Jesus looked at them and said, “With human beings this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Matthew 19:26 (TNIV)
Can congregations be revitalized? The answer is yes. But it will take both a spiritual renewal and organizational restructuring.
Spiritual renewal begins with a change of focus for our ministries from membership to discipleship. This reorients our attitudes and work from keeping our members comfortable and happy to striving to be faithful and fruitful in our work as the church. Why is this necessary? The answer is that reviving a congregation will require change from the historic status quo. Change is difficult. So, it must be justified by appealing to our deepest values as Christians. These values are embodied in discipleship, which turns concepts of faith into activities. The power for this change is the Holy Spirit. So, prayer and scripture reading, worship and service, generosity and outreach are introduced as the heart or core of our faithfulness to Christ. When the membership model is operating in our churches, consensus and pleasing people in the church take precedence over mission and vision. People in the church, though recognizing the need for vitality, begin to see others as the means of continuing their present ministry instead of helping to shape the future ministry of the congregation. It takes a clear identification of discipleship to transform the members from holding onto the revered past to welcoming the divine future.
Such a shift does not mean that the faithfulness of the past is ignored. It does mean that the faithfulness of the past becomes a launching pad for fruitful ministry in the present and future. The best of the past is celebrated and identified as a witness to God’s faithfulness. The faithfulness of Christ is the guarantee and hope for risking new ideas and ministries in pursuit of the call of God to a revitalized ministry.
Just as the guiding concept of the ministry of a congregation must be reoriented, so the structure that supported that ministry will need to be changed. Instead of an organization that is institutionally oriented, a new discipleship structure will need to be put into place. What might that look like? An upside-down pyramid is a good picture.
The church polity will be redesigned to facilitate member engagement in mission. This mission will be understood as happening in both the congregation and in the world. The role of the church will be to equip and turn loose its member/disciples to do the work of the church in the community and beyond. The disciples themselves will, within appropriate boundaries, define this ministry by their involvement, not just their ideas. So, no matter how good the idea may be, if a team cannot be recruited, if the necessary funding cannot be produced or if the activity does not fit the identity and vision of the congregation’s ministry, then it will not be adopted as part of the mission of the church.
Whenever a new idea can fulfill these criteria, it should be enthusiastically supported by the leadership. The leaders may or may not be personally involved; the leadership may or may not even find the idea attractive. The point is to develop a system that generates new ideas – not impedes them by the necessary approval of a committee or church council. A ministry that is open to new ideas will have taken a huge step forward towards revitalization. This openness will have the positive effect of generating energy – people are enthusiastic when their ideas are embraced and they are free to implement them. More than that, their confidence in both the institution and the leadership increases exponentially. Too many of our churches are stuck in governing models that stifle creativity and bog the ministry down to what has always been done before.
So, another aspect of revitalizing our ministries is to let dying programs and initiatives die. You know when an aspect of your ministry has died because those involved will look to others to make it work. “If only other people would get involved and do what we used to do, the program would be as vital as it once was,” is often the refrain. Such ministries are usually not attractive to others. Instead, their viability resides in the nostalgia of a previous time. When leaders hang onto initiatives that have no life left, we only feel badly – they are beyond rescuing.
I am convinced that the continuing decline of Protestant congregations in the United States, and elsewhere, is not unavoidable. Steps must be take to renew both the spirit and organization of our churches, however, if we are to reverse this trend with joy-filled, fruitful ministries.
What do you think? What will it take to revive our congregations for the future? What’s worked in your church?
For more on Michael Foss’ new book, Reviving the Congregation, visit the Patheos Book Club here.
Michael W. Foss is senior pastor of St. Mark Lutheran Church in West Des Moines, Iowa. He is a graduate of Wartburg Theological Seminary. Foss has authored several books for Fortress Press including Power Surge (2000), A Servant’s Manual (2002), Real Faith for Real Life (2004), and The Disciple’s Joy (2007).