Growth in the family of God—the church—is exciting and invigorating, but it doesn’t come easily. Members of the family must be ready to accept growth and change to established norms and move on while clinging on to precepts in the Word of God, or there is an unidentified sabotage to growth, no matter the evangelistic efforts of the church.
While it should be natural and anticipated, all around us and across America, churches that were once growing have plateaued or are in decline and many churches are closing their doors for good each year. It is estimated that 85% of the 400,000 churches in America have either stopped growing or are declining.
Healthy families grow! Healthy churches grow! Growth is built into the laws of nature. There are exceptions of naturally-occurring reasons why growth can’t happen . The troubling reality is that the DNA for some organizations includes genetically-altered information to cater only for “Us Four and No More.” The “us four and no more” mentality has been widely embraced unconsciously to limit growth in the family of God. It should be noted that hospitality and welcoming new people into the inner sanctum of our families are not the same, in the same way that being friendly is not the same as being a friend.
Are we ready for growth?
1. Are we only comfortable with people we know? Those who have been around the longest prefer to reminisce about the “good old days” – Nostalgia, the mental and emotional regurgitation among those fortunate enough to have shared the church’s supposed prime time, hungers for the way things once were.
2. Do we suffer from “koinonitis,” the church focusing on self-serving fellowship. Unfortunately with growth things are not what they used to be and probably never was. Nostalgia weakens our commitment to the present, is a huge threat to declining congregations and leaves little energy for today. Families only feign interest in growth when the necessary accommodations are noticeably missing.
3. Are we afraid of change? Some churches struggle because they can’t envision change. They say they want to grow, but the commitment is to the idea of growth, not to the unpalatable changes typically required to initiate and nurture it. Some common scenarios include: “We can’t have two worship services! I won’t know everyone!” “ Why can’t we just sing the good-old hymns of the faith?” “I’ve been singing in the choir for 25 years! They have left me out from the worship team for next year”
4. Do you feel you are losing control of “your” church because enough newcomers have become involved to threaten your power base and ways of doing things? “An ‘us-them’ and ‘we-they’ mentality develops between the newcomers and old-timers.” The old hierarchies and protocols may be changed by the new comers causing some angst among the faithful few.
5. Is there unspoken resistance to new ways to relate and behave? Like a family, in church there is a system in place with spoken and unspoken rules on how everyone is to relate and behave? A healthy church has the structure processes and adapts to the feedback from the members. Change is highly valued, and stability comes from the positive values gained rather than from negative values feared. Healthy systems are inclusive rather than exclusive, accepting newcomers and assimilating them into the system.
6. Is there space to grow? Growth requires a willingness to make room for others, even if it means that old faithfuls are displaced from positions with regard to tenure and privilege. If new members are ready and available to fill those chairs, they should be welcomed to bring who and what they are to the table.
7. Are we ready to sit with people who aren’t like us? It is one thing to invite new people to take a place; it is quite another to choose to sit and eat with them. When sitting next to new people at the dinner table, we may realize that they think differently than we do. This can be trying, since newcomers don’t necessarily understand or respect our traditions, our inside jokes, and how we go about preserving entrenched social arrangements—spoken and unspoken. Striking up conversations with new people tests our ability to invite them into our lives. Common responses may include: “I don’t know those people. The ones who invited them should take care of them”, “They’re not from around here are they?”
8. Do we give the new comers a chance? A “sizing up” takes place. How would the new person fit in? With whom should they sit at the table? It seems obvious that new people would want places to sit where they hope to build relationships. Likewise, they bring their own experiences, traditions, stories and language. Conversations at the table will never be the same. Could it be that we may have to engage in uncomfortable discussions that take us beyond our conversational comfort zones? Is it possible that our parochial ideas won’t find the ready, listening ear and agreeing nod we need to reinforce our viewpoints? The changes that new people bring can threaten our ideas and practices. Alas, new people are typically different people, that is, different from us and different like us. It is the church membership’s job to look beyond themselves and their own needs and to engage and integrate newcomers into the family.
9. Do we confine the church focus to certain groups of people? The church should endeavor to respond sensitively to all comers, caring for them from the cradle to the grave. At the same it must also give high priority to reaching beyond its ranks to meet people in every walk of life, to demonstrate the love of Christ in practical ways and invite them to join their ranks in following Christ the Lord and Savior.
10 . Do you know that Change is messy? Realistically, change is rarely inconspicuous; it can rarely be concealed. It has the inscrutable ability to trifle with the very aspects we hold sacred and dear.Every family has its cherished traditions. people who came from other traditions are added, new menu items suddenly appeared—which delighted some and appalled others.“What’s wrong with the menu we’ve always served?” “How can you not like our Christmas dinner; we’ve been serving it for five generations? We all like it!” “You can’t call this a family Christmas if you don’t serve baked beans. What next? ”
11. “What were they thinking??”Is there a scandal when new-comers try to fit in by simply going with the usual plan? Inevitably, they botched the recipe because they didn’t know how to make baked beans like they did in the past; worse, some didn’t even ask for the recipe; unimaginably, some had the audacity to alter the recipe! One new family member even brought baked beans from a can!
