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Friday, August 30, 2013

I Wonder Why We're Not Steadily Growing? Seven Questions.

Before I launch into this piece, I need to say a few things. First, we are grateful for every person who is a part of imagine/Northampton. Some of them have been a part us for a number of years. That's no small thing. It's not insignificant. Each person adds life to our lives. Second, I nor anyone on the team sees adding numbers as the essence of what it means to be a vital church. Growth is important for a variety of reasons, not the least of which, is to spread the redemptive Kingdom of Christ widely. But growth for it's own sake misses the mark. Third, we think churches don't have to be big or produce an ever increasing membership to be of use to God. In fact, ecclesial and spiritual depth anchor meaning which enhances growth so it's not shallow and ineffectual for God's purposes.

I also need to say for a church which so far tends to stay in the teens, Jesus has enabled us to have a tangible impact on people. We have made a difference, and we're desirous of making more of a difference. At times our small band of  imaginistas has been powerful. Growing numerically will not automatically increase that power or impact. Actually, there is reason to believe it can result in a spiritually somnolent equilibrium where being the church of us settles in imperceptibly. So the questions I'll ask -- and have been asking myself for a while -- are simply my sorting through what might be wrong which can be fixed, or what we're missing which can be found, or what God might be saying in the challenges we've wrestled with since being here.

I should also add by God's beneficence and gracious will we've made it in Northampton for 5 years. The previous church plant in town lasted 3 years.We've been in a struggle to stay the course for the entire time, but we're still here!

When anyone plants a church there's an underlying and plausible assumption that with fiercely resilient faith, heaping portions of God's will and grace, and long hours of persisting hard work, the church you planted will  grow eventually. Most everyone never assumes: "I'm going to move somewhere and plant a church of one! That's God's dream for me!!" Every church planter hopes deep-down not only it will grow and/or even replicate, but it will grow to be self-sustaining, and filled with spiritually vibrant people who love Jesus and therefore love others and they might come to know him.

I think it safe to say for the planting team came here with the same hope: God would begin to grow imagine/Northampton, and in a reasonable period of time it would have the people, gifts and resources to take root and grow steadily (both in depth and missional breadth). In our thinking, God would build a strong base and we'd've replicated by now. If our assumptions were correct we're behind schedule. If our assumptions were naive, we're either on schedule or behind. This is New England.

So below is a series of questions I've asked God, others, and myself about why we're not growing. They seem some pertinent questions to ask. Most people in what we've experienced would ask the same ones, I bet.

1. Why hasn't God grown us beyond a certain number?

This is the first and a very important question.We've always held that God grows the church as it is his pleasure and will . The Church is his idea; he sovereignly furthers its purposes in the world. He leads; we follow. So we have to start with him. If he doesn't build the house we labor in vain.

Currently there are 12 of us; we've had as many 24. We've had as many as 32 in our Sunday worship. Over the years, we've had visitors who come once or a few times. We've had a number students who check us out, and a handful have stayed until they graduate. One in fact was IV Staff at Smith and stayed for 3 years, including being on the Leadership Team.We've had folks stay for a time and then move away because of work. We've had people consider coming, but then change their minds. The most painful have been folks who stayed, but then would leave because of an issue they had with us, and we couldn't resolve it. I hate those.

So I wonder: maybe we just missed his will in actually coming up here at all. Maybe he never asked us to do this. We just thought he did. Yet, at the same time, as I noted above, he's brought people to imagine and blessed them, and they us. Others who've supported or believe in our mission have been inspired and encouraged by our efforts, directly or from afar. They've told me. Does that count as affirmation of God's will? Or, is the Lord keeping to testing and refining us through this struggle, seeing if we'll be faithful and stay the course even if it takes 10 years or we lose everything on the way? And I must remember, the history of the Church is dotted with people who labored for decades in planting and cultivating the church all over the world and never saw substantial fruits for their labors, even though they were substantial because of their faithfulness. Some felt as failures. It's possible to fail and still serve God's interests on our watch.

2. What if we're just not very good at this. Do we not have what it takes?

Another place to look would be whether we are equipped for this work from launching to planting to growing and sustaining a church. Maybe we don't have the gifts necessary to build the church. Perhaps we're lacking in a critical gift. But why wouldn't God supply it if he wanted us here? If we're really bad at it, how've we been able to be here for five years? I know we've helped folks heal, grow and mature while here. I know we have good teaching and opportunities for people to deepen their spiritual lives with Jesus and one another. I know we have helped people outside the church and stretched our experience well beyond what many of us have done before. So, we do have just some of the gifts and heart to serve Christ's interests in our neck of the woods?

