WINGS: Getting your hands dirty and your heart broken

WINGS: Getting your hands dirty and your heart broken

I subscribe to several e-periodicals, but my schedule is so hectic that I seldom read them. I often move them to a file; when I have some down time, I go back to read them.

I recently read an article in "The Alban Weekly" by Daniel P. Smith and Mary K. Sellon titled, “The Messy Work of Renewal.” The authors write:

If you’ve ever remodeled a house while attempting to live in it, you have a sense of the chaos and complexity of congregational renewal. It will take far longer, cost you more, and prove messier than you ever imagined at the start. People who have worked with both church starts and church renewal will tell you that starting a church is easy compared to renewing one. The difficulty lies in the work itself. Pogo’s line holds true here: "We have met the enemy and he is us."

The church seeking renewal must look beyond simply improving its programs and its building, though both may ultimately be changed. Pastors and laity leading renewal in their declining congregations are asking people to make fundamental shifts in their perspectives, their attitudes, and their behaviors. The work demands a great deal from a people and a pastor.*

These words ring true. Any clergy or layperson who has participated in a church renewal will tell you that it is messy and hard work. It’s harder to shape concrete attitudes than it is to mold new converts, but this is what we must do if we take seriously the words of the New Testament. In the book of Matthew, Jesus says, “Go and make disciples.” Luke gives us these words: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord’s favor.” In the book of John we hear, “But these things are written so that you will believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, and that believing, you will have life in His name.” And in Mark, we are told, “Go into the whole world and proclaim the good news to every creature. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.”

Yes, this kind of difficult, gut-wrenching, self-denying, heartbreaking work will definitely get your hands dirty. All four gospel writers leave us with Jesus’ challenge to follow him. We are not to keep the good news to ourselves, but to share the news and the healing power of the Savior with the people of this world.

“We have met the enemy and he is us” – and it’s true. Pastors and congregations will have to change their way of thinking, and some of our best friends and loved ones will discover that they would rather remain in Egypt than to journey into the Promised Land. This will break our hearts and challenge our faith. We will have to mend many fences, say goodbye to people who worship “the way we have always done it,” and we will have to run the risks of being misunderstood. Our own preconceived notions about mission and ministry will be challenged.

Smith and Sellon offer three “fundamental tasks” to help us answer Jesus’ charge and begin a church renewal process:

  • Developing readiness: preparing the leaders to lead the congregation in a new direction
  • Surfacing a compelling congregational vision that will guide decision making
  • Developing and implementing strategies that move the congregation toward the envisioned future

There are no quick fixes or easy answers. But remember that Jesus said to us, “I am with you.”

*From “Pathway to Renewal:Practical Steps for Congregations,” Daniel P. Smith and Mary K. Sellon, © 2008 by the Alban Institute.