strategically growing smaller

i am diligently seeking direction from the lord.  i feel deeply that he is doing something new in the american church, and i desperately want to be a part.  that being said, i am pretty sure that my future ministry will will look almost nothing like anything i have ever done in the past.  i am convinced that the church needs to grow smaller.

i have worked very hard to grow my church fellowship numerically, but the weekly meeting that i lead is no bigger than it was five years ago (in fact, it is smaller).  i am finding, though, that our kingdom influence seems to be expanding exponentially through some rather unconventional (and that is a generous description) ministry platforms.  some of the unexpected benefits of un-success (leveraged decline?  calculated contraction?  shrinkage?) include a sense of fulfillment among the people (non church staff) that are doing ministry, a higher profile in our community, and meaningful relationships with unchurched and de-churched people.

i cannot help but wonder: is god speaking to other church leaders about a paradigm shift away from “always bigger and bigger” toward strategically growing smaller?  or am i just making excuses?

allow me to share a thought-provoking article along these lines.  david fitch cites “three myths about preaching today” that fit precisely into the theme of this blog.

As I have traveled these past few years, I’ve heard the repetitive refrain from despondent pastors: “I always thought that if I preached a good sermon the church would grow.” I heard it again last week so I thought I’d comment on it along with two other beliefs about preaching. Here are 3 dying myths (IMO) of Christendom about Preaching.

MYTH 1: If You Preach a Good Sermon the Church Will Grow

Many a despondent preacher has discovered that this notion is no longer true. It has become a dying myth in post-Christendom. Nevertheless, it gets reinforced by mega churches who leverage (by video screens, etc.) one or two gifted teachers to build crowds coming to consume a good sermon. These examples are largely drawing on the leftovers of Christendom—people still looking for “good teaching” that is portable and user friendly to somehow improve their Christian lives. I take no offense in ministering to those of us who are still part of Christendom, we need to be fed and nurtured too! I just want all pastors who aim their ministries in this direction to realize the pie is getting smaller and the competition hotter. Anyone still holding onto the premise—if I just preach a good sermon, they will come—and ministering in a post-Christendom context, must either compete or be grossly disappointed with the continued dwindling of his/her congregation.

Having said all this, the “great halls” (stadiums) of preaching distribution will not connect to the lost souls of post-Christendom. Post-Christian people are not attracted to the sermon as the first place to go in their spiritual distress. We must help leaders understand that if you spend 35-40 hours a week in your office preparing a good sermon on Sunday, making it not only theologically competent (which is worthy) but slick, you are ministering to the dying vestiges of Christendom.

MYTH 2: Who You Preach To is Who You Will Reach

I have heard it said repeatedly “who you preach to is who will come.” This has worked within Christendom for centuries.  Today, in post-Christendom, it has become another dying myth that IMO should be dispelled. It says that if you preach to unbelievers in your service your members will start inviting their unbelieving friends to hear what you’re saying. But if you don’t preach to unbelievers you’ll have a worship service full of believers. But again this feeds on the impulses of Christendom—that the way to bring non-believers into the Kingdom is through inviting them to hear a good sermon. This does not make sense to those who can think of nothing more irrelevant and disenchanting than going to listen to someone “preach at me” (often their perception).

MYTH 3: The Goal of Preaching is to Make the Bible Relevant

We pastors, who are at the end of our wits in the fields of post-Christendom, will often try to make our preaching more relevant. Caught between the winds of the Neo-Reformed who argue “we just need to preach the truth and they will come,” and the mega church gurus who argue that “we need to make the Bible relevant,” we make a last ditch effort to do the latter (because we’ve already tried the former). Sadly however, this is a Christendom attitude that attempts to pull in the Christendom leftovers with a more updated gospel ready made to fit their already Christianized lives. As more and more churches try to “out relevant” one another and the leftovers of Christendom become anesthetized to relevancy, “making the Bible more relevant” is revealed as yet another dying myth in post-Christendom.

The Kind of Preaching We Desperately Need

The task of preaching is to proclaim truth. It is the moment that brings the truth into the present. Much like anamnesis in the Lord’s Supper is much more than intellectual recall of the Lord’s death and resurrection, so preaching is more than recalling and teaching information from the past about God. Preaching is a speech-act. It is the proclaiming of the truth out of Scripture over us so as to bring the truth into being by the Spirit. Preaching is a truth making event—not in the sense that the truth is invented here, but that the Spirit, through the gifts, brings it into reality. (I’ll have to defend myself against the accusation that I’m a Bultmannian sometime). Much like Jesus said in Luke chapter 4:21 – “today this Scripture has been fulfilled in its hearing,” proclamation is a speaking forth of an interpretation (from Scripture) of our lives in terms of who God is, the gospel and what he is doing to bring it about in our lives and thru us into the world. If anything then, far from trying to make the Scriptures relevant, the goal of preaching is to make everything else irrelevant. It is the re-narrating of ourselves corporately into God.

The bottom line is once we preach for formation, where God’s truth is birthed in and among us, we become shaped for his mission in the world. We can see things we didn’t see before. We act out of assumptions we didn’t have before. We imagine what God is doing in ways not possible before. And a little congregation becomes a powder-keg for mission and the harvesting of fields ready for the gospel.

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