This morning, NEXT Church shared a blog post from Tom Ehrich, noted writer and church consultant. I always enjoy Tom's thoughts because they push me and make me think, and I believe he has a good sense of where the church needs to go in the future in order to remain relevant and engaged.
Tom's thesis, in short, is this: rather than totally eliminating worship styles and ministries that are struggling, and rather than stubbornly staying the course, the church should "bless" what is there and "add" something new. This is not an entirely new concept, by the way. The twist Tom suggests is doing the "add" off-site. Other than obvious issue of acquiring or at least renting additional space (when most churches are struggling to maintain what they've already got), the idea has a lot of merit to it.
I pastor a congregation with a lovely church building that, in some parts, is over 100 years old. And after being here for ten years we finally launched a capital campaign this spring to fix a number of essentials (if you want the details of what we did, and watch a short video where through movie magic I sink into our former courtyard netherworld in flames, click HERE). We're wrapping up the project now, and it's been a great experience for our church.
Still, I think Tom has a point: "church" can't be just about the builiding. It has to be about the mission. And by "mission" I mean more than the annual youth work trip to some remote location or the food pantry the outreach committee gets volunteers for. The church of today has to start thinking of mission as the intentional extension of the church outside its own walls.
I'll never forget what a former Presbyterian colleague of mine said in one of his sermons. He observed, astutely so, that the general motto of the North American church these days, one we send out through our actions and certainly through our words, is this: Y'all come. That’s how he put it. Y'all come. Y'all come to our church on Sunday morning. We’ll open the doors for you. We’ve got some nice pews for you to sit in. We’ve got some great music and a good word or two to share with ya. Heck, we’ll even throw in a free bulletin that you can take home, if you want! Y'all come! And we are so proud of ourselves for our open, hospitable attitude.
But Ike wondered, is Y'all come really the motto the church should be communicating? Is it any wonder that the church today is shrinking, and that we are struggling to make a connection in people’s lives? Because if we’re honest with ourselves, Y'all come simply isn't cutting it anymore. And it's not hard to see why. Y'all come means everything is on our terms. We still get to set the rules, and more often than not we don't see a need to change them. Even more to the point: Y'all come means everything depends on “them” coming to “us.” It’s the way the church has traditionally operated, and it’s gotten us into trouble. As one scholar puts it,
We ring our bells, conduct our worship services, provide the traditional pastoral services of baptism, confirmation, wedding, funerals – and we wait for the world to come to us. We mount pulpits and preach sermons as we have done for centuries. We pursue our internal arguments about doctrine and order as though nothing outside has changed. But much has changed, and the people are not coming back. (Darrell Guder, The Continuing Conversion of the Church).
That’s why I've always liked Ike’s suggestion of what the church’s motto should be – not Y'all come but GO. Go – just as Jesus told his disciples at the end of Matthew. Go out into a world that is desperately searching for something to give it meaning, something to give it new life, something to give it hope. Don’t wait for them to come to you – just GO.
And I think that's at the heart of what Tom is saying here. Perhaps an additional space is needed to give the "new thing" a place of its own. But more importantly, churches should adopt a GO philosophy wherever the location. And, I think we have to be careful not to approach GO like some universal formula. What works for one church won't necessarily work for another. That's why some congregations flourish with the addition of a contemporary worship service, and others fall apart. It's up to each individual church to do the hard work of engaging discussions about substanitive (and not just stylistic) change in their own context, certainly taking cues and tips from what has worked elsewhere, and then seeing where God leads them from there.
Ultimately, GO is about the intentionality of engaging people where they are, rather than waiting for them to come to us. Because if we wait for them, my hunch is we're going to be waiting for a very long time.
What kind of "GO" things is your church doing? How is your faith community adopting a "bless and add" approach that works well for you?