“All we have to do is . . . “

Posted by brianmaas in Uncategorized | 21 Comments

A little time away–and a lot of it spent doing grunt work around the house and yard–gave time for pondering. It’s pretty clear that, minus some cataclysmic disruption, we’re going to continue to struggle with the same issues for some time–changing population demographics, declining rates of religious participation among the young (and to a lesser degree, across all age groups), fewer people in worship, declining resources for ministry, and continuing economic uncertainty, with its attendant needs.

As I visit congregations, I hear different facets of this overall picture expressed as priority problems–”We don’t have enough young people and children.” “The town is dying.” “We don’t have enough money.” “There aren’t enough pastors available.” “We can’t afford a full-time pastor.” “People are too busy to be involved.” “Too many things compete for attention.”

Too often, this leads to the “All we have to do is . . .” Syndrome. “All we have to do is get a few young families.” “All we have to do is get people to give more.” “All we have to do is convince people faith is a priority.” –you get the idea. The danger in this syndrome is that it oversimplifies the existing and increasing complexity of life in our place and time. There is no silver bullet (nor lack of people, programs and businesses who would like to convince us there is).

Yet there are some clear priorities among the challenges. Those priorities need to be identified so that we can faithfully address them and carry out effective ministry. Some priorities may apply across the Church around the country and even around the globe. But some are specific to context–our context, here and now.

So I’m asking you–what do you see as the one, two or three greatest challenges to ministry where you are? And what do you see as their causes? For example, maybe there aren’t “enough” young families in your congregation. Is that because there are fewer in your community? Because they are committed to other activities? Because your congregation has little to offer them? Because your bishop asks too many questions?

It’s foolish to think we’ll ever come to a single “all we have to do” solution to the very real challenges we address. But it’s unfaithful to throw up our hands and say, “we’re doing the best we can in a changing world.” My conviction is that Jesus calls us simply to “fish for people,” not to spend a lot of time counting the catch. Still, it’s better to throw the nets where the fish are, and to know where the shoals and sandbars lie.

I believe the Spirit will help us navigate those shoals and sandbars, but first we need to identify them. There’s a conversation yet to come about proposed adaptations, strategies and solutions. This conversation is a necessary prelude. What are the challenges where you live and serve?

21 Responses to “All we have to do is . . . “

  1. Thanks for these great thoughts, Bishop Maas. I wonder how many of our congregations have as a regular part of their worship practice a prayer for those in their communities and congregational service areas who have not yet heard the Gospel. “Gracious Lord Jesus, as we have come to know your goodness around this font, through your Word and at this table, please send yet others to be among us here that they may share in the bounty we enjoy and we may grow from their presence among us… Gracious God, HEAR OUR PRAYER.” Just a thought…

    • brianmaas says:

      My most recent congregational experience was that things didn’t really start to happen until we prayed earnestly about them. But we didn’t (at least regularly) pray for the Spirit to help us extend the invitation to experience God with us. What an oversight!
      I’ll put “Overlooking prayer” as one of our challenges.
      Thank you for your comments, and for the model prayer.

  2. Linda Blank says:

    First of all, LOVE the way you keep us all informed of what is going on in Nebraska! I think our church can identify with all of the above. Our community continues to grow but our church not so much…why? Well I think it’s because we as “Lutherans” sit back and “wait” for families to come to us. We need to be more like other religions that “go out and invite” others to our church. Yes this means being “pushed” out of our comfort zone but what better reason could there be for change? This Sunday our E-Team is sponsoring a “Caroling in August”. We are filling a trolley with people of all ages, cold lemonade and water along with cookies and bars to head out in our community. We will be not only visiting our local nursing home and members of our congregation but also going out of our comfort zone to invite those we do not know to visit our church services. Maybe thru this time of fellowship for our members we will be able to grow our church. We are so blessed to have such a wonderful pastor who is working so hard to grow our membership that I feel if something is going to make me a little uncomfortable for a few minutes it will def be worth it!

