At a conference at Georgetown College last week I led a breakout session called “What to do when your church is dying.” I said a lot of things in 90 minutes, but the essence can be found in this brief summary I typed up for Baptists Today not long ago. So, if your church is dying, or you know someone whose is, take the time to read the few paragraphs below. I hope it will give you a fresh vision of what the church can be and do in a time when so many congregations are struggling just to survive.
When I started my work as a pastor 25 years ago the church in America was in decline, the leadership of the church was in a state of panic, and their strategy was the so-called Church Growth Movement. I went to New Castle Baptist Church in Kentucky assuming that my job was to get as many people as possible into the building for worship on Sunday morning, and then to get as many of those as I could to come forward at the end of the service so that they could make a profession of faith in Christ, or rededicate their lives to him, or move their membership from another church to that one. But I was still in seminary at that time, and in the New Testament class I was taking I kept hearing about the “Kingdom of God.” It seemed to be the only thing Jesus wanted to talk about. In fact, some 120 times in the Gospels, in one way or another, he refers to that Kingdom. I began to get the idea that this is what Jesus really came to do: to establish the Kingdom of God, on earth as it is in heaven.
This is what I think the church of Jesus Christ ought to be doing—bringing heaven to earth—and the Lord’s Prayer is a perfect reminder. It’s the kind of prayer a soldier might pray before going onto the battlefield, the kind of prayer a missionary might pray before going onto the mission field. “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name,” it says. “Thy kingdom come! Thy will be done!” but then (don’t miss this part) “on earth as it is in heaven.” And then we ask God to give us our daily bread, because we’re going to need our strength. We ask him to forgive us our sins, because they would only drag us down. We ask him to lead us not into temptation, because we can’t afford to be distracted–this mission is too important. And then, just in case we begin to have some success and think it’s because of our efforts, the prayer reminds us that the kingdom, and the power, and the glory belong to God forever and ever.
Can you see how bringing heaven to earth is completely different from propping up the institutional church? I don’t think it’s easier, not at all. Without God’s help it would be impossible. But it is so much more…liberating. When the members of First Baptist Church ask me how to do it I say, “Just look around for anything that doesn’t look like heaven and then roll up your sleeves and go to work.” And what I find is that they all see through their own eyes. One person will see a need to teach poor children in the city of Richmond how to read, and go to work there. Another person will see a need to share the gospel with people who don’t know Jesus, and go to work there. Another person will see a need to provide decent, affordable housing, and go to work there. Some people will visit with those in the nursing homes, others will make time to have coffee with a friend in need, still others will teach little children in Sunday school. As a result, church begins to happen everywhere, all the time, and not only in our building at 11:00 on Sunday. In fact, I have said to my congregation, “Let’s stop counting how many people happen to be in church on Sunday morning and instead start counting how many times church happens between one Sunday and the next.”
That’s liberating, isn’t it?
Several years ago I found a quote in a book by Walter Brueggemann that has given shape to my ministry ever since. Brueggemann is a renowned Old Testament scholar, but he is also a committed Christian, who is devoted to the church. He said, “The central task of ministry is the formation of a community with an alternative, liberated imagination that has the courage and the freedom to act in a different vision and a different perception of reality.” I love that quote, not only because it gives shape to my own ministry, but because it reminds me so much of Jesus’ ministry. Do you remember how he started? He called some disciples, or, in other words, he formed a community. And then he started teaching them about the Kingdom of God, saying, “the Kingdom is like a mustard seed, a treasure, a pearl.” He did his best to inspire in them an alternative, liberated imagination. And then, through his own example, he showed them the courage and freedom to act—to preach the Gospel, to heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons—even to turn over tables in the Temple. He did it to bring in the Kingdom, because when he looked at the world around him he saw not only what was but what could be. He had a different vision, and a different perception, of reality.
That’s the kind of work he calls us to: not the anxious preservation of an earthly institution, but the fearless, faithful, joyful work of bringing heaven to earth. I think that’s why he spent his time forming a community with an alternative, liberated imagination that had the courage and freedom to act in a different vision and a different perception of reality. And that’s why, at the end of every staff meeting at Richmond’s First Baptist Church, we stand and join hands around the room and say the Lord’s prayer, but instead of saying, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” we say, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, in Richmond as it is in heaven.”
That’s our mission.