12. Are we overly protective of traditions and positions? New people will inevitably want to be included in our family’s sacred practices. Is our church slow to incorporate new people into vital areas of ministry. This is warranted, of course, when there has not been ample time to test a newcomer’s character or his/her willingness to embrace the church’s vision and ministry philosophy. But things are usually messier than this. Some fear that new people will displace those who have come to “own” particular ministry responsibilities. Others are concerned that their cherished methods will be discontinued. These fears often undermine the prospect of incorporating people into the church’s ministry.
13. Are we communicating that people are welcome to eat with us and join in our conversations, but aren’t permitted to partner with us in sacred traditions.Are we astonished when they don’t stay or seem reluctant to get involved when we protect our traditions and positions? It is said that seventy-five percent of those who become active in a church do so within six to twelve months of first attending. It is a mistake to encourage newcomers to sit on the sidelines for a year or two before getting involved in a ministry. After sitting for that length of time, quite a few new people never transition into Christian service. Churches hoping to assimilate new people for the long haul find it wiser to recruit and involve newcomers in a ministry within three to six months of their first visit
14. Do we insinuate not so subtly that we’re unsure they are really one of us, or that they are concerned with our issues, and whether they will continue in the ways we’ve established. These are table manners few newcomers are willing to endure. When people are invited to the table, they need to be viewed as more than consumers who need to be fed or whose contribution is leaving behind a stack of dirty dishes. Each one has gifts that are a part of their unique design, that when allowed expression, work to generate a fusion of the tastes and sensibilities of the whole group—a group that is ever growing and changing! Paul’s use of the body metaphor, with its manifold gifts of the Spirit given for mutual edification and witness to the world, describes and advocates such a view.
15. Are believers mobilized, activated and released for ministry? Statistics show that churches with more than 55% of their people serving in identifiable ministry roles are usually growing; if 54% or less, they are plateaued or in decline. For churches, this means inviting participation and investing in newcomers’ ministry development by helping them understand and buy into the church’s vision and philosophy of ministry, and enabling them to discover and employ their spiritual gifts and passions in sacrificial service to each other and to lost people. We are to invite and engage people in God’s mission, not preserving our traditions or positions. The conditions and circumstances in which this occurs are risky and ever-changing, guaranteeing a messy table and a sink full of dirty dishes.
16. Do we say “grace” together? In the Jewish community of the first century, table fellowship was a cultural sensibility that was practiced judiciously and rigorously; you didn’t eat with just anyone! Who you broke bread with—who you sat down at the table with—pretty much summed up who your friends were and where you fit on the social ladder; it can become relatively easy to marginalize entire groups living among us; the religious leadership had managed, in their pursuit and practice of (self) righteousness, to separate themselves from the common and ordinary members of the Jewish community. Many of these were labeled as “sinners”—individuals with whom a common meal would result in impurity. Yet it was among these very individuals that Jesus lived and ministered e.g. a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth – “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:27-32)
Jesus acted counter-culturally. In doing so, He transformed the role of the table from one of preserving ethnic and religious purity to one of announcing grace and acceptance … from enforcing exclusiveness to offering inclusiveness … from marginalizing “sinners” to welcoming them to repentance. Jesus’ action had no real precedent, and it was done at the expense of severe criticism and potential alienation and censorship. In similar fashion, the church must catch the vision of Jesus’ inclusive, welcoming presence among “sinners,” where God’s transforming grace can be shared in word and deed. “Hospitality entails not only a seat in the church, but a place at the table. The missional church is one that welcomes all comers, regardless of their lifestyle and beliefs, but always with a view to their radical transformation.”
When families are healthy, they grow. When they grow, dynamics change, and often get messy. When things get messy, the need and opportunity for grace is made evident in change. Yet there are always those who get stuck along the way and suggest that we stop growth, go back to the way things used to be, and create rules to make sure no one messes with the past. Some church members consider starting their own family tradition—to keep things pure—the way they used to be. The growth that instigates change is mired in messiness and absolutely requiring grace. And where there is grace, there is room for growth with joy.
17. Are we thinking of eternity and that Jesus, says, “Come, for the banquet is ready”? Do we envision the Father’s joy in preparing for those who would attend—counting the names of those who had accepted His invitation of grace, putting out a place-setting for each one, determining that the ones invited and compelled to come would equal the meal prepared. May we as the church reflect this example, offering others a generous welcome in light of that which is extended to us.
Response – For many Faith Child of long standing in the church, the change that growth brings is received as an opportunity for further growth; growth leads to further growth. But for others, sitting at the table just doesn’t feel or “taste” the way it used to..Are we willing to accept change to meet the expansion of the family of God in this new year? Let us in love and grace welcome the new ones into the kingdom of God.
For those who have newly joined or are thinking to join the family of God, remember that change involves messiness and perhaps some resistance from the old faithful. It is just human and we must look to Jesus the Author and Finisher of our faith to continue in the fellowship of the family where the Lord has sent us for adoption. Let us grow in grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus and not be discouraged by aeons of tradition.
For all, it will be worth it all when we see Jesus. Let us do what the Lord wants to accomplish in our lives together as a family of God and be forgiving and loving and kind one toward another. Let us sit at Jesus’s feet daily and learn of Him and to speak often with Him. Let us grow together in the body of Christ and here at ChristianBlessings. Let all redound to the glory of God in 2013! Let us praise the Lord together.