The Evangelism conference was probably one of the most important conferences that I have been to in a long time. While most of the content was superb, much of it was not new for me; what was new and most helpful was being in a lay-driven conference, where over half of the attendees were elders.
It was fascinating listening to the stories and seeing the excitement of that group. There were a couple of themes that I saw in the elders that were there: there was the group that was brought by their pastors, there were the groups trying to figure out next steps, and there were the elders that were at churches that had made drastic changes and they were beginning to see the fruit of their decisions. It was fascinating to see that there was so much life, when the common element was that the church as we know it is dead.
Yes, there was that theme, but that was not a bad thing. In fact, the death of the church was something that we were celebrating each day in various ways, especially in our attempts to regain a focus on Jesus Christ and find ways to serve God in the midst of our communities.
The emphasis in all the churches that were seeing both growth and stability was a focus, not on numerical success, but on an individual congregations’ impact with the community. This is biblical, actually more biblical than the large church model of ministry.
We often forget that Christian worship started as a simple meal, with some readings, some speaking and corporate listening. The purpose of worship was not to make the attendees feel good or even something “spiritual;” the purpose was to gather the community and give a sacrifice of our time to God for the Sacrifice that he has given to us. There was also a communal nature to the worship of the early church in that the attendees created a focus and support for the worshipping life of the church.
There is a saying in the Presbyterian Church in that we are reformed and always reforming. The problem that we face in a society that is resistant to change is that allowing the church to be reformed is next to impossible because we have so much identity wrapped up in the way things are, or at least the way things are or were, in our minds.
The things that the churches who are seeing the greatest success are doing is going through the difficult process of letting go of that image of what was and is and instead of dreaming about what could be, looking around asking who is their neighbor, and how is God calling them to the table. This looked different in every discussion I had with other elders, since no two communities were the same. However, the things that remained the same were the willingness to try, to connect, to fail, and to discern where God was.
When you think of it, it makes sense. As a church we are not called to serve people but to serve God and be his faithful witness in the community. If we do that, if we speak a faithful message and connect in vital ways, we will never be left for want, but if we try to stay alive, or focus on ourselves, we will no longer be able to serve God and will continue to fragment and split because the focus is no longer on what unifies us, our focus is on fear. Fear of death, fear of others, fear of the future.
Thankfully, we know we have nothing to fear, for our lives are with God, and as my Grandfather’s favorite catechism question states:
Q. What is your only comfort, in life and in death?
A. That I belong—body and soul, in life and in death—not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil; that he protects me so well that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that everything must fit his purpose for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.
You see, we have nothing to fear, but we have every responsibility with our lives to live in ways that glorify him.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen