Do you describe your congregation as struggling? When we struggle, openness and honesty are important. Still, honest description does not mean that our struggles define us, deplete us of energy for mission, or diminish our hope for the future ("Coming to grips with struggling congregations").
Congregations defined by what they lack or have lost risk becoming nostalgic, longing for a supposedly more glorious period in their past (which was never quite as perfect as memories recall). Moreover, when everything is evaluated according to that past, nostalgia becomes a buffer against the changing realities and the many opportunities for ministry we have today. What sets a congregation free to serve is a living memory of the past that engages God's mission today and turns it toward God's future.
Yes, today ELCA congregations and other ministries are struggling with fewer resources and are making difficult decisions about priorities. Without denying these challenges, we still can claim the opportunity to grow in generous stewardship of the life we have together in Christ.
If your congregation is struggling with feeling disconnected from the ELCA or is distrustful of ELCA leaders, these feelings can provide an occasion for growth, rather than a reason to withdraw into local ministry. They can provide opportunities to deepen understanding of life and mission together in the ELCA and of the greater capacity we have for evangelical witness and service when we work together.
Times of struggle are good opportunities to renew relationships with neighbors and partners in ministry in a strategy that opens your congregation beyond its accustomed horizon. Developing an area ministry strategy involves three great listenings: listening to God speak promise and purpose through the Scriptures; listening to the hurts and hopes of the people who live in the surrounding community; and listening to individuals and groups as they discern the gifts that the Spirit has given them.
The rich network of resources that your synodical director for evangelical mission can convene — richly gifted partners in social ministry organizations; campus ministries; advocacy staff; the ministries of colleges, universities and seminaries; and more — can assist your congregation and neighbors to develop a shared mission strategy for the area. Yes, for the sake of bearing witness to the love of God in Christ for the whole world we join together.
Healthy congregations know struggle comes with serving God's word. The accounts of the early church in the New Testament demonstrate that proclaiming Jesus Christ, dwelling in the word, and engaging in lives of witness and service will involve conflict and controversy, struggle and sacrifice. The challenge is to make sure our struggles are worth having. Our struggles should serve the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ and the freedom he gives us for lives of faith, serving the neighbor and striving for justice and peace in all the earth.
For the way of the cross includes struggle against all the forces that defy God. Jesus was clear that discipleship means laying down our lives and taking up the cross and following him so the world might believe that Jesus is the Christ — and in believing have life in his name. Moreover, we are reminded that there is joy in such struggles: "Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame ..." (Hebrews 12:1-2).
As I travel, I see congregations committed to being growing centers for evangelical mission despite their struggles. The priority of the churchwide organization is to accompany congregations in that commitment. It begins in worship as we are formed into the body of Christ through word and sacrament. And then we are sent, in the power of the Spirit, to share the good news, serve the Lord and remember the poor. The baptismal sign of the cross upon our forehead is a daily reminder that we are claimed, gathered and sent for the sake of the world.
God's promise to you is not a life absent of struggle. Rather, God promises that you will receive the power of the Spirit and you will be witnesses of Jesus Christ.
© 2013 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers