“How well your congregation navigates this crisis may depend upon the questions leaders are asking.”
Had you asked me a month ago to reflect upon “The Most Frequently Asked Question by Congregational Leaders,” I would have started typing by reflex. Whether drawing upon seven years of experience as a consultant or over three decades as a parish pastor, the answer (or the question) has been the same. “How do we grow our church?”
The primary metric for evaluating church growth during those years has indisputably been worship attendance. If you have doubt, ask a pastor if she serves a growing or declining congregation. She will not justify her response by using preschool enrollment or the number of meals served at the soup kitchen. She will share with you the same data which annual parochial reports ask her to track, i.e. the number of persons in the pews (and perhaps dollars in the coffers). If there is truth to the adage, “what we measure and celebrate determines our behavior,” then there can be little wonder that congregations have become largely attractional in disposition or that their leaders’ most FAQ regards church growth strategies?
But ask me to reflect upon this matter today and, for the first time in at least thirty years, I must pause. While most churches were busy sanitizing their protocols for sharing the peace and distributing communion, worship was suddenly hijacked by a pandemic and relegated to cyberspace. And since worship not only supplies our “metric of choice” but is also the ministry around which most other ministries are organized, the resulting shock waves stunned and stymied congregations. New questions emerged. “How do we salvage worship?” “Retain staff?” “Ensure that there is a church for members to return to once it is safe to go back in the water?”
Congregations are answering these new FAQs in a myriad of ways. Some are turning inward and appealing to members to ramp up their generosity in order to keep the institution afloat. “The church needs you!” Other congregations are busy with all sorts of well-intentioned but often disconnected initiatives designed to buy time for their ministries, praying all the while that the crisis will end before they run out of steam…or resources…or both.
Some congregations, however, such as the missional community that I serve, are not only surviving this crisis but are thriving in the midst of it watching worship attendance and giving grow. How is this possible? Leaders in these ministries are asking an alternative set of new questions that, for an attractional congregation, may seem counterintuitive.
Rather than communicating the congregation’s need to receive more financial support, thriving ministries are asking, “How can we deploy more resources into the community to help others in need?” The question, “How can we preserve our church?” has been replaced by an invitation to members, “Will you join us in giving ourselves away for the sake of those who are hurting the most?”
Now to be fair, these congregations had essential crisis survival safeguards in place and functioning prior to the pandemic earthquake. For example, the ministries in my congregation are organized around mission, not worship. Worship attendance appears nowhere on our ministry scorecard. Instead, we measure and celebrate the number of hungry students fed in our partner middle school, the number of improved marriages and the percentage of offering that is given away in blessing. So, the pandemic did not stymy our ministry, rather summoned us to shift our mission into overdrive.
As we will read in a few weeks, shortly after the resurrection Peter and at least six of the disciples go fishing (John 21). The rubble has barely settled from the explosion at the tomb and the church has returned to “life as usual,” fishing for fish in shallow water. The resurrected Lord appears and redirects the early church with a question. “Do you love me?”
Navigating the heart of this crisis is likely not the optimal moment for church leaders to reorient their missional posture. There may be no better time, however, to begin exploring a new set of questions so that, when the whistle sounds and it is safe for members to return to the water, we will be ready to encourage them out…just a little deeper.
Rev. Joe Crowther | Kairos and Associates | Consultant | email