The Church Is a Family with a Mission, not a Social Club waiting to be taken Home. We Need to relearn how to do Ministry in a Post-Christian World and that change starts with us.
My town has a small community wellness center that is attached to the High School a couple blocks from our parsonage here in Buffalo Center. This is similar to what we had at the High School in Sterling Kansas, a place where the community can go to work out. Since it is so close my wife and I will just walk over when her or I go. We may have to re-evaluate this once winter arrives, but for now, it’s extremely convenient to have the ability to run a block over to work our during my lunch break. To get there I always walk through my churches yard, down the block, past the Methodist Church turning to walk past North Iowa School District. A Pre-K-12 building that houses the school district for our town and five others around us. I must pass two entrances to get down to the Wellness Center Entrance. Whenever I make my way down there during the school year (which just began) there are always about twenty bicycles sitting between the two East entrances of the school (the second is the Wellness Center Entrance).
One of the things Rachel and I thought we would miss when we left the cloistered community of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary was the sound of kids playing. We were used to Cape Ann where if you are a kid who wants to ride their bike in the street you must be extremely careful and so you do not hear see kids playing out in town. The seminary was different, though not exactly kid friendly streets, one had to watch out for kids in parking lots and on sidewalks and on side streets. Even when I lived in Sterling there was less of a “Free Range’ mentality among parents, yes you could see kids riding bikes around town and playing at the town’s parks, but here in Northern Iowa it is still a regular occurrence. Everyday from my office window I see kids riding by on bikes or scooters or walking to and from school. At our community pool we often saw many kids from town and their parents and at the park my wife often runs into other moms taking their kids to the park or kids coming to the park to play by themselves.
Honestly, in a culture that is increasingly isolating and where we have less and less trust for one another and for institutions it is refreshing to know that there are still places in existence where the community bands together to watch the kids. Not that these attitudes of isolation and mistrust are not found here in our town, but they seem to so far be in lower quantities than other places. The advantage is the strength of our social institutions, the local school district, the thriving Main Street.
I want you to notice what institution I did not mention there, it was an intentional omission, that is the local church. Not because the local churches are non-existent but that they are uninvolved, even though they have their own pages in the local newspaper and host community-oriented events but the ones who come to these community events are the same people who attend the local churches. It lends itself to more of a social club mentality rather than an outreach mentality in today’s climate. Not that those things were not once effective, they actually were otherwise we would not have done them, but we are making assumptions about the culture based on what used to work and not asking what we may need to do differently to reach the world now and what is required of us now is to go where the people are and go humbly. To go to a place where their may be things that we do not like or which we have historically condemned or abandoned to darkness and be with people where they are at long before we even begin inviting them to Church. People need to know not how much you care but that you care, and they need to see that your faith is real and that you are real, long before they will even consider coming to Church with you. This is one advantage to our increasingly isolated culture, you must be genuine, you must intentional and you must be willing to stick out the relationship in the long term. Eugene Peterson describes the Christian Life as a “Long Obedience in the same direction” our relationship with Christ and with others should be the same.
Think what it would mean for a second if all those bikes on the school lawn were bikes on the Church lawn on Sunday. I know, I know, I have heard the argument too many times about how sports are scheduled on Sundays, usually during Church, but what if they were there for a contemporary service on a non-sports night of the week? Just dream with me for a second! What would a church with a yard filled with kids bikes and their parents’ cars look like?
The sad reality is, most small-town churches are not ready for that reality. They do not have the infrastructure in place, they do not have the facilities, and their congregations are aging and many of them are burnt out. They also lack access to teaching materials that will help them understand and minister to a new generation such as David Kinnemen’s book “You Lost Me” or other Barna Research. Most of those who have served on the board have served their 30 years and are ready for the next generation to take over, the generation that’s not there. Some think simply by calling a younger pastor they will experience growth, it is true that a pastor will attract those fifteen years on either side of them, it is also true though that only 2% of people who are invited by a senior pastor come to church, meanwhile 94% of people who are invited by a member of the church come. Yet, most people in churches know each other, 64% say that evangelism is a mission of the Church as stated by Jesus, 0% have actually engaged in sharing their faith in the last six months according to Pew research.
Further, we sit in our pews and balk at how bad the world has gotten while taking no action to enact change other than supporting a political candidate. We look at the empty pews and the lack of children and we start to feel anxiety about the future, we look back at the good old days and we get lost in the nostalgia while the world that God loves (John 3:16) slowly slips away into ever increasing darkness, loneliness and depression. Trust erodes and instead of seeing what Christians should be, people learn about Christianity through the news media.
Let me be clear, there is no easy fix to this solution, the fix is the preaching and living out of the Gospel as Disciples of Jesus and that is an extremely costly proposition. The truth is, most people know exactly where the Midwestern Churches are, they are just wondering what they have done lately, and the answer for many of those churches is “nothing.” A Church on Mission is one that is reaching into the community, meeting needs regardless of who has them. It is an open-ended hospitality that breaks down barriers and build relationships. Not so we can show people that the Christianity of the Media is false, but because the Gospel demands a God and others focus. As Rosaria Butterfield says: “The Gospel comes with a housekey.”
The mat outside the door to the Church Office reads: “Come as You Are.” My wife and I were intentional about what message we sent when we ordered a doormat. We also hope that it is a mantra that God will test us with, hold us accountable too. We have been blessed with a beautiful home and we want to be good stewards of what God has given us. When we tell people: “Don’t be alone” we want them to take us up on that and not be alone.
The key to seeing bicycles return to the lawns of our churches is not to create flashy programs or have modern worship with huge laser light shows. My generation is rejecting that kind of showy Christianity. Yes, we should update our facilities and if we are doing so with the intentionality of using it for the advance of God’s kingdom, God will honor that and help with that expense. We need to move away from a social club model to a family that fellowships. Most importantly we need to be men and women after God’s own heart, authentically and sacrificially serving Him with our whole being and full submission to His call on our lives that comes from the Joy of knowing how deeply loved we are by Him and how much He delights in us just for believing in Him. In all this we need to practice a radical, visible and unprecedented hospitality that shares the love of Christ with everyone regardless of their background in a manner that is authentic, organic and focused on Christ.
Everywhere in the world the Church is growing, except here in Post-Christian America, you want to change that trend church? Then go live the Gospel!
Jonathan David Faulkner is a Graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary holding Masters in Divinity and Church History, a Pastor, Musician and Writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Education & Administration with a concentration in Urban Ministry. He lives with his wife Rachel and daughter Erin in Buffalo Center Iowa and seeks to be a part of the project of reconciliation in the local and international church. He is currently serving as the Pastor of First Congregational Church of Buffalo Center.