Finding Our Ministry

I spent the evening in a Stewards Meeting tonight with one of my smaller churches (stewards are lay leaders of the church). One of the points I seem to be driving with all three of my churches is to find what our ministry really is. Part of the reason I mention this particular church is that it has almost an entirely elderly congregation. When many churches with this make-up attempt to look at what their ministry is, invariably the named issue that continually pops up is, ‘We need to attract more young people.’ My question is, ‘Why?’ Certainly, if a church wants to minister to young families, children, and young people, then yes we do need to look at what that means. But will a congregation with an average age above 70 really find a ministry among younger families, children, and young people? Maybe. I don’t doubt that the Holy Spirit can move in this way should the Holy Spirit choose to.  But my point is to ask, ‘Why do we feel we need to target “young people” to continue as a church in ministry?’

New initiatives coming out of Conference (and other Christian organisations) tend to focus on how to minister among those in the younger the 25 category. [I am sure their intention is not to say that the only ministry is among the young, but it may be implied when this is the bulk of of the message one hears.] Many times this comes in the form of a message that says something like ‘See what this church did – you can do it, too!’ Besides a one-size-fits-all programme that I don’t think necessarily provides a good strategy, what if it’s not that simple? I don’t know much about working with children and young people, and even people in their 20s, but it appears to me to be a very specialised ministry that can’t be asked of all congregations, especially a church with most members in their retirement.

None of this is meant to disparage older churches, and definitely not my congregation. On the contrary, what I want to do is free them to do the ministry they have been called to do, using their gifts God has given them rather than ask them to be something they’re not. I see them energised by the small signs of hope that have appeared over the last few years, and allow them not to worry about whether or not they need to a data projector or finding a worship leader with a guitar. But, we have to stop thinking that the only way we can do ministry is if we focus on young people and all but forgetting that the community we are in has a high population of elderly people, all who need Jesus as much as anyone under 25. This older age group may well be a people ready to look at church and ask themselves, perhaps for the first time, ‘Does church have any relevance for my life?’

A focus on older folk mean that the church will die. As my friend Pam is fond of saying, ‘Age Concern is not afraid of going out of business’ (Americans: read AARP). This may mean a huge step of faith, when a congregation says, ‘We will minister to anyone who crosses our path, but at this time and place we will place our primary efforts in ministry here or here.’ One can almost say this isn’t just for the elderly. It could mean an elderly congregation chooses to say, ‘We want to minister to the young, but we are going to take the time to learn out best to carry that out.’ It all comes down to churches asking themselves, ‘Where is God calling us?’

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2 thoughts on “Finding Our Ministry

  1. You’re very right, Will. We had a clergy gathering, cleverly titled ‘Ministers’ School’ in which we focused on ’emerging church.’ Nevermind that ’emerging church’ has now emerged and we’re moving on to the next thing, I did learn something valuable that you have echoed here.

    Tim Keele, of Jacob’s Well–an emergent church in Kansas City, said ministry models don’t work. My church here in a small town/village can’t take the Willow Creek model and apply it. This church isn’t in Chicago. He said the most promising ministries are those that grow from the gifts of the folks in the church. So, he said, like you, find out what your folks are good at, what excites them–and go with that. Are they good at hospitality? Then have a drop-in. Are they better at generosity? Open a food pantry or clothes closet. Etc.

    You’re very much on the right track. The worst thing a church can do is panic. When we panic, we settle for quick fixes that end up hurting us in the long run. And saying, ‘We need more young families’ over and over again feels like panic.

  2. Thanks, Sarah. I think you’re right: most churches hit the panic button when they look around on Sunday morning. I think it worsens (at least it does for me) when we have these big district gatherings (I’m sure you remember those!) where we see the parade of what other churches are doing, with the underlying message as the one described above. I think, ‘Look at what I’m not doing!’ Then, you talk to those actually in the churches that are in the parade, and they are still struggling, too. None of this is bad. It’s just we seem to be trying to reach an unattainable idea (as you implied, seemingly set by Willow Creek and the other mega-churches).

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