Through the weeks of a pandemic that has ravaged the country’s health and economy, being church has eclipsed doing church as the way for the church to connect with the culture. Jesus-followers have been finding enormous spiritual satisfaction in their intensified efforts on loving their neighbors. “Church” has become more a verb – a way of being in the world – rather than in its typical use as a noun designating a place or an organization.
This dynamic points to the way forward for the church: moving from church-as-institution as its primary expression to church-as-movement. Nothing less than a church culture shift will support this transformation. The new normal will require that church leaders make three significant changes.
First, we must change our STORY.
The prevailing assumption among church leaders has been that those serious in their pursuit of God would conform their lifestyle and habits to congregational expressions and rhythms, activities that would largely be supervised by church leaders, carried out on church real estate, and involve mostly other church people.
The alternative narrative that supports church-as-movement is kingdom-centric. The kingdom saga reveals the extent God has and will go to so people can experience the life he intended. Even to the point that he wraps himself in human flesh and visits the planet to show us the life he had in mind. The kingdom was the dominant narrative of Jesus, who constantly talked about the kingdom of God (over 90 times in the Gospels) and instructed his followers to pray for the kingdom of heaven to come on earth! He established the church, charging it with the responsibility to introduce the kingdom to the world, to point the way for people to experience life as God intends, the life of the kingdom. Here and now. In his life and teaching Jesus evidenced much more concern about bringing heaven to earth than focusing on how to get from earth to heaven!
A change of our narrative requires that we re-imagine what it means for the church to be church in the world, not on a separate track from it. We would focus on what God is up to in our communities, in the daily lives of people, in how people’s spiritual gifts manifest at home, at the office, in the neighborhood, not just how their talents are used to operate the church-as-institution. Our discipleship would center on equipping people to live as viral kingdom agents every day in every relationship and circumstance. Church-as-movement prioritizes the distributive nature and presence of the church, advancing the kingdom in every domain of society.
Second, we must change our Scorecard.
Church leaders shaped by a church-as-institution narrative are driven to assess progress in church-centric numbers: how many show up for gatherings, how much money comes in for operating, the number of participants who support church programs, etc. I am not naïve – we will always count these inputs.
Church leaders must find the courage to have a kingdom-biased scorecard for ministry. This means going beyond mere inputs (activities, participation) into measuring outcomes. We must look for and measure results. Meaning: how many people are experiencing life as God intends (spiritually, physically, emotionally, relationally, economically, every aspect of human experience)? This question includes everyone: those who already identify as Jesus-followers as well as those who are our neighbors.
We should certainly know the score for how those in our immediate ministry constellation are experiencing the life God intends for them. If we asked them, people would actually tell us whether they are growing closer to God, have better relationships with their spouse and kids, are loving on their neighbors. Why shouldn’t we know how many people are struggling financially, need some extra work to help ends meet, and how many are coming out of poverty (in case the congregation has poverty-stricken people in it)? The current pandemic has created financial havoc for so many, a situation that begs for churches to have a scorecard that keeps track of their challenges and the church’s response to these changing needs.
But kingdom concerns also extend into our communities. Why not include the number of volunteer service hours our people invest in our community or how many reading buddies we have deployed into the school we’ve adopted, or how many organizations we are partnering with. More data than ever exists to support our efforts to redo our scorecard to reflect more kingdom (quality of life) data. Harvard’s new Human Flourishing Index can be one way to begin to chart growth in critical areas of well-being. GoodCities has produced a Neighboring project dashboard that can track need level and service delivery at a census-tract level in real time – everything from checking on elderly to grocery delivery to health needs. (Full disclosure: I am on staff with GoodCities)
A kingdom scorecard honors the lives and efforts of our people, supports the Great Commandment, and creates the culture for a missional church.
Finally, we must change the scope of our Stewardship.
The ecclesias of Jesus’ day—the word that he chose to describe the role of the movement he was founding—had responsibility for the welfare of the community they were part of. Which means that God holds the church responsible for the well-being of the communities we’re in. Stewardship that only extends to the limits of church programming misses the point.
By changing the scope of church stewardship, a different leadership paradigm comes into play, calling for an additional set of competencies for church leadership portfolios. We would also build leadership teams with a different composition, driven by a different ministry agenda. A church-centric stewardship calls for leaders who are drawn to support a church-centric agenda. Moving to a greater scope of stewardship for the community would probably result in an enhanced recruitment pool both in talent and quantity as leaders reflected a larger bandwidth of personal interests and community engagement on top of spiritual elements.
Here are some practical ways to support this shift toward greater kingdom stewardship. Start elder meetings with prayer for the community and exploration of church engagement and initiatives that manifest in the community-at-large. Move church-as-institution items to the bottom of the agenda. Invite community leaders on a regular basis to leadership meetings and worship gatherings. Have them share their perspectives, needs, challenges and opportunities. Doing this will support both the narrative and scorecard changes you are making. Make sure that stories of church leaders’ engagement in the community are told. Conduct an influence audit by surveying the congregation on their current involvement in community agencies and boards to figure out where you already have people in leadership. Ask them how you can help them achieve the mission they are invested in.
God is not caught off guard by COVID-19 outbreak nor the digital age revolution. He is not struggling to catch up. But he is waiting on the church to do just that! These critical shifts by church leaders will help us get there.