Sunday, February 08, 2009

My 2008 report to the congregation

2008 started with a tremendous sense of optimism that God was opening a new chapter in our history as it looked like Good Shepherd would be moving into a new building.

However, when it became apparent that our offer to purchase the Our Lady of Assumption Church building would be rejected and that we would be staying in our present facility for the foreseeable future I sensed a palpable feeling of relief within the congregation.

While I’m sure that the congregation would have honoured the commitment to finance the new building, and its true that we would have used the space to build our ministry, I got the impression that people thought such an amount of money needed could be put to better use. While we would have grown into the new building, most of our energy would have been toward paying the mortgage, at the expense of our mission.

What the whole process said to me was that we, as a congregation, are ambivalent about our mission to the world. While a move would have presented us with a challenge (a challenge we would, no doubt have met), I wonder if the relief we felt was not simply financial, but missional. Having such a large space to ourselves would have pushed us to justify our building’s size. So, it would have been the building that drove our mission rather than listening to the world’s needs and God’s voice asking us to respond.

Last year, when Good Shepherd decided to move to one Sunday morning service, whether we realized it or not, it was a tacit decision NOT to grow. Most church growth theorists note that, when a church worship space reaches 80 percent full, attendance will either plateau or decline. Good Shepherd has plateaued, simply because there is no room for new people. And I worry that the plateau will lead to decline simply because of the size of our sanctuary.

While I understand the reasoning behind the decision to go to one service: one service uses fewer resources and creates a greater sense of community among the congregation. Plus, it feels good worshiping in a full church. And I like being able to sleep in on Sundays if I want to.

However, we need to be aware of the consequences such a move has made to our future.

Visitors to the church arrive at just as worship is starting or shortly thereafter, and are often forced to sit at the front of the church. And one Sunday, some visitors were the first ones at Holy Communion because of they were sat in the second row, piano side.

So, I propose a two-pronged approach.

1) Adding a midweek service. We start our Lenten services at Ash Wednesday, but I propose continuing after Easter with a Tuesday evening service. This service was serve two functions i) Provide worship opportunity for current Good Shepherd members and friends who cannot otherwise attend worship, and ii) Be an outreach service for people not currently connected to a church or the faith.

I see this service as an informal, contemplative worship experience. Building on the value of faithful creativity that informs our Sunday morning gatherings, this midweek service will explore broader ways of worshipping, bringing people into God’s presence.

2) Start a new congregation. Many church growth studies say that the fastest growing churches are new congregations. Newer and smaller churches are stronger in nurturing Christian growth and evangelism.

I see our ChristCare Small Group Ministry playing a key role in this new congregation, as the chief expression of church would be the small group, with the whole congregation gathering in worship, fellowship, and learning, once a month. 

As you may recall, ChristCare Small Group Ministry rests on four pillars:

i) Community and Care

ii) Prayer and Worship

iii) Biblical Equipping

iv) Missional Service

Each ChristCare group integrates these four ministry areas, creating a holistic process through which to make disciples of Jesus. 

Although ChristCare groups can be as large as 14 people, I encourage our Christcare leaders to keep the number under 12. These ChristCare groups would be primarily evangelistic, bringing people into the faith through small, relational, Christian experiences. 

This model of new church development keeps costs down while maximizing missional effectiveness. It also marks a sea change in how people view and experience church. As churches are declining and resources limited, many Christians are refocussing their priorities away from creating institutions and toward vibrant Jesus centred communities. 

Also, a church model focused primarily on the small group experience helps people grow more fully as followers of Jesus.

Education and Growth

Also, I’d like to make 2009 a year of learning our Lutheran tradition. Last Fall, I gave a short sermon series called “Living as Lutherans.” I’ll be continuing the series intermittently over the next year. I’ll be publishing the sermons both on our website as well as providing short articles on central Lutheran theological themes for circulation.

Furthermore, I’d like us to read the bible together. Starting in Lent, I’ll assemble a daily series of bible readings from the Gospel of Mark for the congregation to read at home. Along with this I’ll be providing some commentary on the Mark readings to help guide the readings.

Along with the daily readings, I encourage each board, committee, group, gathering, etc, to include a learning component. Either a book study, a video, speaker, or whatever will help you grow in faithful knowledge.

And I’ll be learning right along side of you. As many of you know I’ve started a program at Athabasca University, a Master of Arts Integrated Studies (MAIS), in which

I’ll have a dual focus: Work, Organization, and Leadership, and Community Studies. My goals for the degree include thinking through how to strengthen the congregation as a community, and reflect on my role as a congregational leader in a changing church and cultural context.

Another way of thinking about what I see for 2009 is “Back to Basics,” meaning refocussing on what we’re called to do and be as Christians: to make stronger disciples of Jesus. Those “basics” can be outlined as the ChristCare four pillars.

We have challenges laying at our feet, challenges that require creativity to overcome, trusting that the God who calls us into mission in this time and place will give us the strength and faithfulness to carry out God’s sacred mandate. These are interesting times to be the church. May we be found faithful as we move forward in helping people grow into who God wants them to be.

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