“For here or to go?”, a question that could alter your perception of church.
We Canadians are familiar with this question aren’t we? At Tim Hortons I’ve answered both ways, in fact three ways if I include drive-through. The coffee’s the same; the difference is how you get it and where you consume it. And then of course, there are those who don’t even go to Tim Hortons.
In fact, when it comes to the church world, our attitude to church might be typical of any of these three responses. We know the drive-through folk – Christmas, Easter, baptisms, weddings, and funerals being their primary days of connection. Church is a convenient, drive-through space that compliments their busy lifestyle and gives them just enough “religion” to salve their conscience. I’m leaving this category alone: this blog concerns the other two types of church-goers and those who serve them.
There is a deeply held belief among church members that the role of the pastor/minister is to serve the congregation. In fact, it is so deeply embedded that I can almost hear a response of mild annoyance at even raising it as a point of discussion. After all, aren’t pastors paid to do the work of serving congregations and expected to do that in many ways? The transactional nature of this type of relationship (a “for here” mind-set) is evidenced by congregations paying for the services of preaching on Sundays, performing baptism, marriage, and funeral ceremonies, administering the sacraments, attending to pastoral care, and a myriad of other duties.
Unwittingly and unfortunately, this is what many of our congregations have come to expect: that pastors and ministers are paid to serve them. In one sense there is merit to this assumption; that the minister is the chief servant and s/he sets the pace and models servant-discipleship. However, the Bible is very clear that the primary purpose of the minister is not to serve the congregation by being at their beck and call. Rather, their act of service is to equip others (the body of Christ) to serve. Ministers of God are not servants “on call”. Rather, they should be regarded as people who have been trained to train and prepare the body of Christ to be the church in the world, to be servants “on-call”.
In my interactions as a ministry specialist with many pastors, I have challenged them to flip the question that almost every pastor would ask of their congregation: i.e. “How shall I serve you?” to ask a fundamentally different question, i.e. “How shall I help you serve?”.
This second question is based on a different assumption than the first. It changes the transactional (service provider-consumer) nature of the pastor-congregant relationship to a mutually transformational one where each person is an equal partner in discerning and participating in God’s mission.
Equipping the laity to do the work of God in mission is different from serving on their behalf. Sadly, though, many of our congregants have been trained to do “church work” i.e. serve on committees, run other church programs that, although not bad in themselves, are far from helping them to BE the church in the world.
Imagine if our entire “church system” was geared to achieve this one thing: to equip, empower, and mobilize the person in the pew to be an evangel, an agent of transformation, an ambassador of reconciliation? Imagine how our training systems would have to change, how our support systems would need to be re-structured and how our everyday practices would need to be altered. Imagine the outcome? A motivated group of Jesus followers who have a story to tell, a transformed life to model and the training and resources to be the church in the world. Yes, “to-go”, would be a nice way to serve coffee but, there’s a problem — actually two.
Firstly, many (lay) members do not like to be equipped for service. They would rather pay the minister to serve them and/or do works of service on their behalf. Secondly, some ministers themselves may not like to equip and train others for many reasons, the chief one being the fear of losing control. And so the system remains a self-serving, downward spiraling loop that leads to burn-out, conflict, attrition, and finally death or a congregation in hospice.
Can this culture be changed? Yes, it can but it requires intentionality and commitment.
For an expanded version of this article set in a wider context, please visit our web site: Congregational Vitality Initiative | Vancouver School of Theology (vst.edu)
Follow us on Facebook (and visit our website) to keep in touch with many other thought leaders and practitioners discerning and charting out new “Pathways to congregational health and vitality” in the coming months.
Are you involved in some form of paid or voluntary congregational/parish leadership in Canada? If so, on behalf of a national partnership between the Flourishing Congregations Institute and Alpha Canada, with in-kind support from the following sponsors – Canadian Church Leaders Network, Catholic Christian Outreach, Divine Renovation, and WayBase – you are invited to give up to 10 minutes to complete an online survey that explores the attitudes, behaviours, and experiences surrounding evangelism in Canadian congregations, across theological sectors. Those who participate will be entered into one of twenty draws for a $100 Amazon gift card.
This survey is open to any and all church/parish leaders across Canada. Participation is completely voluntary and your confidentiality will be maintained. At the conclusion of the study, a report with key findings and practical tools and resources to arise from this research will be made publicly available online and through an Alpha-led public online Evangelism Summit event in Fall 2021.
Don’t delay! Click here to complete this short 10-minute survey and help us better understand evangelism in Canadian congregations/parishes. Moreover, please share this communication with as many Canadian church/parish and denominational leaders as you can think of in your network.
What We Are Reading
A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society Eugene Peterson
“One aspect of the world that I’ve been able to identify as harmful to Christians is the assumption that anything worthwhile can be acquired at once ... there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship” (p.15-16). With this, the late Eugene Peterson unpacks what discipleship looks like in an instant society, candidly and pastorally guiding readers through Psalm 120-134 on themes like repentance, worship, service, joy, humility, obedience, and community. What stands out about this 20th anniversary edition (first written in 1980) is that contrary to public pressures to remain relevant and keep up with the times by making several changes, Peterson notes, “I have done hardly any. It turns out that there are some things that don’t change … God & our need for God” (p.11). This timeless book is insightful for congregations grappling with discipleship coming out of a pandemic. Discipleship takes time, it is rooted in prayer and Scripture, and it grounds all of life’s experiences in the solid and stable certainty of the Triune God ... nothing more, and nothing less.
Dr. Joel Thiessen is Professor of Sociology at Ambrose University and Director of the Flourishing Congregations Institute.
Resources for Church Leaders
Casting Our Nets
Thursday, July 15, 2021
10am PDT (2pm ADT)
Join Divine Renovation and Alpha International on Thursday, July 15 for “Casting our Nets”, a conversation about creating a culture of invitation and making missionary disciples with Peter Herbeck of Renewal Ministries and Fr Justin Huang of Saint Anthony of Padua in Vancouver, BC. Register Here.
Risk Assessment for Churches
Operating your church more safely in a time of respiratory infectious diseases can be a challenge. The ARCC is a set of tools to help church leaders improve their policies, assess their risk, learn more about controlling diseases, and know how to support people's mental health. Instill confidence in yourself, your congregation, the community and those in authority by visiting churcharcc.com
Resources for Safer Church Re-Opening
Want to increase confidence in your congregation and community; to increase your knowledge; and to share what you've learned over the past year?
Join Dr. Bridget Stirling (epidemiologist and former missionary), a team of public health specialists, and church leaders from around the world in the ARCC.
The Application to Reduce Communicable Diseases in Churches (ARCC) is a program that increases safety through Risk self-assessments and guidance, church-specific training and an interactive forum. Visit us at stirlingharmston.com
Researching the Impacts of Covid-19 on Congregations
Several research studies are emerging on the impacts of Covid-19 on congregations. Click Here to learn from these data-driven insights.