    • brianmaas says:

      Sorry I can’t be there to see it! My guess is that experiencing joy in community, right out “in front of God and everybody” will have a positive impact–that may or may not mean people showing up at your door, but at a minimum, it will let people know that you know how to have a good time together and want to engage the community. That’s a significant witness.
      In the meantime, I’ll put “tendency to sit back and wait for others to come to us” as one of the challenges we face. Thanks–and have a great time!

  3. Megan Morrow says:

    Thanks for the good questions, Bishop. And thanks for the thoughtful responses Paul and Linda. We experience all those struggles here in Lexington, too, and definitely could pray differently and more! I also wonder what other churches of our size in similar multi-ethnic settings are doing to build relationships with and invite their neighbors and share the Gospel. One of our challenges is getting to know people across cultures socially, and finding other churches that can teach us how to do it faithfully and well.

    • brianmaas says:

      Thanks Megan. “Making social connections across cultures” is on the list.

      • Michael Ostrom says:

        Our main challenge seems much the same as yours, Megan. We are situated in the “melting pot” of Lincoln’s Near South, with a mixture of new immigrants, young adult nones, and already established well-to-dos. Not a natural Lutheran constituency in the bunch. So the question is: How to connect across cultures? We are starting by doing basic human and neighborly things, sharing the gifts of our congregation where they are needed and welcomed. But I have no idea how to move from this to sharing the gospel without it looking like a bait ‘n switch marketing ploy that we have been secretly plotting all along.

        • brianmaas says:

          “Sincere outreach without the appearance of ‘bait and switch’ inauthenticity.” It’s on the list. Thanks Mike.

  4. I think Pope Francis is doing some incredibly good modeling of what it takes to be relevant. Go back to the Gospel, be humble, challenge people to make a difference, don’t judge others, become global, don’t let people get away with internal focus. Do what we do when we are our best – love one another.

    • brianmaas says:

      I have appreciated Francis’ approach as well–maybe especially because he’s not trying to oversimplify things, focusing on “all we have to do,” but is instead showing what it is to consistently be in all things; i.e., faithful, humble, authentic. He seems to be the antithesis of the simple one-shot fix.
      Thank you, Martin

  5. Joel Schroeder says:

    Happy 25th. Our church has a float in the Dodge County Fair. This year, in conjunction with the ELCA anniversary our float theme is “Back to Church Sunday” Rather than push ‘our church’ we are inviting the community to just go to church…any church! Our mission project will be to run along side the float and hand out worship times/locations of all the churches in our community inviting the public to go to church Sept. 8th. In a rural area some don’t go to church because they don’t want to pick the wrong church and offend a family member (everyone is related!). So we are working to accent the partnership we all share as churches. Competition kills. Shared ministries build up!

    • brianmaas says:

      Another creative idea–have fun with it! “Countering competition with cooperation.” Another challenge for the list. Thank you Joel

  6. Brian Krause says:

    There is also a tension we face here between honoring the past and embracing the present and future. We don’t want to lose the traditions of our ancestors, and yet some things, like ethnic jokes, can be off-putting and make guests and new-comers feel like outsiders. Do people outside the church really get Ollie and Lena jokes? Do people who are not of Norwegian ancestry get Ollie and Lena jokes? Somehow we have to find a balance between honoring the ethnic heritage of our congregations and welcoming people who are not of those ethnic heritages.

    • brianmaas says:

      “Honoring the past while embracing the present and future.” Another real challenge–even more so when people don’t just want to honor the past but go there again–to the glory days when a steeple was a people magnet. And “Insider language” is another challenge, particularly the vocabulary we don’t recognize as insider, whether ethnic jokes or terms like narthex, circle meeting, Rally Day or VBS. Thanks, Brian.

