It was the sort of church that might lead some of the rest of us to struggle with the sin of envy. Its membership was large, it enjoyed abundant financial resources, and its ministries and involvement in the wider community were having significant impacts.
Nonetheless, the leadership of the church was beginning to sense that the vision that had been guiding them for several years was beginning to wear thin. They felt a bit stuck, like they didn’t know what they were supposed to do next. They decided to invite a well-known church consultant to come in and help them discern whether the Spirit might have a new vision for mission for them.
The consultant, as consultants often do, spent several days at the church engaging in conversations with the congregation as a whole, talking with its staff and leadership, and meeting with as many of the congregation’s sub-communities as he could. He asked lots of open-ended questions and listened as carefully as possible during his time with them.
During the week following the consultant’s visit, I shared a cup of coffee with the pastor and asked him how he felt the experience had gone. He responded by telling me a story about the consultant’s final night in Nashville.
The church’s council had held a dinner with the consultant at the church. As conversation picked up over dessert, one of the council members spoke up.
“We appreciate the time you’ve spent with us this week,” he told the consultant. “We know you’re going to go home and write a fine report that will tell us all the things you learned during your visit, and I’m looking forward to reading what you will recommend.
“But I’m wondering if you might have some immediate insight into our situation, something that has already come to you, some quick bon mot you could share with tonight.”
The consultant thought for a few seconds, panning the faces in the room, and then said, “Yes, I believe I do.
“If the only thing you’re worried about is whether or not there will be someone here to bury you when you die,” he said, “then you don’t need to do a darn thing”.
“However, if you want there to be a community of faithful followers of Jesus Christ here 100 years from now, you already need to be rethinking everything you’re doing.”
I recounted this story last spring to the president of one of our denomination’s seminaries. Having served a large, thriving church immediately before taking on the leadership of the seminary, the story clearly struck a chord in him.
His immediate reaction was to say he was going to call the editor of one of our leading publications and tell him to print the consultant’s last two sentences in the largest sized font that would fit on the magazine’s main editorial page.
“Every church board in America needs to hear those words,” he said.
This story has stuck with me ever since and comes to mind especially when I’m talking with other friends who are pastors, especially the pastors of medium to large, thriving churches.
Too often, we who are leaders of congregations mistakenly think the impact the spread of post-Christendom in America has on congregations is an issue only for churches who are already in steep decline or are struggling with whether they can keep their doors open for another 10 years, much less 100.
The truth is that the smaller, struggling churches have an advantage over the rest of us. They have the advantage of knowing they can’t wait any longer. They can’t wait any longer before beginning to ask deep and sometimes messy questions about the changes they need to make if they are going to faithful to their call.
They can’t stick with business as usual. They are dealing with the consequences of this changed landscape every single day. It is those of us in the medium to larger churches who too often are lulled into thinking we don’t need to take any of this stuff too seriously … at least not yet.
Healthy churches – no matter what their size – hear the truth in that consultant’s words: they realize they already need to be rethinking everything they’re doing. They intuitively get this unique moment in American Christian history in which we all live.
Those of us who work with the Center for Healthy Churches believe that the Spirit is more than ready to discern that “new thing” the prophet Isaiah promises that God is already doing in our midst. We are eager to come alongside and partner with you as you listen for the ways the Spirit is leading you into that future God already has in mind for you.
If you’re ready to begin that adventure, be in touch.
Jim Kitchens is a consultant with the Center for Healthy Churches. A native of Mississippi, Jim has served Presbyterian churches in California and Tennessee for almost 35 years. He loves helping congregations prayerfully discern how the Spirit calls them to adapt to changing cultural contexts. Jim is the author of The Postmodern Parish published by the Alban Institute.