Church Ownership

In my last post, I wrote about personal agency- the notion of taking ownership of one’s  life. We have options and we make decisions to shape our lives. Life is not something that simply happens to us. God gives us the tools to change our own circumstances in many instances. He gives us the right to change our own circumstances in many instances. He also gives us mercy and grace to adapt when it is not possible to change a situation. He provides multiple ways forward after difficult experiences that can either build us up or destroy us, depending on how we exert the agency we have in our lives. I suspect that God even expects us to select the circumstances and experiences necessary to live a life that is rewarding to ourselves and pleasing to Him. That is agency. If God expects us to have agency in our own lives, surely we should expect the same from the world… and from ourselves.

 This concept of agency also has implications above the individual level.

I’ve mentioned that my church adopted a ministry called Invite, Welcome, Connect. The ministry’s founder, Mary Foster Parmer, spent a weekend with our congregation helping us strategize ways to grow our church in membership and vibrancy. Her message is that people usually only truly engage with a church on a deep, abiding level if the congregation meets the newcomers’ needs in several phases of their discerning and bonding process.

First of all, the church members must invite people in their secular lives to come to church. Most of the time, people who join churches begin coming to that church because someone they know invites them. Secondly, the church needs to make sure that the newcomers feel welcome. That means being friendly and genuinely interested in new people, but it also means considering more subliminal conditions. For instance, would someone who is on a lower economic level feel welcome in a church if the only fellowship activity of the year is a fund-raising auction, which tends to put a person’s financial status on public display? Finally, it is not enough to simply invite a person to church and smile at them kindly, authentically, and enthusiastically. People come back to a church and contribute their gifts (time, talent, connections, disposition, financial resources, etc.) when they connect with the church’s theology, mission, activities, and people. When we form longer term, genuine relationships with people who are considering joining our church, it is more likely that they will strengthen that bond by joining the family.

I think all of this is absolutely true. I love the ministry. I notice more engagement, more excitement, and more ownership in our congregation. I would add a  fourth element that we should consider, as well…. agency.

Newcomers in a church should not feel like they are couch-surfing in someone else’s domicile, living off the generosity of the owners of said couch. They need to believe that they have real agency in the life of the church if they are to embrace that church as a core piece of who they are. A congregation that wishes to grow and fill hearts cannot only accept and welcome people to serve in ways that they are inheriting from past generations of church membership. They need an opportunity to sow the unique gifts God has sent them to plant, especially if they are not planting in a field that is already growing some other crop. Remember, even if the crop they are growing does not appeal to your palette, it is likely- especially in an expanding church- that someone else will gladly feast on it. Providing an abundant smorgasbord for the people of God is a reason for the church to rejoice!

It is important that new people have a true sense of ownership. They must have a meaningful voice. They must have the power to not just inhabit the pews in the church, but to shape its future.

Allowing newcomers to shape the future of the church can be scary. Despite good intentions all around, people don’t always get it right. A church that is vibrant becomes fertile because of the rich spiritual, social, and emotional ground on which it stands. That legacy of knowledge, history, and traditions is trustworthy and good. Fertility does require more than just the ground, however. It also requires ever-renewing rain, sun, and nourishment. It also requires the continual inspiration and blessing of God. Finding a way to combine those very necessary elements is difficult and sometimes messy. However, if a church just turns over the existing soil and refuses to provide the other resources that need constant renewal, that church may wither. Also, to God, no offering is unacceptable. If we refuse offers to provide all the recurring resources needed for vibrancy, God’s blessing may also be in short supply. Maybe the organization becomes less God’s church and more the people’s church. Such a transformation does not suggest health or longevity.

So, if you are part of the foundational congregation of a church that wishes to thrive and grow in the future, engage your newcomers in leadership intentionally. When they volunteer to head up some program or project, support them by sharing your experience. However, don’t wield the past like a weapon. Support their vision. Elect them for your vestries and parish councils. Stay open-minded to their perspectives. Do not minimize what they say or feel because “nobody would feel that way”-  just because you would not feel that way. Accept that their perspective may reflect the perspective of other people coming into your church who do not have the same background and history that you do. You do not have to accept the position of the newcomer as to how to meet everyone’s interests, but you should validate that the interests they raise are legitimate.

I suggest that it might be worthwhile to sometimes accept a newcomer’s vision, even if you are skeptical about what the outcome might be. Yes, the end result might not be exactly what you would have envisioned. Sometimes, the end result might actually be objectively “better.” Even if the end result turns out objectively “worse” than if the congregation had taken the more traditional path, the church derives intrinsic benefit from granting true agency to all its members. Yes, there is risk. But there can also be great reward.

A church can always decide what they want in terms of vibrancy. Some churches would just as soon stay small and intimate, content with ministering to the congregational family that traditionally populates their pews. However, if a congregation genuinely wants to ignite an outpouring of the Holy Spirit beyond their traditional congregation, it will be necessary to build agency into the growth plan.

Are you a member of a church that has grown and thrived? How did your congregation accomplish this? On the other hand, if you have seen “dechurching” gut a congregation, what was that experience like? Please share your perspective by leaving a comment. In the alternative, you can email me at terriretirement@gmail.com.

Have a Spirit-filled Day!

Terri/Dorry 🙂

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