So there’s an interesting question.
My mate Travis asked it today as we chatting. Its not a question that produces an easy answer because it begs the response – ‘what do you mean by that?’
Do you mean ‘how’s the numbers’, do you mean vibe, do you mean the strength of discipleship and mission? Do you mean the funkiness of the band?… the quality of the programs… etc
When I get asked that I tend to do a scan across the ‘flow of energy’ in the community – whether its on a trajectory towards Christlikeness and the kingdom of God or whether we are becoming increasingly selfish and inward focused. As a leader I feel like I have (and ought to have) a pretty good finger on the pulse in that regard.
There have been times when the ‘flow of energy’ in the church has been depressingly self focused and unChristlike, there have been times when I feel like we are are really getting places, but most days it looks something like the image below.
These days when people ask me how church is going I find myself drawing an imaginary normal distribution curve in the air…
‘Well its like this – some folks are fired up, renewed in faith, powering ahead and inspiring the rest of us. Some are doing well – growing, moving and changing. Some are in the game but preoccupied, struggling to create space for God to work, while others are either disinterested, struggling or plain difficult and resistant.
I’d suggest that at any one time all of those people are likely to exist in our community, and they probably exist in ‘normal distribution’ form. Very few at the front end, very few at the back and the largest number in the middle.
I’d also suggest that we all move through different zones from time to time in our faith journey too. Sometimes I find myself further along the curve and other times further back (sometimes all in the same week) Perhaps the bottom axis needs to be entitled submission to Jesus with the left side being ‘all in’ and the right side being ‘not for me thanks’. The vertical axis would then be the number of people in each space at any given time.
Perhaps this is why in one shape or form, I find preaching and leading to be largely centred around moving people towards submission to Christ in whatever place they are in and the people who I find most difficult to work with are those Christians who are either disinterested or preoccupied. (Its a whole different ball game when we consider the folks in our communities who aren’t followers as our expectations of them need to change accordingly)
Using this paradigm its quite possible for the church to be led by people who are living at the right end of the axis – un-submitted to Jesus – but are capable managers. Its possible to get the mechanics functional while the heart is empty. In that case ‘church’ can look the goods but lack any real energy.
My hope for our own church is that we will increasingly see people move to the ‘submitted’ end of the spectrum whatever form that takes and whatever that looks like. I think the danger is in being over prescriptive on this one. It looks like more regular attendance, less swearing and better behaved children… really?…
So when you ask how my church is going don’t be surprised if I find it difficult to answer because its actually a very complex question. You could ask me how I’m going and I could probably locate myself somewhere along the X axis but it will vary at times too.
It also makes me consider that one of the significant functions of a church leadership team ought to be that of challenging, encouraging and supporting one another in our move towards living Christlike lives. If our leaders are not well up the front end of the curve when taken as a whole, then I’d suggest a church is in trouble.
It also gives me some sense of focus when it comes to who I seek to work with. I don’t think time spent with the resistant and difficult is ever time well invested. If you don’t want to move then that’s ok. Good luck with that… In the short time I have to invest discipling and spurring others on I want to spend it on people who are willing to rise to that. Maybe that sounds harsh, but maybe its why the title ‘pastor’ doesn’t fit me too well some days.
So how’s my church going?… Just like the curve suggests. Some are leading the charge, some are digging their heels in, most are somewhere in the middle either hoping for more or lost in their own busyness. But I get the impression that this is how its always going to be.
That’s not at all a defeatist position, but possibly a way of surviving the inevitable variance that will always be there in any community. On the day you ask me that question I may have just been hanging out with those at the front end of the curve and I will feel alive and hopeful. If you catch me when I have been stuck around negative, difficult people then I may well be about to toss it in because it feels like a waste of time. Truth is those realities always exist.
I know as pastors we often get plagued by the question ’why do we bother?…’ when church feels flat, people fight and squabble or just seem disinterested in anything that requires commitment. But in those moments there are always a few at the front end of the curve who say ‘whatever it takes…’ Whatever it takes to follow Jesus and see his kingdom come – count me in.
So long as those people exist there is great hope for the church.
Oh… and how are the numbers?…. In case you hadn’t guessed I really don’t care…