In 2017, we had a new phenomenon in the church—we actually grew for the first time in over 20 years, having more members at the end of the year than we had at the beginning. Part of my call to this congregation was the realization that this church had everything you would want to make growth possible. However, with any hope for growth, the question every congregation needs to ask is: Do we want to?
Every church can grow, but there is a sacrifice that needs to be given. And often that sacrifice is the hardest one: letting go of what we know and letting go of the power of the past. As I often highlight in evangelism training, with every new person that comes through our doors, the church changes. It really is not that hard to think of, because the world around us is always changing, no matter how hard we try to keep it the same. As a church it is easy to become an isolated fortress for the way things once were, but in doing so, no matter how hard we try to be open, we become an exclusive community with our own vocabulary and sense of insider or outsider. But we also fear how that will change the nature and essence of our identity as a congregation.
Simply stated, the major problem with growth for any congregation is the fear of change. This fear is what makes evangelism such a scary term, especially for Presbyterians, because at its root, it requires change. To be honest, typically by the time a Presbyterian church begins to change, the society around it has already grown past that change, because of our reliance of doing things decently and in order. Now that is not always a bad thing, but it also explains the denomination’s loss of membership.
In a very real way, we are not reaching the emerging culture. The emerging culture is a term that is increasingly used in church to break away from the historical understandings of youth and young adults. The main example is the phrase, “When they start having kids, they will come back to church.” While that is true of some, the emerging generation cannot come back to church because they were not part of it in the first place. This drastically changes the ways in which we approach and evangelize them, and it creates new struggles of overcoming stereotypes so that we can reach this new population.
We must begin to look and see this community and their needs, so we can be faithful to the message of Christ. Personally, the best ending of any book, movie, story, or song I have seen or will ever see is the ending of the Gospel according to Matthew. In a real way, it calls the reader to task. The New Revised Standard Version reads, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
It does not sum up the gospel but gives us a call to action: “GO. You heard the story, you know who I am, and now it is your job to do what you need to do to let others know of my story, knowing that it is I who will be working through you!” Thus, the responsibility of evangelism is a dual one which requires action both on God’s part and ours. We have to go out and find ways to attract people to the message of God, and moreover, we have the responsibility to spread this message.
Through the next year, we are going to try new things to reach out to the unchurched and those who need to hear God’s message:
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen