It isn’t enough to bring new members in the front door and to “close the back door” by providing groups and ministries that encourage “stickiness.” The congregation must also lead people deeper into their faith, help them to make fresh decisions about their lives, help them to assess their operative values, and help them to address deep-seated obstacles in their lives.
Yes, this means “meddling,” but it’s the direction Jesus clearly wanted his disciples to go. God is doing “new things,” and transformation of our lives is essential to our becoming new.
Transformational ministries take many forms. Here are some examples:
• Mission work that challenges deeply. Not just ladling soup for the homeless one day a year, for example, but dealing with the homeless every week, taking food to them five nights a week, learning their names and stories, going on a mission trip into severe deprivation.
• Spiritual practices that touch deeply. Worship, of course, but going on to personal prayer, then study, then faith-sharing with others.
• Making the move from “charitable giving” to “harvest giving,” grounded in the recognition of God as the source of one’s harvest and taking the form of tithing.
• Reallocating a portion of one’s life to a Christian small group or cell group. Not exactly the living-in-common described in Acts, but more than friendly conversation on Sunday.
Such ministries challenge our assumptions and behaviors. They force us to consider our values. They lead us into ambiguities about persons and motivations. They lead to discomfort, even to suffering. We emerge from these encounters changed.
A transformational church does things differently. It doesn’t seek to please constituents as much as to challenge them. It doesn’t promote casual friendships through weekly encounters, but deep and penetrating relationships through shared mission and sacrifice. It doesn’t accept the “leftovers” of people’s time and giving, but makes first claim and does so in the name of God, not in the interests of strengthening the institution.
Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus,” and the founder of the Church Wellness Project.