I know we've made mistakes; some of them have caused pain. I know we've had to grow when faced with dilemmas or problems none of us have dealt with; which says a lot because Tricia and I have dealt with just about every darkness under the sun as counselors. I know there are things we'd have done differently if we had a chance to begin again -- hindsight can be very clear-eyed. That said, I cannot affirm that we just didn't, or don't have any of what it takes to do this. I know we need others who can fill in gift-gaps and enrich what we bring to Northampton as a church. But I'm not sure our lack of growing steadily is because we're really just lame at this. There's been good fruit borne of love. That's just true.

3. Did he have us come up here for something else?

Sometimes in the middle of the night as I'm awake and qvetching over how long we'll be able to make it, I'll think perhaps God did want us in Northampton, but for some other reason. Maybe it was just to put Christian counseling on Main Street. Or maybe we missed what he had because we were so focused on planting imagine/Northampton we never caught a glimpse of what he was signalling elsewhere. Were we supposed to be part of some other church in town? Therefore, we're not growing because we're supposed to be doing something else in Noho. I doubt this has much influence on our lack of steady growth. 

4. Did we get the timing wrong given the economy, etc.

This one seems more plausible. The right timing sometimes spells the difference between success or failure.  We also didn't realize how tough things would get in the overall economy. The pressure increased on our resources not very far into our adventure. Maybe God wanted us to take more time in Simsbury praying and preparing, perhaps even getting some training in the church planting enterprise. Maybe we should have raised more money or affiliated with a larger church that could help meet what we lacked. So if we weren't supposed to be here as early as we were were we just stubborn and disobedient? If we missed his timing, how did we miss it, or is that even very related to why we've not been growing? 

5. Are we just too weird?
Hmmm. I've often mused over our weird name which has, at times, confused people as to who and what we are. What kind of legitimate church has a name like that? And we don't meet in a church building. Our worship is different. We don't speak "church" very well. We don't have the programs, services, amenities or church culture most people associate with church, including non-Christians. We can't seem to keep a worship team together and we're musicians! We are followers of Jesus Christ, but our culture is not traditional beyond the fact we teach and counsel matters of the Christian spiritual and missional way. We get together to study the Scriptures, we pray, we care for each other, we help folks whether they are Christians or not, we worship, and share our resources with one another and people not part of our community. For us Sunday morning is not the central feature of our life together. It's important, but not the anchor of our life as a community.

But is that why we are not steadily growing? I know a large percentage of the Christian folks who've visited us don't stick - young and old. They must be looking for something more familiar and different from what we are. I don't know for sure. I do know we're warm, inviting, hospitable people to anyone who crosses our threshold. And we have a door open onto Main Street. We don't ignore folks who come through that door whether its to worship, counsel, come to the art gallery or some other event we're having.

6. Is it we are not building relationships with folks who have no church history?

When I wrestle with why we're not growing my mind often goes to the fact we as a people are still not being very successful at building transformational relationships with folks which lead to spiritual engagement, exploration of the merits of the Gospel, and new life emerging from them. In other words, while we as leaders have been a sometimes broken record (never demanding or legalistic about it, though), about living the missional way in the world so others might come to know Christians who are accessible and loving -- not that we are the only ones working at that in the Pioneer Valley. I think it's a scary thing to do, especially if you've experienced it done very poorly, or have had pressure to perform to prove you are the real deal. Still, our dream has been to love and serve people so much they want to join us in loving and following Jesus in this place. I don't think that's feckless spiritual romanticism. I think it's not creatively persevered by most Christians I've known, with me being the chief of sinners in that regard. I'm lousy at it, BUT something is happening in me that's working to breakthrough.

I have this belief if we step out and love fearlessly, creatively and persistently we'd certainly "grease the skids" and God will open blind eyes and turn hearts toward him. I know it takes much time in New England. There are no simple formulas or sure bets. I just have this "hunch."

7. My last question is a simple one. What if we're going to remain a small band of Jesus-followers who have an impact that doesn't result in imagine/Northampton growing beyond a handful. What if God says, "You have more power and potential than you can imagine; you just don't access or venture forth from it." What if our life together is meant to be compact and different, but still powerful to change lives. I know it's happened in the lives of folks who've walked with us. For most, they are imagine folk because God touched them and they wanted to be a part of what he is doing in and through us. They feel at home, connected. Maybe the growth he wants is measured in spiritual depth full of love, grace, freedom, wisdom, hope, joy and peace. Maybe the struggles we have to keep the doors open are to keep us humble, riveted to him and grateful for every blessing he sends our way. A question he always asks me when I'm "under it" for whatever the reason is: "Will you love anyway?" I bet he also wants to know from me: "Will you trust anyway?"

So growing or not growing maybe a wrong focus. Maybe the right question is: Will I love and trust him every day by showing up, doing what he leads me to do, and then leave the rest of the questions for prayer until he shows me.

I'm not sure why we're not growing or if the questions I've asked are the right ones. But if I don't ask at all, I'm not being responsible, and that's not good enough.

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