There are two refrains that I constantly hear in conversation with individual church leaders and in workshops on stewardship. One is, How do we attract/keep young people in the church? The other is, How do we grow the church to support our budget? Both of them are legitimate expressions of the pervasive anxiety that seems to haunt every congregation in our mostly rural area regardless of denomination.
However legitimate they may be, they also miss the point because they focus inward on the congregation as an end to be preserved rather than as a means to do the work God has given them to do. Perhaps that is due in part to the Protestant obsession with faith not works combined with the popular notion that to be Christian is to have accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior. That personalized and inward looking perspective has only one external outlet, and that is to “evangelize” others to join the inner sanctum of believers.
Christians are called to be formed as followers of Jesus to continue his ministry in every place they might find themselves, and the Church exists to be the vehicle for making that happen. Whatever else the Church might be, it is first and ultimately the body of Christ continuing Jesus’ ministry of healing, reconciliation and bringing the kingdom of God near. Consider the words of Paul to the Corinthians when he wrote, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1Cor. 12.27). Again, in his letter to the Ephesians he wrote that the work of the Church is “…to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…” (Eph. 4.12).
In other words we are to, individually and collectively, incarnate the body of Christ in our daily lives, and that takes disciplined intentionality. Admittedly even the best of us is not very good at that kind of incarnational disciplined intentionality, but it cannot be very hard to be better than the low standards that have satisfied us for too long. After all, we are fond of espousing the virtues of disciplined intentionality about everything from athletics, music and cooking to education, work habits and great sex.
Refocussing on what it means to incarnate the body of Christ can move us from a preoccupation with the preservation of congregations filled with members to a commitment to the ministry of healing, reconciliation and bringing the kingdom of God near. Following the way of Jesus, that becomes a ministry mostly of presence, listening and blessing. It has very little to do with obnoxious attempts at conversion. Nor does it have anything to do with sentimental fawning in imitation of a mythical Jesus meek and mild. It has everything to do with bringing the earthy realism of God’s love into the lives of those about us. That is what we are called to do as individual Christians with congregations as our gathering places for worship, learning and restoration. Focus on that. Make that the priority, and don’t worry so much about growth.