I just had an article published on Unbound called “Numbering My Worries” as part of their Inside Agitators: Seminarians for Justice issue. First and foremost, I am honored to be included in this issue along with several others from my seminary and other seminaries and divinity schools. I am struck by how attentive each person is to their context, and I am also struck that while I am a seminarian my article is not about my seminary (Princeton Seminary). However, my seminary is all over this article; so I wanted to take a moment for a personal reflection to clarify how my seminary is in this article.
Last semester I took a course from Dr. Richard Osmer called Evangelism in Congregational Context. Don’t be scared at the use of the “e word.” We all figured out pretty quickly we weren’t going to push our faith onto other people. The entire course was essentially about reclaiming Christian practices of holistic friendship; studying historical and theological models of mission; learning to speak about your faith to people who do not share it; and how to assess the relationship between a congregation’s theology, history, and context. While evangelism and mission are not the same, the words are often used interchangeably. For me, mission is the overarching idea. God is working in the world, and we want to be working with God. Evangelism (broadly) is practices of relationship-building with people who are not already members of your or a faith community. This may or may not lead to those individuals or groups visiting or joining your church, and even if they do that is not the point. The main point is to be living embodiments of our faith and have that faith so real it actually changes the way we interact with people. In the class we actually worked with local congregations, and what we saw was that many churches don’t think about issues like evangelism until they’re in a hard spot. Then evangelism is the go-to in order to increase membership and keep alive. Instead of evangelism being a way of authentic living evangelism becomes an SOS. That is simplifying things, and I’d like to stress many congregations do think about mission in depth.
All that was being fused with another class called “Toward a Theology of Church Leadership” team taught by Dr. Gordon Mikoski and Dr. Stacy Johnson. We had to write a short paper called “Re-envisioning the Gospel.” We did this project so poorly that the professors made us all re-write the papers. They encouraged us to be creative, so I decided instead of writing an essay to write a liturgy and sermon based on Exodus 13:17-22 (God with the freed Hebrew slaves in pillars of cloud and fire) and Luke 4:16-30 (Jesus rejected by his home town). You can watch the sermon if you want to (but be warned, it’s pretty rough). The basic idea of the service was that proclamation of the Gospel is an active event that we are all a part of. When we talk about the Gospel or living the Gospel we are responding to God’s action in our lives and the love that is poured out on us, not because we deserve that love but because God is Love. Although I didn’t say it particularly in the sermon, I did mention in the article I believe that part of being a member of a church is about becoming the Body of Christ for the world.
During this past school year I was involved in the most active evangelism that I ever have been. By “active evangelism” I mean my church supervisor and I intentionally hung out at a local community college to have conversations with and get to know some of the people from our community. We were honest about who we were and why we were there, and the conversations that happened are a big reason about why I started this blog in the first place. I was being asked so many amazing questions that no one had ever asked me before that I needed an outlet to ponder. People were asking questions about the relationship of God (although sometimes not directly called God) and them and their experiences as well as questions about me and my relationship with God. I know my faith is not just a set of doctrines I can say I believe, and I started to see how my faith shapes how I look at the world in an incredible way. My faith doesn’t make everything “all right” or guarantee that I’ll be healthy and rich forever; but my faith does assure me that no matter what I am going through, God is there with me. It’s not just me, either. God is there with my community, God is there with the people I don’t like, God is there with people I don’t know, God is there with the people I’m talking to.
On top of all this stuff that was happening in class and at the church I was working for, there’s what was happening at the seminary before and while the article was being written. A lot of my friends who graduated last May still do not have ministry jobs, but many of them were finding other ways to follow God’s calling. I saw students bringing their gifts and talents to minister on campus in big ways and small. I sat on the Seminary Council for Institutional Diversity this year and learned so much about how people live out their faith and the difficulties others are facing that I probably wouldn’t have ever known about otherwise. I saw students getting involved with local non-profits and doing social justice work like I haven’t seen my other two years. I saw organizations and individuals working towards justice on our campus, and I am happy to say I was a part of this community this year.
So take all of that and re-consider what happened when I came head-to-head with a particular church’s description of what they wanted their new pastor to do:
“When they asked what I would do to increase membership, I told them I was more concerned about cultivating relationships with the local community while living out the things Jesus told us to do. I added that church membership is not about getting people in the doors but about becoming the Body of Christ for the world. One of the youth gave me the blankest stare I have ever seen a teenager give, and the others at the table seemed just as perplexed.“ from “Numbering My Worries”
I realize now how I was talking past the group gathered around the table, and I wish we had time within the structure of the event for me to have a deeper conversation with that group. In my experience, when a church’s goal is “increasing membership” we can get caught up in those numbers and forget everything else; but when a church’s goal is “increasing discipleship through more diverse Christian education classes” or “increasing mission by developing a mission project for our youth” or “becoming more involved in the community by pairing up with local food bank in a new way” the specifics of that goal carries the idea of developing relationships with new people (or if you like attempting to increase membership) while building up the people who are already there as well. I have nothing against the idea of churches desiring to grow in membership. In fact, I usually encourage it. However, I don’t want to see churches use this idea as a Hail Mary to keep their doors open or as a crutch because they don’t know anything more specific to say. Or,
Underlying this inclination to prioritize higher membership numbers is a toxic assumption: higher numbers mean success… Are we in the church looking for profits or prophets? from “Numbering My Worries”
I hope this has filled in some of the personal background that helped feed this article. I welcome questions and comments to continue the conversation both here on the blog as well at the article’s page.