  7. Jeff Ungs says:

    Time away for “grunt work” and pondering is healthy for the church and for you. Thank you for being a good model. It reminds me of Jesus getting away from everyone and everything that is distracting to take time to pray. My thoughts and experience of the church in general are as follows: “All we have to do is the same things that the growing church next door (or in the next town) is doing.” Praise band, active youth ministry, Bible based teaching… You get the picture. If we act like them, we will grow like them. Copy and paste ministry. Praise God the neighboring church is doing well, but this does not work for all churches because the context of each community is unique and has its own gifts to share. We can learn from St. Paul’s letters that we have many varying gifts that are all necessary for the sake of the gospel. Rather than seeing the gifts and talents each congregation has, members often focus on what their neighbor’s congregation have. (I believe there is a commandment against such things!).
    God bless you and give you peace as you discern all that is shared. And, Thank you again for sharing your gifts and being who God has called you to be!

    • brianmaas says:

      Thanks, Jeff. Jesus did indeed model time away–but was too smart to deal with home repair (although there is some debate about whether that was his roof that the paralytic’s friends tore apart . . .).
      Terms like “cut and paste ministry” are helpful–we all know exactly what they mean. And they are sometimes alluring. “Temptation to do ‘cut and paste ministry,’” “mimicking another congregation’s “success,” and even “letting the world define success [i.e., numbers, popularity, etc.]“–are still more challenges for the list.

  8. Jeff Ungs says:

    Here is a blog that contains an oversimplistic “cut and paste” thought process. If we just cut our pastor out and paste in a new one who preacher better… http://www.patheos.com/blogs/afewgrownmen/2013/07/church-growth-its-all-about-the-pastor/
    Brian has given me permission to invite comments and thoughts regarding this link.

    • brianmaas says:

      I am especially interested in your responses to a provocative post. What’s your take?

    • Katie Russell says:

      I seem to be having a lot of the same conversations lately. It seems that this is not the “issue of the decade” we thought it was in my home congregation back in the 80′s. It is not surprising that these two posts are connected, and I much prefer the approach of asking questions and identifying challenges than the “cut and paste” suggestion. That all being said, I think one of the biggest challenges that we face is not focusing on Christ and the cross. And yes, the proclamation of the Word is one of the ways that this is accomplished during worship, but I am left to wonder that when folk (myself included) do not hear Christ in the message is it because Christ is missing or are we not hearing what we want Christ to say/mean/instruct, etc?

      As we continue to ponder there are still hungry to feed, naked to clothe and a whole lot of people to visit and build relationships because of and through the bonds we share in Jesus the Christ.

      • brianmaas says:

        “Not focusing on Christ and the cross.” Sounds like something a reformer might say (or maybe did). It’s on the list. Thanks Katie.

    • brianmaas says:

      Here’s the reply to this blog (and the subsequent comments on its link to my Facebook page) that I posted on FB:
      The author focuses a spotlight on preaching, and is right to do so. As a Word-centered movement within the church catholic, our tradition’s pastors have a responsibility to make preaching a priority. There is simply no denying that it is the most potent 15 minutes of our week. However, while it is supremely important, it is not the sole task of the pastor, and great preaching alone (however that’s defined) is not enough to partner with a congregation in doing ministry.
      I can (but won’t) name strong preachers who serve “declining” congregations and poor preachers who serve “growing” congregations (I use the quotation marks to acknowledge that those terms are horribly subjective, and a good topic for a different thread). Preaching may be the most important single facet of a pastor’s ministry, but it can never outweigh all of the other facets.
      Pastors remain, as someone recently wrote, among the sole remaining practitioners of a renaissance vocation–true generalists, who need not be experts in every area of ministry, but who do need to be sufficiently capable of “equipping the saints” and partnering with them effectively in most areas for there to be a solid, healthy ministry taking place in a congregational setting.
      The author speaks a truth we don’t always want to hear–preaching is really important, and it is appropriate to demand the best of our pastors. But he makes the same mistake that started this conversation–falling prey to the “all we have to do is . . .” temptation. Replacing your current pastor with another pastor solely because the new one is a stellar preacher won’t “fix” whatever problems you believe your congregation has. But having honest conversation with her/him about preaching and what she/he does that is particularly effective and what is particularly ineffective (not the same as “I like it when . . .”) can pay helpful dividends.
      Thanks for sustaining the dialog, all.

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