The meetings and email exchanges I’ve had since returning from the ELCA Churchwide Assembly lead me to speculate that, during this time when the pandemic is not over but our fear of COVID-19 seems to be, congregations have come to a fork in Mission Road and need to decide which path they will take moving forward.
Some in congregations want to take the path of retaining and regaining members. They might point to Jesus’s parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:1-7). In pursuing this path, the congregation, and especially the pastor, invests in pastoral care of members, visitation of members, being available to members, and meeting members’ needs. The assumption is that the congregation’s “lost sheep” will find their way home to the congregation and the flock will have its friends back. The church, which lost members and finances during the pandemic, will return to stability and normalcy. Of course, if the “lost sheep” are feeling hurt, angry, and neglected by the pastor, or if pastoral care and visitation are not a pastor’s gift, strength, or passion, a change in pastoral leadership may be necessary for the “lost sheep” to come home. Forcing this path usually divides and diminishes a congregation.
Before setting down this road, congregations should investigate the assumptions that underlie the decision to move in this direction. They should make a list of the “lost sheep” and a team, perhaps the church council but certainly not the pastor, should divide the list and telephone or visit the lost sheep and, in a nonjudgmental manner, ask where they are on their faith journey and relationship to the congregation. Some may be upset with the pastor because they feel uncared for or ignored; repairing that relationship may or may not be possible. Others may have found a new church home during the pandemic and have no need to return. Still others may be so disillusioned by fights within the congregation over vaccines and masking that they cannot bring themselves to return. Still others enjoy worshiping online and have no reason to return. I regularly talk to congregation leaders who have worked so hard to save their church that they fear they are losing their faith; I encourage these leaders to worship where they can simply receive the gospel and not feel obligated to save the church. Before setting off in search of lost sheep, congregations should make certain there are lost sheep who need finding.
Some in congregations want to take the path of engaging the neighborhood and community. They might point to Jesus sending the seventy with instructions to “cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you’” (Luke 10:9). In pursuing this path, the congregation, and especially the pastor, invests in neighbors rather than members. Instead of spending time in the church office and visiting members, the pastor is visibly and actively engaged in the neighborhood. The assumption is that experiencing the good news of Jesus will bring people to the church and these new members will revitalize and stabilize the congregation. If evangelism and community engagement are not a pastor’s gift, strength, or passion, or if the pastor does not connect with the neighborhood or community, a change in pastoral leadership may be necessary to pursue this path. Forcing this agenda usually divides and diminishes a congregation.
Before setting down this road, congregations should investigate the assumption that engaging the neighbors will result in more members. People may be grateful and even excited to receive the good news of God’s unconditional love, acceptance, and abundant life in Jesus Christ and have absolutely no desire to become members of the church. When convinced that the harvest is plentiful, congregations must acknowledge that the pastor cannot do this work alone and determine whether there is a cadre of church members eager to engage the neighborhood and comfortable sharing the story of Jesus. Congregations must also honestly determine whether neighbors who show up in church will be genuinely welcome.2
If our true purpose in engaging the neighbors is to gain members and not to share the good news of Jesus, we do better to stay home, lest we reduce the gospel to a transaction and our neighbors to a commodity that will serve our needs as a church. Jesus never did either of these things. Jesus gave himself on the cross to reveal God’s love and not to gain members for a church. So, Jesus counsels that we should invite those who cannot repay us because we will be repaid at the resurrection (Luke 14:12–14).
When the real issue is that we fear our congregation is in crisis and we need to do something to stabilize and sustain it, we need to take a third path. First, we acknowledge that no one loves our church as much as the active members do and not look for someone else–members who have fallen away, new people, a pastor, or the greater church—to save it. No one is more concerned with saving a congregation than its active members. Second, we honestly assess whether the current congregation possesses the number of people (50), energy, and financial resources to head down either of the first two roads. Third, we recognize that COVID-19 changed everything, including the church. That congregations find themselves in precarious situations is not necessarily anyone’s fault and God is not looking for someone to blame. Fourth, we recognize that only God is eternal. All things, including congregations, have lifespans and will one day die. Thankfully, in Jesus Christ, God promises to transform death, even the death of a church, into new and abundant life.
Pastor David, Pastor Rosanne, and I are grateful when congregations invite us into conversation about where they find themselves and how they will move forward. If your congregation is struggling with these issues, please reach out to us because we are happy to meet with you and to walk alongside you as you decide which path to take on Mission Road.
The Rev. Craig Alan Satterlee, Ph.D., Bishop
1 This article is inspired by Craig Alan Satterlee, My Burden is Light: Making Room for Jesus in Preaching (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2023), 198 -221.
2 We have developed a resource to assist congregations in addressing these opportunities: You Are Witnesses of These Things (Dewitt, MI: Arborvitae Books, 2022) is expected to be available November 1, 2022.