Direction: 3 questions every church must answer

compassMy younger son, Brad, and I were having lots of trouble on our canoe trip. I would pull my paddle in one direction and he would pull his in another. Instead of making forward progress, we just turned around in circles. It was great fun for others to watch, but super frustrating for us. Finally, the two of us started communicating about the direction we wanted to go, coordinating our efforts. The circling stopped; slowly, we moved downriver then with greater speed as we got the hang of it, working together instead of at cross-purposes. After a few hours, we had finished the river float – success!

What is true for canoeing is true for churches. There are three questions regarding direction that every church must answer:

1) What is our destination?

2) What must we do to get there?

3) How will we know when we’ve arrived?

Let’s look at these questions one at a time.

What is our destination?

I love  the “Horatio Hornblower” series. In dramatic fashion, Captain Hornblower would announce the heading of the ship, and everyone replied: “Aye, sir!”

Some seem to think the church is a Navy vessel. The Captain (Pastor) gives the orders, and everyone obeys. But things are changing, even in the West. We have moved to a collaborative model, much closer to the villagers in rural Africa gathered under the mango tree. From oldest to youngest, everyone has a word to say and direction emerges based on consensus. In the digital age, the “mango tree” can be a FaceBook page where everyone is encouraged to speak up. Either way – whether in person or through social media – listening happens, making it more likely that we move forward together, in common purpose.

What is it that we want to accomplish together? This is another way of articulating the question of destination. Once we have listened to each other and consensus on direction has emerged, it is time to sum it up in a single sentence. Here’s an example of a guiding statement:

“Building a deep community of faith 500 strong.”

We’ll talk about that statement more below.

What must we do to get there?

Sometimes in evangelical circles we have thought that we must first believe, then we can belong. In fact, most have experienced the opposite. In The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West…Again (Abingdon, 2000, 2010). George Hunter III maintains that “belonging comes before believing” (location 795).  Share stories with each other. How did you come to be committed to the church and to Christ? Every activity of the church must foster that sense of belonging, that each of us are loved and that this community of faith has a place for me. If an activity (or program) does nothing to help build that sense of community – the belonging preliminary to believing – then it is not leading you toward your goal as a church. It is a paddle in the water steering the canoe in the wrong direction.

How will we know when we’ve arrived?

The five words I love most from my GPS are these:

“You have reached your destination.”

Wouldn’t it be nice if church work were so clear cut, to know that we have “reached our destination”? In fact, it is rarely so obvious. Still, there are indicators that we are heading in the right direction.

Let’s take a look again at the guiding statement, “Building a deep community of faith 500 strong.” What are some of the key words?

“building” – This speaks of the atmosphere of a church. Do we encourage each other, building one another up, celebrating our strengths and graciously forbearing the weaknesses of others, as they put up with ours? People have plenty of chances to be torn down by the words of others outside the church. Inside, each of us needs affirmation that we are a person of worth and deeply loved by God and others. Our pastor has fostered what I call the “holy hug,” a variation of the “holy kiss” Paul talks about in Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20 and elsewhere.

“deep” – Churches in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition sometimes speak of the “deeper life.” We recognize that the decision to follow Christ is only the first step in a lifelong journey of discipleship. The Holy Spirit can cleanse us at a deep level, filling us with God’s love and a desire to serve Him.

“community” – To be in community is to do life together. Is is the spirit of Ubuntu, to recognize that “I am because we are.” In our disconnected day-and-age, to foster connectedness is one of the key strengths that the church offers. Former General Superintendent Nina Gunter once said:

In the church, there are only two categories of people: participants and critics.

Communities grow stronger and more united when members of the community are given service opportunities, using their God-given talents. Those who are fenced-off from meaningful service will either speak up (criticizing) or will leave.

“faith” – As important as the value of connectedness is, unity in the church goes deeper than the connectedness created in clubs based upon common interests only, such as bicycling or photography. Our unity is based upon Christian faith, our common confession that Christ died, Christ rose, and Christ will come again. We believe that life has purpose because we – as the People of God – are part of a larger Story, the Story of God, and that story is life-changing. The preaching of the Word and the observance of the Sacraments (Eucharist and Baptism) are ways that we tell the Story.

“500 strong” – The Book of Acts reports that following Peter’s preaching on the Day of Pentecost, about 3,000 were added to the church (Acts 2:41). Likewise, Jesus tells the parable of 100 sheep and how the shepherd cared for all 100, both the 99 that he left safely behind and the one he searched for in the wilderness (Luke 15:1-7). Well has it been said: “We count people because people count.”

Though some are qualitative and some quantitative, each of these words in the guiding statement can to a degree be assessed. Are we a church that encourages each other? Are we going deeper in our faith, nurturing each other in the life of discipleship? Do those who attend feel like they belong, finding a place of meaningful service? Do we point our people back to the Story of faith that holds us together? Finally, have we set growth goals that are realistic, realizing that numbers – while not the only measure of our impact – are one important indicator of a church’s health?

The three questions of destination, how to get there, and knowing when we’ve arrived are crucial to the success of the church. Guiding statements – developed not unilaterally but collaboratively – help everyone know where the “canoe” is headed. With a Spirit-inspired vision clearly in-mind, we can joyously pull together, making progress toward where God wants us to go.

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Image creditNexus Mods

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