On the Journey: Sabbatical Report Part 2: “Community That Matters”

Last month, we started to take a look at the insights the sabbatical learning team and I gleaned from our reading and interviews about people who grew up in a faith community but who would no longer consider themselves part of any organized religious group.  The books we read were across the theological spectrum, and the research and anecdotes they shared largely told the same story.

In the last “Lamplighter” article, we focused on a generalized snapshot of the people who are not connected to a faith community: what’s important to them, the changing cultural trends, and what that means for us as we seek to be both faithful and effective in our ministry together.

Today, we’re picking up another set of threads in from our study, looking at what the disconnected tell us about where the church has gotten in the way of its mission.  Some who leave a faith community do so for unhealthy reasons.  But others leave because the community itself isn’t healthy, and by listening to their stories, we can see things we may not notice – or things we’ve gotten used to – that need to be addressed in order to grow and help others grow in our relationship with God in Christ.  The full list of our findings is in my sabbatical report, but here are some of the most important things we heard about where “church” gets in the way:

  • An increasing number of people don’t see church as relevant to their lives; what we focus on, what we talk about, what we do doesn’t connect.
  • The inability to effect change or influence the system creates frustration and causes leaders and people of passion to “check out”.
  • People who want authentic community (not just friendly) aren’t finding it at church.
  • When the church is more interested in dispensing answers than helping people wrestle with questions, doubts and grief, people will check out or remain with a stunted faith.
  • When people see the church focused on safety and survival, it loses the ability to take risks and act boldly for the sake of its mission, and they get a sense of “why bother?”
  • When young people aren’t connected with people of various ages in the church and aren’t part of the broader life of the church, they are far more likely to check out.

That can be hard to hear, and we might be tempted to think “well, that’s not our church…” – and yet, these comments can give us a lens to examine how healthy we are in our community, where we can grow and improve, where we may be creating obstacles to deeper faith.  It also has implications for how we understand and live out our mission together:

  • The mission and purpose of the church has to be clear – and owned by those who are leading and active in it.  It needs to be demonstrated and visibly lived out, not just talked about.  That vision needs to be clear and compelling as to why it’s worth our time and involvement.
  • The mission of the church has to be about more than the survival of the institution.
  • The mission has to be rooted in who God is, and the structure has to serve the mission.  If the structure or programs are getting in the way, or if we are focusing our money, time and energy on things that don’t advance the mission, we need to make changes.
  • The mission is about participation, not the passive consuming of religious content.
  • Declaring our mission is more about what we are for, not just what we are against – to tell a better story and cast a vision of life that is rooted in God’s story in scripture.

It’s important to remember that the core mission doesn’t change.   Together with the earliest Christians, our call remains to proclaim and together embody the gospel message of God’s love for the world in Jesus.

Likewise, there are some questions we need to never stop asking of ourselves:  Are we keeping God at the center?  Are we staying rooted in scripture as we go?  Are we healthy in our relationships as part of the church community?

The good news is that if we can prayerfully, thoughtfully listen, we can see where God is calling us into deeper life together.  I’d love to hear from you as you process these insights from our sabbatical team, and as we work out what it looks like to live these things out.

Blessings on the Journey,

Pastor Brian