I'm sitting here in a recliner thinking of a Matchbox Twenty song…I believe it was titled "3 a.m." Why? Because, for some reason, I'm awake. At 3 a.m. This is not my normal time to be awake. Typically, I'm sound asleep right now, anticipating an alarm in about 2 hours that will start my day.
Instead, I'm in here by the fireplace, considering things. What things?
1. I'm wondering about the future of the church I lead. Honestly. It's not just doubts about the pastor, but questions in general about the future of the way we Americans do church. It's very challenging to operate a church, especially a smaller one like ours. It's actually not that we're that small, as we're truly just a little above average size for a Southern Baptist Church. We're small compared to a few other churches in town, and we're small enough that sometimes things are hard to deal with.
Part of the challenge with church is that we American Christians don't see church as mandatory. We may accept the idea that being a part of a fellowship of believers is required by Scripture, but we don't see being a part of a specific church as truly required by God. In fact, while many people look at the decline in worker/employer loyalty as a major shift in American culture, that there's no long-term relationship there anymore, many pastors have long seen it. Americans have been quick to adopt the consumer mentality to church, and it's one of the quicker changes people make.
Since church participation is seen as voluntary, it makes for quite a conundrum. There are times when people honestly have issues with their church, and need to have those problems addressed. There are times when people need to change what church they attend, either because of doctrine or practice. Then there are times when people are just being lazy or selfish and don't come.
The difficulty for church leadership is sorting out what's going on in the church. For example, if attendance is down, are we doing something wrong or is it just a season in several people's lives? Add in that people will, for whatever reason, evade the question "Are you avoiding church for a reason?" like the plague, and it gets very challenging to know what in the world is going on.
Financial issues in church connect to the same thing. People in many Baptist churches aren't required by the church to give, and give anonymously so that there is no telling who gave, who gave what, and who didn't give anything. The problem there is that when people are upset, the first thing they do is stop giving to show they're mad. Except that the people (usually parson, I mean person) they're mad at doesn't know they quit giving. He only sees a drop in giving. And it's impossible to tell from an overall drop in giving whether it's angry people or people that, because they work in the woods and it's so wet out there the ducks are buying umbrellas, have had major income drops and so give less.
Throw in that many people facing economic challenges are either embarrassed or stressed by those factors, and they start to withdraw, making it a spiral, and a downward one at that. Meanwhile, ministry almost always involves the possibility of making someone upset. The church's primary role is to be a group of believers glorifying God in their actions and behavior. This results in seeing the lost saved and the saved grow. However, it's not always easy to grow and it's not convenient to see the lost saved. Truth is an essential element, and sometimes, we all know, the truth hurts. Church is also not about us, but about Him, and that's sometimes offensive, even to Christians, because we desperately want it to be about us, where all of our needs and wants are met, and then we get mad, and quit coming….
So, you have both things weighing on a church body. What can you do about it?
First of all, we need to face the fact that everybody cannot be made happy. Happy is, for the most part, an individual choice to respond a certain way to circumstances. You can choose to be happy that God has saved you and you're not going to hell. Or you can choose to be unhappy that the Pastor brought up politics last week and you don't like his political leanings. Which one really matters?
Second, we need to carefully consider the impact of our actions. Church participation, really, isn't voluntary. The New Testament knows nothing of Christians that are uninvolved in a local body of believers. In truth, there's nothing of Christians that get miffed with one local body and bail out for another one or that go to the church in town with the best youth ministry. It's believers that gather, learn, pray, and evangelize. They live committed to one another and to the call of Christ. They understand that if one of them is weak, the others will strengthen them. They also understand that is their responsibility to be there to strengthen each other rather than act in a way that hurts their church family. When we don't go and don't give, it hurts. It hurts ourselves and our church. It hurts our ability as Christians to reach the world for Christ.
Third, we ought to seek the best. I'm naturally pessimistic. I even have a mug and set of glasses that have a line on them at "half-empty." (Really.) However, pessimistic attitudes in church can kill it. And stop thinking "I'm just being realistic" because that's a cover. You're being pessimistic. We're all well aware that a church can run out of people and money. It doesn't have to be brought up or carried on your face. Look back at the being happy comment. Can you try a smile? One that doesn't look forced? Do you still believe that God has a purpose for the church you attend other than as a negative example for others? I do. God has a plan and a purpose, and it is positive. Let's let our hearts be encouraged that God's grace is always sufficient, and that we, as individuals, will be obedient, which will build a church that's amazing.
Finally, we have to live like there is no hope for ourselves other than the Redeemer who has called us. That we can cling to nothing but our obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ. That His provision must be our supply.
After all that, what else am I awake for? I'm also:
2. Praying for the 2 couples I have scheduled to marry this year. Our culture has taught young people marriage is disposable. Our churches haven't always done well to counteract that, and I am determined that we will help these folks prepare well for what they're doing.
3. I'm considering going on a shopping binge for my wife. She deserves lots of stuff that I haven't been able to give her over the years. However, I have to remember that "Available Credit Line" does not equal "money that can be spent freely."
4. I'm wondering how I'll pay for the seminary education I'm applying for. It's not excessively costly, but it isn't cheap either.
That's about it. I'm going to try and go back to bed now…