I was part of a conversation recently when someone said that a church had baptised five people soon after they’d worked through the Re:Imagine process. This clearly heightened the interest of everyone else in the room! Unfortunately, I felt as if I was the person with the pin, bursting the bubble of rising expectation, by explaining that to see such a dramatic impact is (so far) unusual.
Every one of us wants to see the church grow. Every one of us wants to see new and more people come to know the reality of Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. What we’re struggling with so often, is the fact that an increased emphasis on the former (growing the church) does not necessarily lead to the latter (people coming to faith in Jesus). So, what are we learning about churches engaging in the mission of God?
The clearest ‘headline’ observation from churches working through the Re:Imagine process is: If we look towards intentionally helping people towards faith in Jesus, it’s much more likely that people will find Him. You may, dear reader, like me think ‘now that is blatantly obvious’. However, as an individual, I know however much or little I want to acknowledge my part in the pathway towards someone else becoming a Christian, it matters.
It matters for the other person, but most crucially, it matters to God. (Check out the responses to the Talking Jesus survey). Alongside this reality I also know that ‘knowing’ this does not ensure I do anything about it. I can pray for my friends (unlike most Christians today, as a Baptist Regional Minister all my work-team colleagues are already Christian) and remain disengaged, but praying ‘how I can I be the answer to the prayers of those I encounter’ changes whether I actually do anything as a result. It opens my eyes to better see whoever God brings onto my path.
A recent little story might help illustrate our difficulty. I’d been speaking at a church during their normal Sunday morning gathering. After the service I was talking to a man who hadn’t been present but had simply turned up to meet his wife and family, so they could walk home together. To short-cut our conversation, I ended up saying: ‘it sounds to me like you’ve got a number of questions about Jesus and Christian faith, but you really are seeking to find Him. Would you like me to see if someone from the church here would pop round and spend some time with you and your wife, so you can ask your questions and they can help offer some answers?’ He was very positive about this idea, so I left him and went off to enlist a volunteer. How many did I find? Absolutely none. What I did, was return back to this couple and suggest I popped round to see them, as most people from the church there had gone home. This was true, but what I couldn’t tell them was that those who were around felt that they couldn’t get involved. I can say it ended well because I know this couple were later baptised, but…!
My point in high-lighting this experience is that I’m absolutely sure everyone wanted this couple to become Christians, but for varying reasons felt powerless to engage in what God was already clearly doing; drawing them towards himself.
I’m learning it’s unusual for a church to be able to say they’ve ‘learnt’ anything. Ministers tell me they ‘know’, but what do they ‘know’? There’s a world of difference between having an intellectual, theological understanding of how something works, and embodying the truth which changes how I engage others as a result, in the name of Jesus.
To then introduce what is an individual challenge for all of us into a church leadership team, brings a whole variety of other barriers into the situation. However, we are finding church leadership teams genuinely learning that what they decide to do and how they do it, really does make a difference. If I’m honest; most learn the hard way. Most of us don’t want to acknowledge that we must change our approach if we really want a different outcome.
Throughout Re:Imagine we encourage experiments and ongoing reflection on the outcomes. Telling a team, after they’ve devised their next experiment, that if you solely change what you advertise on your noticeboard where parents queue up to collect their children, that this is not very likely to result in someone becoming a Christian within the next six months, may be true. However, if you allow teams to experiment, by trying this and then help them reflect on what’s happened (or not!) as a result and they come to that conclusion themselves, then they have learnt something. Their next experiment looks very different, not simply because they’ve begun to focus on the desired outcomes of their actions, but they also recognise that what they do is hugely relevant.
Depending on where you’re coming from whilst reading this, ask yourself:
What is God saying to me about who I engage with and how I do that in Jesus’ name?
What needs have we identified in the people we’re already engaging with as a church, and how is this shaping the next steps we encourage them to take towards finding Jesus?
For key leaders…
How does what I do to nurture discipleship among my fellow church members, impact the opportunities I create and the steps I encourage them to take?