Before congregations return to default assumptions about their future, it would be good to answer this important question: How else could the church move forward? In this entry, some answers that might apply to any congregation.
What’s most basic for a congregation that’s emerging from the confines of COVID? Ministry that equips members for their work in the world. Intimate knowledge of members’ lives. Fellowship in all its forms. Transcendent worship and prayer. Decision-making processes based on members’ initiatives. Pastoral presence that comforts and teaches, counsels and challenges—that proclaims grace by example. Willingness to let go of programs and practices that aren’t possible anymore.
This re-purposing doesn’t have to be difficult. The change I’m describing is just a shift in attention—admiring and cherishing members’ daily callings as the most effective and efficient way to accomplish God’s will for the world.
The idea of “equipping the saints” has been with us since Paul described that role for church leaders. (See Ephesians 4:11-12.) Over the centuries, though, this most-basic purpose has often taken a back seat to other priorities. In some places, the daily life ministries of God’s people have been set aside so that members’ time/talents/treasures could instead be focused primarily on the congregations’ mission. Probably not what Paul had in mind.
Every congregation can measure its mission by how well its members are able to carry out their unique roles in their spheres of influence and power. How members are motivated and skillful at witnessing, loving, changing society, restoring hope, combatting injustice. How the activities and functions of a congregation add tangibly to those capabilities. How pastors keep their focus on members’ ministries outside of the congregation. How congregating with other followers of Christ helps all this happen.
Congregations that make “equipping the saints” their core identity still require the leadership of clergy, still depend on gathering together in worship, still know each other well, still find reasons for hope and still retain their centrality in members’ lives.
And the Reformation still keeps going!