What's a Congregation to Do?
Reflections on the mission and ministry of the local congregation
Rev. Tom Chryst - Elders' Retreat January 2010
Every congregation offers worship services on Sunday. Most every congregation has a pastor leading them. Baptisms, funerals, weddings, confirmations. Usually there's some kind of Bible study. But then what?
Some congregations run a soup kitchen. Others have a school. Some have a radio or TV ministry, or an ethnic outreach. There's braille workers and quilters and seniors groups and grief support groups. Stephen ministries and youth retreats, homeless shelters and neighborhood canvassing. There's any number of programs, events and social gatherings that happen on a regular or irregular basis.
With so many possibilities, someone in congregational leadership might be led to wonder, “what's a congregation to do?” In other words, besides having church on Sunday, how does a congregation decide how and where to spend its time, talents and treasures?
Especially when a congregation is at a crossroads, I contend that it's well worth it for the leaders to intentionally think these things through. Rather than haphazardly doing things in a random fashion, or always doing what we have always done, isn't it better to come to a well-reasoned plan for how a congregation will choose its course?
First, let's consider what Scripture teaches about the purpose of the local congregation. Acts 2:42 gives us a basic outline, “and they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers”. This suggests that the gathered believers of Christ are to:
1)be devoted to doctrine
2)devoted to fellowship (sharing what they had in common – several aspects to this)
3)breaking of bread – Lutherans have understood this to include the sacrament
4)the prayers – suggesting a formal order of worship
These four priorities are covered nicely in our “Sunday Morning” routine. So far so good. Acts 2 goes on to talk about how the early Christians cared for each other, even going so far as communal living – sharing all possessions. This indicates another purpose of the congregation:
1.to care for one another
Matthew 28, the Great Commission, Jesus instructs his Apostles and the Church to “Make disciples of all nations” by baptizing and teaching. “Baptizing and teaching” is another handy summary of what we Lutherans call “Word and Sacrament Ministry”.
Surely we could add to the list, based on the example of the New Testament church. But the fact remains, nowhere does Scripture give us detailed instructions for the local congregation (like it does, for instance, when it comes to the construction and usage of the Tabernacle). It certainly teaches the centrality of the Word and the sacraments, but allows for broad freedom beyond this. So what's a church to do?
Let me suggest the following simple framework for deciding what to do:
Things you need to do:
Those things you simply have to have, in order to do “Word and Sacrament” ministry. For instance: Pay the pastor. Order communion supplies. Have a building with heat and lights. Collect offering. Some of this will vary from situation to situation, but these are the “no-brainers”.
Things someone else has a need for:
Needs vary greatly from place to place. Socio-economic, demographic, geographic factors all come into play. This is a matter of knowing what people need – both in and out of the church. There are all kinds of resources to help determine these things, but a common sense observation of the conditions isn't such a bad place to start.
Things you are good at:
Each congregation is blessed with people having different and diverse talents. Why not play to your strengths and do what you are best at? I think of a nearby Hispanic congregation that holds a taco dinner fund raiser. They need funds, and they make good tacos. Pretty simple. Does your congregation have people who are talented in education? Finance? Art? Cooking? Cleaning? Organizing? Or something else? This is a matter of managing the talents God gives us (stewardship).
Things you want to do:
It's a whole lot easier to do something you want to do, than something you don't. If your congregation likes to get their hands dirty, then maybe a community rehab project or a soup kitchen is right for you. If you want to work with children, then maybe a school or daycare. If you want to concentrate on music ministry or some other focus area – it will always be easier to do if the people are interested. We shouldn't feel bad about doing those things that we, as a congregation, simply want to do. As long as we are not sinning, and as long as we are keeping in mind our main purpose, there's no reason we can't choose from the panoply of options and find our own comfort zone. A caution: This can be taken too far, and if a congregation is too comfortable they will likely NOT be fulfilling their full potential for service and mission work.
If you can find an ideal combination of these four factors, you may have found what you (or your congregation) should be doing!
Also, as you are deciding “what to do”, ask questions along the way, which evaluate a proposed plan or activity:
Does it serve the Gospel?
Generally, most things we do should have some connection to the main thing we're about. However it's not wrong to do something as a congregation “just for fun” or just to help people.
Is it good stewardship?
Money is always an issue. Remember it's God's money we're spending. He calls us to do so wisely. Still, many things worth doing are costly. Jesus tells us to consider the cost of discipleship, but still wants us to be disciples! Don't let money stop us from doing good for the kingdom. (Discussion – how to decide how much we spend on aesthetics vs. functionality?)
What are others doing?
Have others succeeded or failed, and why?
Are others nearby doing the same? Would we be stepping on toes, or helping them?
What witness would it give?
Remember what a congregation does is seen by those within and without. Even non-believers will take note of the good a congregation accomplishes. Are there other projects or events that might give the wrong impression?
Would this offend someone needlessly?
I'm not saying compromise our beliefs in any way to avoid ruffling feathers. But simply to consider our neighbors – community and other congregations, for instance – and how our actions affect them too.
Some final thoughts:
Be careful to avoid acting only in your congregation's “best interests”. Perhaps balancing “internal” and “external” projects is a healthier approach to consider.
Avoid major projects which have the support of only a small number of people, or only one individual. Even the pastor shouldn't decide by himself the overall course a congregation will take.
Remember there are always unintended consequences. Try to think them through.
In those things which are not central, it's ok to fail! I once had a frustrated member bring me a list of all the projects we had tried that “failed”. While working in and for a congregation can be frustrating, there's no guarantee of “success” in everything we do.
Questions for discussion:
What are some of the advantages of carefully evaluating a new plan or program or activity in the life of the congregation?
When should these kinds of discussions and evaluations take place?
Who should do them?
How has your congregation made decisions in the past, and how has it worked out?