Monday, 18 August 2014

Impact, not membership, measure of a church

I see that another church congregation has closed their doors in Owen Sound. A Baptist congregation on 9th St. East folded their tent this summer.

It’s not a surprise. Churches are having a rough go these days. We have gone from five United Church congregations to three in the last twenty years. There is a church out near Keppel Sarawak school that has a For Sale sign on their building.

It would appear that churches are failing.

The most common way of measuring churches is what are called "butts in the pews". If a church is full on Sunday, then it is deemed a success and the pastor thought to be a great leader and preacher.

That kind of metric goes along well with our market mentality and out 21st century emphasis on consumer consumption.

Churches and religion are just another consumer item.

This has reached it’s zenith in the United States where megachurches like Saddleback, The Potter’s House and Willow Creek are national institutions and preachers like T.D. Jakes and Bill Hybells are household names.

I think the metric is wrong.

What we need to be paying attention to is the impact of the church on a given community and not the number of butts in the pews.

How does a congregation make a difference in a community? And what is the lasting impact of the church among the people?

David Odom in Duke University’s "Call and Response" blog recently asked this very provocative question. Odom suggests, "Through the generations, congregations have been the kitchens where Christians are "cooked" into the sort of people God intends us to be. We worship, study, pray and share meals, knitting us closer to God and each other. Congregations matter because Christians would not be Christians if we did not have people with whom to practice loving God and loving neighbour."

I think there is a lot to be said for that image of congregation as "kitchen". And I think it’s especially close to the small, rural congregations that dotted this country. We have forgotten that role of teaching ourselves to live with each other in community. We have forgotten how to love our neighbour.

Odom goes on to refer to a book by Christine Pohl titled "Living in Community". Pohl suggests there are four practices which are critical to the life of community: embracing gratitude; making and keeping promises; living truthfully; and practising hospitality.

Odom concludes, "Life in congregations both requires and molds us into these practices."

What if we started to measure churches, not by the number of people in the pews or the size of the budget or the number of people on staff but by the way they lived out those four spiritual practices?

What would happen if we started to think of churches as incubators of faithful people, who then went out and lived the principles of faith in their daily lives?

Odom tells the story of a probation officer he worked with in Texas who was extremely critical of Christians. The veteran had seen churches come into the jails and prisons for years, visiting the inmates and befriending them. But when those same people were released from jail on probation or parole, the "Christians" shunned the ones they had visited and did not know them nor invite them into their churches.

It’s going to take a generation to move away from seeing church success using consumer-oriented metrics. And it is quite possible that more churches will close in the meantime. But the church that sees itself as an incubator of faith, teaching the ways of living in a God-focussed, Christ-centred, grateful, truthful, integrity-living and hospitable way will survive and, I believe, prosper. It won’t be large. It may not even use a recognizable building nor have a full-time, paid pastor. But it will be a congregation of faithful people. And that is enough.

Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County, Cable 53.