Over the last six months of my ministry job search, I’ve had to learn that, despite needing a job, and despite desperately wanting to begin participating within a new local church, the inconvenience of “fitting in” is an important caveat. Qualifications aside, not every person fits well with every community, and its up to the grace of God to reveal the right place for each minister seeking to serve.
In the meantime, as I do my best to submit to this lesson of patience and wisdom, I have come to consider four essential questions regarding the kind of faith community I hope to work for. Often, I can err on the side of idealism, so it is always important that the observations instigated by these questions be considered with the proverbial grain of salt. However, if and when I finally do hear from a pastor or rector or search committee interested in calling me on staff, these will be the four questions I will silently ask the church before I accept or reject the place as my new church home.
#1 – Are you intentional?
I want to work for a church that is about something, that knows it is about something, and is clearly committed and focused on this “something,” whatever it may be. In other words, I want to serve in a church that maintains a clear sense of intentionality regarding its identity. A church that is intentional is one that puts purposiveness over approachability. They are careful not to water down their message and their focus so as to appeal to the lowest common denominator of congregants. Rather, they infuse everything they do – from worship to teaching to pastoral care to outreach – with steadfast determination to holiness, reverence and awareness for the sacred. They want to be relevant and bring people in, of course; however, they do this not by dumbing down or softening the truth, but by working diligently and prayerfully to make the truth compelling.
The intentional church strives to be a place of genuine renewal and authentic, lasting interaction. It is not a community center or a country club. It does not exist merely to exemplify moral living or uphold particular family values. It inspires an honest-to-God devotion to holiness rather than dictating the forced manifestation of “holy” activities. Above all, it spurns conformity in its members, and instead awakens true community.
Which bring us to the second question…
# 2 – Are you communal?
There is an old adage that much of the work of a local church defers to the “80/20 rule.” That is, roughly 80% of the work is done by 20% of the people. Whether it’s a mega-church that sees thousands in its auditorium on Sunday, or a tiny country church with an attendance in the mere double-digits, the same sad rule is, sadly, proven true all over the country. The question is, why is this the case in so many churches?
I submit that, like intentionality of purpose, the drive for authentic communal interaction can sometimes take a backseat to peaking the curiosity of visitors and charming its participants with powerful music and/or exciting opportunities. While excellence in what you do is certainly important, I want to be a part of a community of faith that puts interaction between its members – across age groups! – central. Small groups and dinner clubs and Bible classes and ministry teams are all good things, but they can sometimes be nothing more than the default attempt to forge connections and stimulate cooperation between church members. Often, it is the leaders of such groups that do most of the work to maintain the group, once again perpetuating the 80/20 rule.
The church I am seeking to work in is one that energizes all its members, rousing them to determined participation and providing as many opportunities as possible for each person to use his or her own gifts and talents to edify the congregation, not to mention the greater community.
And what about that greater community?…
#3 – Are you missional?
I would be hard-pressed to find a church that does not support mission, through either prayer, financial giving, or even sending out its own, both home and abroad. This is a fundamental tenet of the life of a Christian – representing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a world in need. However, there is a difference between obligatory participation in particular mission opportunities, and infusing your purpose with the spirit of missionality. Often, ministers will divide up the responsibilities of the Christian life into categories like personal devotion, intercession, theological understanding, moral living and missional duty. On any given Sunday, most church services will contain a sermon focusing, usually, on only one of these aspects. The problem with this is that a church’s overall message can become compartmentalized, and, by extension, so can that church’s overall behavior. Without meaning to, a church’s drive toward missions becomes less about a deep sense of compassion existing in its people, and more about prescribed obedience to a mandate.
The church that I hope to serve in is one that recognizes that everything, including our sense of mission to the world, comes from the position of each person’s heart toward God and His kingdom. Therefore, a missions identity must be intricately woven into every aspect of the church, from worship to teaching to activity. Not only so, it must allow for response in a myriad of ways and always be ready to reevaluate its involvement in the world – to consider the fruit that it is bearing.
This is because a true community of faith is never stagnant. It is ever-changing and adapting to the world it is committed to serving…
#4 – Are you alterable?
I want to serve in a church that is self-aware – of their strengths as well as their limitations – and is dedicated to challenging themselves into deeper and more profound avenues of communion with the Holy. This last question may seem unnecessary and the answer a given. After all, we’re talking about a church, here. That’s what a church – any church – is about, right?
Not necessarily. I have known many churches that, if they are honest with themselves, are about little more than doing worship in their own comfortable way, teaching the Bible in their own non-confrontational way, and fellowshipping with one another in their own psuedo-personal way. They may draw visitors in by the busloads, they may have a dynamite children’s program, they may have a multiple Dove award-winning praise band, but when it comes to the question of meaning and direction, they’re fine right where they are. They have established themselves in what seems to be a quality manner, so there is no point in changing things. God forbid some people don’t like the new direction and abandon the community?
Some of the most “successful” churches in America today are actually captives to fear and they don’t even know it. Fear of change. Change means shaking up the standard way of doing things that has been proven (and may or may not be formulaic), and that fills people with anxiety. I’m not talking about change for the sake of change, but rather change because the Spirit is calling a community to be about something they are currently neglecting.
A church is a living thing. Remember the little rhyme – “open the door and see all the people.” It is people who make a church what it is, who define it and collaborate within it and administer God’s love through it. The only way it can do these things is if the people are ready to be whatever God wants them to be at whatever time He wants them to be it. This is called readiness. Awareness.
May more and more faith communities strive to be exactly what they were always meant to be.