WHAT HAVE I ACCOMPLISHED?

At the beginning of the year, I began working on a project in my shop. We needed some more storage space and decided that the need would be met if I built a cabinet and shelf unit similar to the china cabinet and hutch I built a few years ago. The new unit needed to be slightly smaller and a bit different in design but they would match in terms of basic design, wood selection and finish. We got really lucky when the knotty pine I planned on using was on sale at a nearby building supply store.

The project has been moving along. It hasn’t been as fast as I would like. I still have to work and that limits my time for woodworking. I can’t do sawing or sanding in the house, which means those particular jobs can only be done with it is nice enough outside. The requirements for free time and relatively comfortable outside weather in Nova Scotia in the winter happening at the same time mean that I don’t get at the project as often as I would like and the finishing date keeps getting shifted forward.

But the project is moving along. The basic structures are formed, a lot of the sanding is done and there are just a few more assembly steps necessary before I can finish the whole thing. Even though I don’t care much for the final sanding and varnishing process, I can see that I will get the work done. I can also see just how much progress I have made along the way—I have moved from a pile of boards on the basement floor to a pretty much finished project that will soon become a finished and functional part of our household.

There are times when I wish the success of my ministry was as easy to evaluate. But the reality I live with is that much of what I do for ministry isn’t all that easy to evaluate, especially if I am looking at and for long term results. Sure, I can relatively easily gage how well a sermon went over—I just have to count the number of people awake when I finish. Evaluating a Bible study session is relatively simple—I look at how far I got or didn’t get in my lesson plan.

But figuring out how that sermon fits into the long term health of the individuals and the church or seeing how that Bible study session affects the church three years from now—that is much more difficult. In fact, it actually might be pretty much impossible. When I cut a board in the workshop, I can pretty much tell immediately if it will work or not. But when I finish a sermon, who really knows what the effects will be?

Even the traditional measures of evaluating ministry really don’t give a lot of insight into the effectiveness of ministry. Traditionally, churches and leadership have used the numerical growth of the congregation and the increase in giving as measuring sticks—what some call the “nickels and noses” evaluation. But all that says in the end is that we have more or less people and money that when we started.

I believe in evaluation processes and have lots of measuring tools that I use in my ministry but I have realized that in the end, most of what I do will ultimately be evaluated by God, not me or the church or the denomination. Without sounding too whatever, I think that the real value of the ministry I do here and now will be evaluated by God himself. I base that partly on Paul’s comments in I Corinthians 2.10-15, where he suggests that only when God calls “time” will the final word on anyone’s ministry by spoken.

That doesn’t really bother me, all that much. While I can and do use all sorts of evaluation processes and tools to help make my ministry as effective as I can make it, I recognize that God has the final say and I am responsible for doing the best I can with the tools I have and the time I have—and am also responsible for making sure that I keep open to his leading because he knows where it all needs to go much better than I do.

It’s probably good that I like woodworking because that means there is at least some place where I can see clearly what I am accomplishing.

May the peace of God be with you.

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A GROWING CHURCH

One of the blogs I read regularly has been inviting me to sign up for a course that will help me take my church beyond the dreaded 200 barrier.  For those of you who don’t spend as much time as I do reading about things relevant and irrelevant to ministry, the 200 barrier refers to the reality that most congregations never grow beyond 200 in attendance.  Actually, perhaps the majority of churches in the world have far fewer in attendance than that.  But to really be a congregation of consequence in North America, a church has to break that barrier–and this course will help with that.

I am not signing up for the course.   Partly, that is because I am  not much interested in having someone else tell me what to study–I think that I have been doing ministry long enough that I can design and do my own research.  But the main reason I am not signing up for the course is that I am positive that it will be no help to me in my ministry.  In one of the pastorates that I serve, I would really like to reach 20 in regular attendance–and in the other, 30 would be a great number to achieve.  I have no problem at all with the 200 barrier–that is so far from where we are that I don’t need to spend any time on it at all.

However, the strong emphasis on growing church numbers means that my congregations and therefore my ministry are seen as somehow being less than acceptable and maybe even ineffective.  I have even heard people suggesting that congregations like the ones I serve should be closed down and the members amalgamated with larger congregations that can do some real ministry.  Fortunately, as a Baptist, the only people who can make those decisions are the members of the local congregation.

The question I keep having to confront grows out of this emphasis in numbers.  Does a worshipping community that averages 10 in worship constitute a real church?  Is it worth the effort to sustain and maintain a group of 25 people meeting in several buildings?  Is it a real ministry when one visitor represents a 10% increase in our attendance?

