How do you measure the effectiveness of a church? Is the strength of a church measured by worship attendance, small group participation, the size of the weekly offering, or the number of programs offered throughout the week? Can you judge the health of a congregation by how many first time guests visit, the number of those guests who are uniting in local church membership or even the number of professions of faith made over the course of the year?
Denominational leaders will tell you that any evaluation must include quantitative data alongside qualitative insight into the life of congregation. But does that fully capture how effectively a particular church is living out it’s mission? That raises an even more critical question for pastoral and lay leaders. What is our mission?
I have always been haunted by these words from Marcus Borg.
“You can believe all the right things and still be miserable.”
It was early on in my ministry when I came across that statement, but with each passing day my affirmation of this simple truth grows. Serving as a pastor has taught me a great deal about life’s ultimate struggles and how alone most people feel in the areas of their greatest need.
Which leads me to consider the idea that perhaps the real measure of how effectively a church is living out it’s mission is the impact the ministries of church is making in the daily living of those who are connected to that local church body. It’s measured by what happens at the place where our concrete beliefs intersect the daily reality of individual lives.
It’s where the “church world” meets the real world.
But herein lies the problem. Most pastors do not spend much time outside of church world. We wrap ourselves up in it everyday. We give great attention to what some have referred to as the “ABC’s” of church world: attendance, building and cash. We have a good reason for this in that while a pastor is tasked with providing care and spiritual direction for a congregation, we are also charged with leading and ordering the organization that serves those needs. And while it is true that we experience the same concerns as many of our congregants, we struggle with anxiety, stress, and relational and financial strain. Pastors often process these issues within a Christian community that shares our values; others do so in the real world where they must face competing value systems.
So, how do can pastors help your people at that place of intersection? How can they connect better with their congregations? How do you bridge the gap between the church world and the real world?
Here are a few thoughts for you to consider.
1) Listen to their stories.
I lead a men’s group in our church that gathers once a month to discuss how we can be better husbands, fathers, and followers of Jesus. While the group is made up of men who are highly active in our church, we spend very little time talking about the Bible. Instead, we spend the majority of our time discussing the dominant “life issues” that men in their 30’s and 40’s who are early in their career and the life of their families are facing. It’s tremendously valuable for the men who attend, but I have also found it to be a great benefit to me as well. I spend a lot of time listening to their stories and in that process I am reminded of the real challenges that these men face in their workplace, their marriages and their other key relationships. It is vitally important that pastors spend time listening to the challenges that our congregants face every single day.
2) Model it in your teaching.
If you can believe all the right things and still be miserable, does that mean that what we believe has no value? Certainly not. What we believe has great significance for our lives, but where many need help is understanding how those convictions lead us to interact with a world that often leads in the opposite direction. Pastors should spend time reflecting on several questions. How have I modeled this for my congregation? How am I engaging some of the dominant concerns that people hear about and experience every day? In what way am I enabling my congregation to filter out truth from falsehood? How have I helped them to look for and partner with God’s spirit at work in the ordinary moments of their lives?
3) Spend more time in your neighborhood.
4) Walk into the tension.
For those who wrestle with the difficulty of following Jesus in contexts and relationships that consistently encourage a different set of standards, they need help addressing the confusion this often creates. For pastors, I think this means that at times we have to resist our urge to provide the simple answer and instead invite our people to wrestle with the deeper questions. If there really were only five steps to happiness, most of us would be there already, but we are not. Life in the real world is not always black and white. It requires people of faith to constantly address and navigate the gray. Sometimes the greatest value a pastor can add is not providing an answer, but instead walking into the tension and inviting the consideration of a deeper question.
What about you? What have you learned about how churches can more effectively help followers of Jesus bridge the gap between the church world and the real world?