On a cold November night a few years ago I shepherded a meeting with the “best and brightest” leaders in a 100-year-old congregation.
The church traveled through many undulations of success and retreat over the years but in the decade leading up to this particular meeting the congregation had experienced exponential growth. That is, until a series of circumstances caused them to roll backwards. What had been a notorious “run up” in size and finances, which some would call a “swelling” instead of true growth, now fell into straits. People were discouraged and looking for answers.
I posed this question to the group as we talked about moving forward. “ What is your hearts desire for Old Memorial (not the real name of course) in this time and this place?” Several people talked about needing more folks in the pews, and others plotted against the people they blamed for the downturn. Finally one hard working, bright and competent entrepreneur with eyes watering uttered, “ I just want us to get our Mo-Jo back… that’s all… Where did it go?” I don’t think he was referring to magical powers, but rather to momentum and the lack thereof.
Most churches established before 1980 in America are looking for ways to get the old Mo-Jo working again;momentum that is. The passing of the years has not been kind to the prototypical church. Attendance is down, money is tight and many good people are opting out of congregational life; even those persons who heretofore were considered “pillars” of the cause. Several questions erupt in this environment. What is the answer to the “slide” we are experiencing? What new programs can we adopt? How do we get our church growing again? Our budget is suffering so we need to get more people in the door to support our financial obligations. Right?
Others speculate that with just the right leader we will flourish. “ We are just one pastor away from greatness!” “It’s our pastor’s fault or the staff’s fault we have languished!” Some people assume the answer to better outcomes resides in the style of worship and music or the name on the sign out front, or even finer facilities and signage. If you build it they will come. Right?
These are frustrating and difficult days for those who are called to lead in the local church. And no easy answers exist. The Church in every generation has faced critical circumstances that necessitated new and engaging strategies in order to achieve the desired mission.
A good place to start is with the “Why Questions” which typically translate into Mission/Vision conversations. Why does the local church exist? Why do we have a building? Is it just for us? Why do we need to grow? Why do we worship? Why do I want others to join us? These questions among many others can help us with the work of renewing the church. So often we are guilty of starting with the “How” and the “What” questions, which push us to work harder but leave us with little success and mounds of stifled, dreams and desires.
Last year I had the privilege of working along side the fine people of Freemason Street Baptist Church in downtown Norfolk, Virginia. Freemason planted itself some 170 years ago as a “church with a heart in the heart of the city”. When I arrived at the church I immediately began to hear stories about people being fed during the Great Depression in the fellowship hall and also offerings of educational help to neighborhood children who were under served.
The leadership of the church began a process in 2015 to examine with fresh eyes and hearts their mission and vision. To no one’s surprise, the initial Mission/Vision of the church had “leaked” over the course of time. People were pulling in opposing directions and many were unable to voice a true “North Star” direction for the congregation. Some members were skeptical about another process to establish Mission/Vision. “ We do this kind of work every few years but the work goes in a notebook on a shelf never to be seen or acted on again”, voiced a few.
With obstacles abounding, Freemason did the hard work to recover and claim their historic identity, which was deep in the DNA and culture of the congregation. Part of their new statement reads as follows. “ We desire to be part of Christ’s transforming work in us and through us in Downtown Norfolk. “ The church joyfully called Dr. Robert Guffey in 2016 to exercise leadership in advancing this mission.
The Minister of Music at Freemason, Mr. Robert Shoup took the statement seriously. He proposed the church offer a choir for street people, a vision his heart had harbored for a while. With a new structure in place for decision-making, guided by the new Mission/Vision directive the church responded with gusto and invested the resources necessary to allow this dream to take shape. The results? Last spring over 450 people from all over the city gathered in the Freemason sanctuary to hear the sound of 35 plus homeless persons singing their hearts out in praise. Mr. Shoup credits the success of the choir with the churches decision to be led and guided by the Mission and Vision of the church… for real.
Candy Gregor, a journalist and former member of Freemason Baptist writes, “ FMSBC has more work to do, but members point to the choir and say, “ This is what it looks like to build community, to strengthen a church. To further God’s kingdom. Yes, we can”. I agree! Mo-Jo is in the air!