Guarding the Vision of the Church’s Future

“Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keeps the law, happy is he.” Proverbs 29:18

Where there is no vision, the people perish seems plainly clear. But the second part of the verse about keeping the law could also be translated as guarding the direction of the vision, then the word happy literally means blessed. So, people perish when there is no vision, but those that guard the direction of the vision are blessed.

For the past five months the Bishop and Executive Council, of which I am a member, have been engaged in a process of discernment about the future of the Episcopal Diocese of California.  That discernment is focused on whether the church will grow or die.  I know, to say the church is dying is a shocking and provocative use of words.  But how else can you describe a nearly twenty year trend of steady average decline in membership, average Sunday attendance and pledging of -3.3% per year.

At that -3.3% per year rate of decline the church shrinks by 50% every decade.

In August 2011 when Bishop Marc Andrus came to the Executive Council of the Diocese of California and asked for our help to breathe new vitality into the church and get the congregations growing again, he did not tell us how to do it—he just said we need to do this!

Sitting around that Council table we all understood the existential threat we face.

Fast forward nearly six months after study, prayer and consultations across the Diocese.  The church growth program sought to raise the awareness of the clergy and laity to this problem by naming it, talking often about it, asking questions about why this is happening and challenging the lay leaders across the congregations to take up the challenge of getting the church growing again.

We held four workshops focused on church attendance and membership growth.  We held a workshop on revenue growth challenges.  We went to each of the six deaneries of the Diocese to name the problem and ask each congregation to commit to working on a proactive plan of their own they will beginning to implement in 2012 to set clear and measurable church vitality and growth goals.

Today more than 30 of the 80 congregations in the Diocese have committed to participation in the Bishop’s church vitality challenge by participating in monthly webinars, develop action plans and sharing the results of their efforts with others.

It turns out that “sharing” is harder than it should be.

The traditional church model is built around small parishes.  When we wanted to grow the church we simply built a new church assuming if we did the people would come and for generations they did come.  But much has changed in the world and in the way the world affects our lives.  Today we depend more on technology to communicate in our fast paced, mobile society.  The church is not the common meeting place it once was for communities.

The Good News is we still want Jesus in our lives.  We still want to give our kids a solid faith foundation.  We still want to be in community with others.  We still want to be surrounded by people who accept us as we are, and support us in our times of need, and pray with us and for us.  We still want to serve others.  And we still want the church to make this possible for us and to be there for us.

But as with the rest of the institutions that touch our lives we also expect the church to ‘keep up’ with changing times and walk our journey of faith with us as we pray, learn, worship and serve others.

The Good News in our discernment process is that the problem of church decline is not a failure of faith on the part of the people, it is a failure of the institutions and methods of the church to grow with us, change with us, be in community with us—as we are TODAY—and where we are going TOMORROW.

How do we get the church growing again and breath new vitality into the old bones of the institution? The answers have been right in front of us all the time.  God has been whispering the knowledge of what to do in our hearts for a long time—the words just have not traveled to our ears and head so we can turn them into action.

What do I mean?

The Church is the Living Body of Christ entrusted to the People who Love and Serve the Lord.  It is our responsibility as members of the Body of Christ to do the work God has given us to do.  All we have to do to get the church growing again is get up out of the pews and quit going through the motions. Bishop Marc’s call to each congregation to “get with it, people” is all the permission we need to empower our actions.  Talk to your neighbors and find ways that work for your congregation to throw open the doors and invite the community to join you.  Reach out to those in need and be the Body of Christ for them.

Empowering the People to Act means the Institutions of the Church Must Support Them.  Waiting for direction from the Bishop and Clergy is not the answer for people who already are empowered to do God’s work.  We can’t ‘delegate up’ the job God has given us to do. He expects us to do His work in the vineyard ourselves.  It may be more than coincidence that the steady decline in the church membership, attendance and pledging parallels the growth in the professional staff of the church.  Most congregations still are small enough that they can only afford a priest.  The rest of the work of the congregation gets done when its members roll up their sleeves and get it done.  Part of the decline of church membership and attendance may be a perception that showing up does not make a difference.  Until every person counts and the absence of any member is noticed, the church is just a routine and not a community we feel called to.  That is the challenge for every congregation—make every person count, make them feel indispensible to the Body of Christ because to Christ every person is loved unconditionally.

Investing in Our Community Faith Journey Together.  Increasingly the tedious ways we ‘do church’ turn us off because in the rest of our lives we use technology, build and nurture community, and share information that lives into our values and goals.  The church must get with the technology program if it wants the people to work in the vineyard.

  • WE NEED NEW TOOLS FOR WORKING TOGETHER COLLABORATIVELY. I repeat my observation that the single most empowering thing we have learned from the church growth program action planning phase is that the Diocese of California NEEDS a social collaboration system on line that encourages us, empowers us, supports us to break out of our congregational silos and work together across congregations, across deaneries, across ministry programs to do God’s work.   We need more than a wall on FaceBook and Twitter.  We need virtual work spaces to share idea, hold meetings, share information.  We need one common place to go for church information not a thousand sites we must remember.
  • NEW WAYS TO DO BIBLE STUDY.  In our church growth program we learned about The Restoration Project, a wonderful small group ministry focused on Bible study.  And we learned about YouVersion, an online program that connects small Bible study groups around the world.  If the Diocese created ONE social network where we could go to access these and scores of other prayer, study and support programs and services think how much easier it would be to BE IN COMMUNITY WITH EACH OTHER.
  • NEW WAYS TO DO OUTREACH. We need new ways to design, support and do outreach such as the way sites like Volunteer Marin or kickstart.org to allow people to directly support outreach projects across the Diocese.

You can find more ideas on the church growth program homepage for how technologies that we use in our personal and business lives every day can e adapted to meet the needs of the church to breathe new vitality into our institutions, throw open the doors to new people eager to find their way on their spiritual journey and get people involved in doing God’s work in the vineyard that will change the lives of those they touch and help them find Christ in their hearts where he’s been all along.

You don’t need permission—just do it!

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