share these community needs while asking the Father to help reveal His specific will for which ones He is calling you to address. [For more resources take a look at the Theology of Calling Series. Be sure and follow the link at the end of the article for more in this series.]
4. Re-envisioning our congregational mission.After Realizing, Re-viewing and Re-listening, then it is time for us, both our leaders and our congregation, to come together and Re-envision what God has called us to do as a church family. What we are looking for is a clear mission statement for our situation: not some nebulous mission statement that sounds churchy or that we borrow from some church with a great reputation. We are looking for specifics:
- Specific outreach targets and needs in our community.
- Specific ministries we can do with our resources and our people to reach them.
- Specific people groups that God has called us to reach that we see every day around us.
- Specific target dates to launch, implement, involve, and impact our community and involve our people.
- Specific resources — time, talent, and treasure — that we need to invest to make this happen.
Who, where, when, and why questions are really important to clarify this vision and to measure your faithfulness to God's call. We can get stuck doing the same things in the same way when the community around us has changed. So let's pray trusting that God will lead us to fresh insight and a new sense of mission. (To get us thinking, we can check out some ministry ideas that others have been led to pursue* that have borne fruit.) [Also check out the Developing a Mission Statement Series for more resources. Be sure and follow the link at the end of the article for more in the series.]
5. Re-priming our church for Kingdom ministry. After all of our prayerful work, there comes a time to "put our hide on the line" — a time to move from talk to action. So in faith, we publicly begin answering God's call.
We go public with our commitment to God's call and our mission to answer that call:
- We make clear what we believe God has specifically called us to do.
We put our full energy and passion behind it.
- We make changes in the way we do things, decide things, and pray about things — changes that reflect our new sense of purpose, mission, and ministry.
We mention these key shifts, new areas of focus, and dedicated ministry efforts in our public prayers.
- We write about them in our bulletins, websites, and email updates.
- We share what is happening in our Bible classes and small groups.
- We tell stories involving real people and how God is working through them to accomplish our mission.
- We make clear that we are convicted that God wants us to do these specific things and we invite people to join us, pray for the effort, and give of themselves and their monies to make it happen.
Most of all, we ask everyone to pray for the power of the Holy Spirit to be released into our efforts to honor God and to empower us to do more than can dream up, plan, sequence, or cook up on our own.
Will this return us to our glory years?
Probably not in the same way that we experienced them once before. On the other hand, what God does with us, for us, and through us now will bring Him a lot more glory than us sitting around pining for the "good ol' days"! Even more, our new "prime" can be just as exciting and even just as God glorifying as the time we were in our prime.
Okay, here are a few ideas to help you "re-prime" our idea pump:
- Target demographic that is consistent with our community and our call.
Who has God placed at our doorstep that some of our folks are already touching? Who is doing effective ministry in our area to people we believe the Lord has called us to reach?
- Look at new ministry options to connect Boomers and retirees looking to invest in significance. Here are a few to help get you started on ideas:
- Partner with experienced short term mission groups and make a commitment to re-visit the same areas to build relationships, network, and grow the Kingdom. (Groups like Compassion International, Partners in Progress, Let's Start Talking, Global Samaritan Resources, Christian Homes and Family Services, and Olive Branch Ministries are a few examples and good places to start looking for opportunities.
- Internationals Outreach in our own city — teaching ESL classes, doing Friendspeak with local internationals, mentoring internationals trying to learn their way around town or find their way into productive work. In addition, organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters is always looking for a "Big" or someone who is simply willing to be a "lunch buddy" and most would be willing to help you connect to a child of a recent immigrant so you could help with homework, encourage, get to know, and include in your life and your family.
- Involved benevolence — Working food pantry, doing financial mentoring, developing a Habitat for Humanity partnership and a host of other things that empower people and doesn't just give them a handout.
- Empowering local "Satellite Missions" for other targeted communities our congregation would have a hard time reaching in our church building. It is crucial to maintain some real fellowship and connection to these groups. These would all function under the eldership of the local congregation. (The following are real ministries making lasting impact.)
- Freedom Church — a congregation made up nearly completely of ex-offenders that are baptized believers who do church out of a more recovery model, but go back to the mother church for baptisms and baptismal celebrations to maintain connection.
- Home Gatherings — house churches that offer a full worship experience with weekly communion in order to connect to the un-churched, de-churched, and sometimes anti-church-in-the-box people who recognize they are needing some connection to God and His people.
- Bar Church — having been a part of a group who started a church in a bar, our stated mission was to connect to folks who were never going to come to a church building but were ready to talk about Jesus — many of these folks feel unworthy to come into a church building or have had hurtful experiences identified with churches. The location is not about the booze, but about meeting in a place that makes clear Jesus is willing to meet you where you are with grace, and His people are gracious enough to walk you to a place where His grace can transform your life.
- Twenty-somethings Church — designed to reach those who are younger with a mature church willing to walk with young leaders and mentor them through some mistakes, affirm them in their passion and successes, and support them in their commitment to reach their peers with the gospel of Jesus.
Clearly these are not exhaustive, but give you some ideas you may find interesting enough to stimulate our own Re-listening to God and Re-envisioning His mission for our congregation. But remember! The idea is not for some slick, new, novel idea, but a conviction that God has called us to this mission and brought you to this moment!