I recently had a conversation with a younger pastor of a church. Their church was small when he got there – no more than 20 people attending each week. They said that they wanted to grow. So the pastor did as the church asked. He invited the neighbors nearby. And many new people started coming! But they didn’t look like the 20 members already there. Some of the new people came from broken and dysfunctional families. Others didn’t ever have a church background. Still others had financial troubles. After about nine months, church attendance tripled – from 20 to 60. But the church wasn’t the same. The new people had changed the church – they challenged the church. For many of the old attenders, it didn’t feel comfortable any more. In response, they asked the pastor to leave.
I have been thinking about this conversation with this pastor because it offers some insight into mission and church growth. For many of us, mission is something that happens out there or far away from home. Often times when we imagine mission work, we think about good work people we know are doing internationally – church members and friends like Jesse and Lisa Miller in Nicaragua or Dariush and Emily Meraj in Turkey. But mission is also about local work too. I think about Life Bridge Community Church in Dover, pastored by Chet Miller-Eshleman. Life Bridge is in the same conference as our church, and in seven years as a church plant has grown to a full-fledged church of 155 regular attenders. Isn’t this mission work too?
Thinking back to my conversation with the young pastor, I wonder if the reason the church struggled to accept their new growth is because they had the wrong idea of what happens when we share Good News. I think our impulse is that new attenders will look, think and act like us. After all, that would certainly make things easier. Then we wouldn’t need to change! But that rarely happens. Instead, our interactions with others often change us as much as the other person. When you triple in size from 20 to 60, you are basically worshipping in a whole new church. Those who are mature need to be equipped to serve those who are new.
This is mission work. It is messy, because it involves people and relationships. It is also challenging, because it means we get stretched too. Many churches who work on church growth seem to focus on a technical worship experience – get a professional worship band, a polished speaking pastor, a concert experience with bright lights, and multiply it through multisite technology. This is an effective model for reaching people. But one weakness of this model is that it diminishes the role of the church – the work is carried out by professionals rather than church members. In a darkened auditorium, you can’t see your brothers or sisters in Christ. You can’t hear the voices of those beside you. While a well-prepared sermon and well-rehearsed music and a sensory experience definitely make church engaging and interesting, none of them by themselves hold the Gospel promise of life that is transformed.
So what does? How should Christians authentically do mission? Through relationships. Authentic relationships both around the corner and around the world. Just as a personal relationship with Jesus has transformed you, it is only by being in relationship with others – and allowing for the possibility of change in ourselves - that we can help fulfill God’s mission here and now.
- Jeff Hochstetler