“My church doesn’t want to do anything but attend on Sunday morning.”
“I’m fed up! I can’t get this church to do anything.”
Many of us have been there; some of us are there now—the immovable church. These inert congregations struggle to get beyond themselves and engage in outward mission and ministry. My wife and I have served congregations like these. At times, we succeeded in generating movement within these difficult contexts. Other times, we failed. Here is our short list of ways to lead the immovable church.
It’s vitally important to build and maintain relationships with the immovable people in your church. You know the ones we are talking about—those who are the “hard nuts to crack” in the church. These are the folks who deeply love the church to the point that they don’t want anything to change. They can’t entertain the possibility of the church doing anything its never done before. Build and maintain these relationships as you lead.
When starting a new service with a new style our design team listed out the names of individuals we thought would be opposed to the idea. I (Lee) met one-on-one with each individual or couple to get their thoughts on this new service. I explained what we were doing, what we were hoping to accomplish, and asked for their thoughts. Then I listened. Some crazy stuff was said and I kept my rebuttal to myself.
Running Water Finds a Path Downhill
You may not be able to move the church through common administrative channels. In these situations, find an alternative path like water that finds a path downhill. Start a new team, gather shining eyes (those people whose eyes light up with a new idea), meet, plan and implement. Don’t ask for financial support at the onset; wait until the ministry is successful. Explain to the congregation that you are trying an experiment and want to see how it works. Often, people will support experiments even when they are unwilling to support ministries that challenge their comfort zones.
Judy formed a new hospitality team to create a welcoming environment in the church. Even though the trustees and board resisted most new ideas, a new team was able to make changes. She developed the new team with the stated purpose of creating a more welcoming place for children. Longtime “shining eyes” church members joined, promoted, and even implemented the innovative ideas that emerged. It went over better than a solo presentation by the pastor. We placed a rocking chair, children’s tables, and full children’s bookshelf in the rear of the sanctuary all of the young children in our congregation. We hoped that new mothers with infants would use the space. Now parents had a dedicated space in the sanctuary to be in worship and rock their babies.
Go Out: Develop Ministry Partners
Seek out and develop ministry partners in your community. Invite your congregation to partner with you in these efforts. We have done this with local help centers, The Salvation Army, and Federal Housing community centers. See what others are doing that you can join. Invite your congregation to help.
We were able to get one congregation to participate in housing homeless men once a month by going to an existing day shelter in the community, playing cards, and fixing a meal on occasion. Through these experiences, our members began to develop relationships with the homeless members of our community and became more receptive to new ministry ideas. This congregation was blessed as they eventually invited men to stay Saturday night at the church, eat supper, breakfast on Sunday morning, and worship with the congregation. Several times, our guests participated in leading worship by giving a testimony or singing in church.
Judy was able to get a congregation to think outside the walls of the church by asking the congregation to help with a Halloween event for the Federal Housing projects across the street. Fifty years ago, this church was planted across the street to minister to those in the funded homes. Over the last twenty years, however, the Church had lost that vision. When the congregation joined in this event planned by the community center, they became hungry for the next ministry event. No longer did we have to sell the vision of outreach, our members had seen firsthand the impact that outreach can make.
Invite Others In: Open Your Doors to the Community
Be aware that an immovable church has little-to-no experience outside of what they have always done. If your congregation won’t go out, invite other in.
We invited a missionary to Haiti nicknamed “Cowboy” to preach and share about his ministry to children in the island nation. We asked a New Zealander who had a miracle testimony of healing to share a powerful story of God’s goodness. We sought out those from a men’s recovery mission to share about their ministry and tell the congregation about how God was redeeming them. We called the director of the local domestic violence shelter to share about the services of the shelter and how the members could help.
These outside ministry leaders allowed the congregation to see life and ministry from an expanding perspective. As these persons shared, hearts were warmed and minds were opened. This action catalyzed a church to move from its immovable position. Use your own connections with others doing ministry in the community. Seek out referrals from other pastors and from your parishioners.
Measure with Teaspoons Rather than Tractor Trailers
Look for and celebrate small victories. If only one can of food is brought for a food drive- celebrate it! Often times, you will need to lower your expectations to see the teaspoon victories. One lady was inspired to take pizza and cinnamon rolls to the local police station. The police department posted a picture on social media thanking the church. Our church celebrated this tablespoon victory on social media and in the Sunday service. When we celebrate these teaspoon victories the congregation begins to feel a heightened sense of self-worth that leads to greater hope and expectations.
The hardest part of measuring with teaspoons is being patient. As pastors, we long for big impact and spectacular new ministries. We can be tempted to dismiss the small victories. However, lifting up the teaspoon wins can bring excitement and build momentum in our congregations.
Look and Listen
Whether you notice it or not, the Holy Spirit is moving in your community and in your immovable congregation. Frustration comes easy. Stop. Look. Listen to what the Holy Spirit is doing in your community and in your congregation. When the Holy Spirit opens a door, even a crack, step through in faith without fear of failure. In prayer, we ask God, “Where are you working in this community so we can join you?” We heard a knock on the church door. The man knocking was there to ask the church to help with a local ministry! In another instance, the few children attending one small church noticed their friends on the bus shivering and found out they didn’t have coats. They asked their Sunday School teacher if they could collect coats at church to give to their school friends. The entire congregation embraced the coat drive. When a local community club found out that we were collecting coats, they contributed over 100 coats to the drive!
God is already working in your community, in your church members, and in your heart. God hears your prayers and will move the church into mission and ministry as you follow God’s Holy Spirit.