Tuesday, June 28, 2011
One of the challenges of most pastors I know is endeavoring to get their congregations to focus on evangelism, i.e. to reach out to those outside the church, to seek to share their faith with others. One of the common dynamics in most congregations is a tendency to focus inwardly, rather than outwardly, to direct more energy toward those inside the church rather than those outside the church. Sometimes there is even a strong resistance to evangelism evidenced by an intentional, almost exclusive focus on the inward life of the congregation. But more often, I suspect, it's more a matter of a sort of benign neglect of evangelism or outreach. It's always more comfortable to stay inside our circle than it is to venture outside it.
But then sometimes this neglect of evangelism is overcome when members of a congregation become concerned about the growth or even survival of their church. They then become motivated to seek out ways to reach new people. I remember one congregation I served years ago had reached a point where they really were worried that their church founded by their ancestors was going to die. Their natural resistance or fear of change was overcome by their fear of dying. That's certainly a positive step in the right direction! And there are many congregations who apparently don't even have any motivation for evangelism, even one like that.
But even that sort of focus or motivation for evangelism is really still self-focused. We want to reach new people so that "our church can grow" or even so that "our church won't die." I've even heard of church leaders having discussions of reaching new people and having the church grow so "we can have more people who give to support the church budget." We want somebody to help pay the bills! (It occurs to me that that's not a very effective funding strategy since growth almost always increases costs before it results in more revenue coming in from giving.)
All of these sorts of statements are self-focused in that they view the new people to be reached as "prey" - even as a hunter views his prey as a trophy to display proudly or food to put on his table. It's a motivation to reach new folks because of how they meet "our" needs. It's a focus on maintaining "us." It's matter of us using "them," to meet our needs.
But a healthier, more spiritually mature, and more biblical attitude is to focus not on ourselves or our needs, but rather on the persons God has called us to reach with his love and how God has called us to meet their needs. It's about mission, not maintenance. We're not in the business of building up our church, but building the kingdom of God. One of my colleagues in a sermon I heard him preach several years ago said something like this: "The church is one of the few institutions that exists for the benefit of those that are not part of it." The church is to have an external rather than an internal focus. Rather than being concerned about getting more "behinds" in the pews, we're called to get the "behinds" that are already in the pews out into the world to serve others in the name of Christ. By focusing on mission and outreach and serving others in the name of Christ, it is likely that they will be drawn to become part of this mysterious and strange community that pours itself out in service to others. But concern for the church to grow becomes secondary, not primary. What is primary is mission.
An example of this healthy movement is something we're experiencing right now in the congregation I serve. A person in the church came to me several months ago with a vision. She had the idea of our congregation beginning a preschool or child care ministry. Her thought initially was that our church needed to get more families with young children into the church and this might be a way of accomplishing that. But as the planning group began to do their preparation work and research about building such a program, something interesting happened (and something healthy, I would say). As the group began to get in touch with the shortage of child care options in our community, first it became clear that a full child care program, particularly for the youngest children, was the greatest need. Second, the primary focus of the group of "getting more young families into the church" became secondary. What became primary was the real need in our community and our opportunity, our calling, to meet that need. We shifted from an "inward" focus to an "outward" focus. We shifted from viewing these younger families as "prey" to viewing them as those whose needs we might meet in the name of Christ.
I'm reminded of Jesus' words, "If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it." Matthew 10:39 NLT