You might expect that as someone who has spend a whole career in those size congregations that I would automatically say yes to all those questions.  But the truth is, I would actually say that it depends.  But the dependant variables involved in the answer have nothing to do with the numbers–numbers are a revered Western measuring tool that in the end, tell us very little about the quality and character of whatever the numbers are measuring.

What makes a congregation a viable church is the nature and strength of its commitment.  If the congregation is focused on serving God where and as he leads, it is a viable church.  If the congregation is doing all it can to effectively do what God has called it to do, it is a viable church.  If the ministry is helping people grow in their understanding of and ability to practise their faith, it is a viable ministry.

If, however, the congregation is focused on surviving long enough to host the funeral of the last member, it has ceased to be viable and healthy.  If worries about money and repairs and finding preachers take up all the time and energy of the congregation, it is not really a viable church.

That doesn’t mean it needs to be shut down.  While that may be the appropriate solution for some congregations, in my mind, this is always the last and least desirable option.  A struggling, unfocused, misguided congregation can change.  With time and good pastoral care, even a dying congregation can become healthy.  It may not grow in numbers but if it can refocus itself and redirect its time and energy to serving God, it becomes a real and viable church that can and does have a positive impact for the Kingdom of God.

My calling is not to break the 20 barrier or the 200 barrier.  My calling is to help congregations realize who they are and what they are called to do and help them become what they are meant to be and do what they are called to do.  And when we do this, we are becoming the church God has called us to be regardless of our numbers.

May the peace of God be with you.

EVALUATING EVALUATIONS 2

This long string of blogs dealing with the evaluation process traces back to my understanding of Acts 2.42-47. There is one line in that passage that we need to pay careful attention to so that what we do is done for the right reasons. That one line makes a lot of what churches and church leaders do today misguided as best and wrong at its worst.

You don’t have to be deeply involved in the church today to see that there is a lot of pressure on churches to be growing numerically. There are books, seminars, workshops and training sessions on how to grow a church. When these don’t work, leaders fall back on the traditional motivator–guilt. Baptisms are given prominent coverage in denominational publications. In fact, for many people today, growing numerically is the standard for a good church.

The problem is that numerical growth isn’t the church’s business. We have tended to make it our business and in some cases, we have been successful. Using methods and approaches borrowed from business, advertising and the social sciences coupled with tricks and tips handed on by generations of church leaders, we can make a church grow numerically. If we don’t worry about how long a person stays involved in the faith or how much they really understand the faith, we can rack up some impressive figures using these techniques.

But numerical growth is not the same as people coming to faith. Numerical growth techniques may bring some people to Christ but is just as likely to bring people to a person, an institution, an idea, a theory–anything but Christ. The church, like any other human organization, can find ways to attract new people at least for a time.

But neither the church nor individual believers can bring people to faith for the simple reason that it is God who brings people to himself, not us. Look at the second half of Acts 2.47, where we are told, ” And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (NIV) The church in Jerusalem was worshipping, fellowshipping, educating, and serving. They were being faithful to their new found faith, discovering what was required, what needed to be changed, what new ways they were being asked to follow.

They made some mistakes which they learned from and corrected–they were concerned with offering to God their best. But it was God who gave them new believers. Certainly, they were involved in the process–as they carried out their responsibilities in the four functional area, they were not only serving God but also were creating a safe and secure home for themselves and new believers whom God was bringing to the faith, partly through their efforts. But the bringing of people to faith in Christ is God’s responsibility, not ours.

I sometimes use the image of the church as a nursery to help explain this reality. God is in charge of bringing people to himself and when people finally surrender to him, he wants them to have a safe place to go to as their begin their new life. When the church is working at being strong in the four functional areas, discovering its weaknesses and dealing with them then it is becoming a safe nursery for God to use for the protection and development of his new followers.

The flip side of that is that a church which isn’t a safe and secure nursery cannot expect God to place new believers in their midst–what loving parent places babies in an situation that they know is unsafe and likely to harm the baby?

Our job as churches is to make sure that we have as strong a church as possible, a church where the four functions are in balance and we regularly check ourselves, doing the necessary repairs and maintenance. This is our job, one that regular evaluations help us do more effectively.

We can find ways to bring in new people–but only God can bring people to himself and such is his love for these new believers that he wants a safe and secure nursery for them. If we work at providing the safe and secure nursery then God has the opportunity to bless us with new believers, when and where he sees fit.

May the peace of God be with you.