I was three years into my first call, serving as the pastor of a small, inner-city congregation on Chicago’s Northwest Side. I had never worked harder in my life.
But the congregation was still in trouble: the savings account was dwindling, worship attendance hovered between 50 and 60 people each Sunday, the aging building was in need of significant repairs, and the Norwegian immigrants who had lovingly built the congregation over the previous 90 years had long since left the neighborhood, replaced by Polish and Puerto Rican immigrants and young, white, urban professionals. None of the new residents seemed interested in helping us keep the congregation going.
The church treasurer had just finished giving the monthly financial report to the council. He looked at me and said, “I don’t know, pastor. What do you think we should do?”
The truth is, I was out of ideas. We had tried everything I could think of and had accomplished a lot, but it wasn’t nearly enough to turn things around. We ended up exploring a merger with a nearby congregation, but in the end the members voted to remain independent. Since the congregation could no longer afford to pay my salary I resigned, convinced there was a better way to engage in God’s mission and be the church.
In the two decades since, I’ve served congregations in Wisconsin and Minnesota and in a synod office. And I’ve discovered that this story is common, repeated countless times in church basements and meeting rooms natiownide. Even before the economic downturn of recent years forced congregations, synodical structures and churchwide organizations in the U.S. to squeeze their budgets and reduce staffs, Christians of all denominations have known that we are living in times of significant change and upheaval, and that many congregations are in trouble.
For the last five years I’ve studied congregational mission and leadership, focusing my research on four Midwestern ELCA congregations identified by their synod staffs as experiencing a significant renewal in their life and mission. I learned that renewal is possible. While change can be a long, slow and winding road, there are certain characteristics and practices that can guide us along the way.
The single most important characteristic of the congregations in my study was a clear and vibrant understanding that God had a specific calling for them. It wasn’t enough to grasp that God had a mission in the world, nor was it sufficient to claim that the congregation had a reason for existing. Rather, congregations needed to embrace the truth that God had a plan, that it included them, and that God was with them every step of the way.
Congregations that were able to ask “What is God calling us to be and to do in this time and place?” found their focus shifting from worrying about their survival as an institution to seeking an active engagement in God’s mission in the world.
To more deeply understand God’s call to mission, congregations can cultivate a renewed emphasis on the basic practices of our faith. Worshiping, dwelling in the word, and participating in corporate and individual prayer can open our lives to the Spirit’s presence in our midst and awaken our imaginations.
Resources such as Martha Grace Reese’s Unbinding the Gospel series (Chapel Press) have helped congregations remember that God’s mission is to love and redeem the world, and the church is an instrument for the fulfillment of that mission, not an end in itself.
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© 2014 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers