Most of us in mainline ministry have noticed an overall decline in worship attendance. We’ve been told for years it was coming, and yet many of us didn’t prepare for it. Many of us have not led our congregations through conversations for change because we were not willing to risk the familiarity of what is for the unknown possibilities of God’s future. The risks we try to take are almost always in something temporary and outward, and they may result in some small growth and excitement, but that’s really just because it’s something different and newish. We build buildings, change worship times, change staff, improve our technology. In his book Lasting Impact, Carey Nieuwhof sums it up nicely, “The trap most leaders fall into is believing that a change in form will be an adequate substitute for a change in substance. But a change in form never makes up for a change in substance. Substantive change is the only thing that will truly change the trajectory of most churches (p18).” As an artist, we say form follows function. The temporal and outward changes (the form, the strategy) must always follow the internalized purpose (the function, the mission).
Let me put it to you in historical terms. St. Patrick and the Wesley’s have a lot in common when it comes to taking risks to follow God beyond the safety of known Christianity. From the Wesley’s side, John and Charles were pretty much sticklers for the way we’ve always done it. John played by the rules. He had a profound conversion experience, his heart was strangely warmed by the profound experience of God’s love for him. And then from this profound change of heart, he “submitted to be more vile” by going to where the people were to preach and bring religious services out of the church building. This was looked down upon then much like it would be now. Imagine telling your church, “We really don’t reach the people who work and travel weekends anymore, so we’re going to start taking church to them.” Imagine telling your church, “What we are doing is not actually connecting anyone to the powerful, infinite, Triune God. What we are doing is creating bored and entitled cultural Christians. So we’re going to take the gospel seriously and take it to people that desperately need it to be true, and in so doing, maybe become alive ourselves.”
St. Patrick grew up on the same British Isle as the Wesley’s, and had largely rejected his parents’ Christian faith until he was captured and enslaved as a teenager. In his years as a slave in Ireland, Patrick became a person of prayer, and deeply felt drawn to Christ who suffered beside him. Patrick escaped his enslavement and found his way back home, where he studied for the ministry and could have lived a comfortable life maintaining the church of his people. But instead he felt compelled to return to the land of his enslavement and proclaim the gospel of Christ. Legend has it that on the day that only one fire was allowed to be lit in Ireland for the goddess Tara, Patrick lit a forbidden fire on an adjacent hill and drew the attention of the people. When they came to kill him for his defiance, Patrick proclaimed that a new light was among the people, the Christ light, the true light of the world. Patrick spent the rest of his ministry like that, never knowing if his next daring move would bear great fruit or end in his death. Living into this sort of risk made Patrick even more a person of prayer, constantly seeking God’s discernment and protection as he braved his way into the unknown.
Our churches must change if we are going to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Yes, that means we have to make strategic changes in form. But we first must have a change of heart for those who have not yet experienced the love of Christ. Our hearts must be strangely warmed to the point where we are willing to follow God’s lead into strange new territory. It’s never been about getting a boost in your worship attendance for the morale of your people. It has always ever been about introducing people to the transformative power of God’s infinite love in the crucified Christ.
Anything less and it’s no wonder people aren’t coming.