Missional Church: To Those Who Love Church Too Much to Let It Stay the Same

Longing for church to be something more

Published

Dear Cathy, 

Thank you so much for asking me to have coffee with you the other day. 

You are loyal and loving.

I know you love our congregation so deeply, and even just speaking personally, you make my kids and family feel loved and cared for in church. I thank God for you. You are one of those people who have deep relationships through church, and those friendships have carried you during personal crises, as you in turn carry others. You volunteer together, do Bible study together, and travel together. I know you are genuine when you say the church is like a family for those in your group and generation. 

I also know there’s grief and not a small degree of bewilderment that the church does not serve the same role for your children or grandchildren. I want you to hear it from me: questioning why and how we got here doesn’t make you disloyal or unloving toward the church. There’s a complex combination of factors and plenty of responsibility to go around. We can walk through some cultural changes, and a framework that explains some of it. But first of all, please know that churches as institutions can change, without the Church that is Jesus’ Body in the world diminishing one bit. Asking how we can do better is part of being faithful.  

The Holy Spirit is at work.

We need to pay closer attention to how God is forming community and meeting people where they are now, so we can join that movement instead of lamenting that the institution of the church is not at the center of it. I mentioned when we met, one example of a ministry that makes prayer bears for supporting what can already be moments of genuine holy connection between young children and parents at bedtime, as opposed to complaining that people do not wrestle their young families into church at 9 am every Sunday. I believe the Holy Spirit is working on us. It takes quite a wake-up call for people who love church the way it has been for a long time to embrace or initiate change, but noticing how few of loyal, loving church people’s own adult children participate in church regularly is motivating. 

I heard the longing in your voice, Cathy, and it wasn’t just nostalgic longing for “the way things were.” You are longing for something more out of your beloved church: transformative encounters with God. I feel pretty confident that such a longing is the Holy Spirit leading you. 

Missio Dei: the mission of God

I experience the Holy Spirit in surprises and unpredictable connections or lining up of resources that should not have found their way to exactly where they were needed, but they did. When people interpret words or events through a lens of generosity or default of love—for the sake of being like Jesus—and forge a connection, I recognize God at work. One of the reasons I love preaching is because I can experience the Holy Spirit both while preparing for and during the act of preaching. Then the Holy Spirit works again through what people hear (even sometimes when I think the message went poorly) I wish that more people would experience that, by reflecting on, then telling Jesus stories.

Our faith is always for the sake of others. Yes, we are changed by the unconditional love of God, but we are changed so that we can share God’s love with others! If we take it in, but do not pour it out in all areas of our lives, we are not living as missional, disciple-making little Christs (that’s what Christian means) in the world. Faithfulness means an orientation outward, not just in service projects, but in actually making disciples, deeply rooted followers of Jesus who experience God’s love in transformative ways. 

You are not alone in feeling these things, but it can feel like it.

None of us like church conflict. Some of the people (who are still there) are getting exactly what they want out of church by avoiding questions and keeping things exactly as they have been. They don’t want the “out of control” experience of listening to God, or experimenting with different ways of doing their beloved things to see who might actually connect with God if we did. But there’s an indication that something is wrong, and we need to heed the message. Negatives tell us things. The performative model of church is not spreading the Gospel. It’s not transforming people’s lives or actually making disciples. 

We do great things together. We feed people. We protest gun violence. Yet so much more of our time we are not together with members of the congregation and if we were transformed in our minds and our hearts because of a real connection with God—if we knew how to listen for the Holy Spirit and recognize her moving among us and if we regularly asked God and truly listened for direction—we would behave differently in every aspect of our lives. Not just when we get together with church people. Discipleship is not about going to church, but about Christ-centered living everywhere else. It’s about living missional lives. In fact, getting people to come to the church would no longer be our focus, but instead we would be committed to supporting the holy places and spaces in people’s lives now. And making every place we go into places for potential holy encounters with God.

Find your people.

There may be only a few people in our congregation that will acknowledge these things right now, or who yearn, like you, for encounters with the Holy Spirit, or a faith that forms us as disciples for sharing the Gospel outside of the church walls. But what if every congregation has one or two people like you? What if you could learn alongside and connect with those who feel isolated in their own congregations and even connect online (check out the Faith+Lead Learning Lab), wherever they are in the world? 

Then with the confidence that you are not alone, what if we start some small practices, and invite others to experience them, for first-hand encounters with listening for the Holy Spirit. We could invite the families with kids who you were concerned about, or honestly, anybody who is willing to go deeper. We could try things and report back to each other on: 

I trust that once we start listening and intentionally interpreting where God is moving among us, we’ll know better what to do next. It’s different from brainstorming. To listen for God is more vulnerable, I think. But you seem like you’re ready, and so am I. We are enough to begin joining in what God is already doing outside of our church.

Interested in learning more about Missional Church? Interested in gaining clarity on the church’s unique calling, exploring what it means that we are a people sent by God, and developing a personalized plan to lead your church and community towards an approach that focuses outwards instead of inward? Check out the Faith+Lead Academy course, Missio Dei: The Church Sent.

  • Lee Ann Pomrenke

    Lee Ann M. Pomrenke is an ELCA pastor and digital content editor for The Faith+Leader. Rev. Pomrenke is the author of Embodied: Clergy Women and the Solidarity of a Mothering God (Church Publishing, Inc, 2020). She also blogs at leeannpomrenke.com.

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