Congregational Impasse

It is no secret that our congregations are struggling to stay alive.  Sanctuaries that once had standing room only available because the pews were filled are now barely half full.  We are hanging on by threads as it gets harder and harder to keep our lights turned on and shining in our communities.

The church is literally dying off!  For each elderly member that we lose there isn’t a younger person joining us to fill the spot left vacant.  This means we are missing fellowship and community opportunities and mentorship.

Not to mention only a handful of the able-bodied members remaining are available to help with the work needed to provide worship and other things to our church families.  The demands of jobs and families leaves little spare time for those who might otherwise volunteer their time.  As a result the same few people can consistently be seen doing the organizing and facilitating of congregational events.

We lament over these losses and have come up with a variety of reasons as to why this is happening:

  • Economics – there are no longer sustainable, good paying jobs in our areas so our children are not staying here
  • Post Christendom – society is no longer centered around the church
  • Millennials – the younger generation doesn’t seem to have time for God, if they even know who he is
  • Sociological – the breaking down of the traditional family unit

Revitalization and outreach have become our buzz words and mantras.  We are determined that our particular congregation won’t become just a faded memory or another statistic.  Our solutions for fighting our declining numbers is to revitalize our efforts of outreach to the poor souls of our community just waiting to be saved.

For myself, when I joined our current church, I was busy caring for an elderly family member during services and was content to sit back and just take in the Sunday morning service.  Eventually our situation changed when the beloved gentleman passed away.  Couple the excitement of a new pastor who had fresh, great visions for where our congregation needed to go with a congregation that was supportive of me embracing my gifts from God and I was hooked.  Before long being part of something bigger than myself had me rushing to become involved in all that was happening at our church.

Once I was able to catch the vision for the ministries I was given to participate in, there was no stopping me from jumping in head first and giving these ministries everything I had in me, my heart and soul.  Growing a new ministry or two to help the church to hopefully grow was exciting, intense, and filled with some awesome fellowship and personal growth moments.  There is something intoxicating about knowing that you are fulfilling one of God’s purposes for your life and an eagerness to continue to give him the glory for all that is happening.  I was more than happy to do my part to help with outreach and congregational revitalization because I want to ensure our church will still be here for my son to worship in and be a part of down the road.

And for a moment it seems as if maybe, just maybe all the hard work is paying off.

Until you start to see those ministries rise and then slowly die and we as a congregation are no closer to sustainability than when we started.  Once the excitement of the new endeavor, be it a vacation bible school program, a more contemporary music blend for worship services, or any other number of ministries that can be introduced, it seems we as congregations lose our excitement over them and no longer volunteer or support those ministries.  We are looking for the next great ministry that will be our saving grace.

That is what I have been observing on my ministry walk.  I have been part of some very exciting movements of ministry in our congregation.  I have soared on the successes of them, and mourned over the failures.  Eventually people begin to shift to other roles or decide to not be part of something anymore because they want to give others a chance to be involved.  The biggest problem with this logic is that there isn’t anyone standing in line to become a part of these ministries to replace those that are no longer able to serve or those who need a break.  We are trying to produce the same quality of services week after week with fewer and fewer people to call on to help fill these roles.

The result of this, for me at least, is that often times I feel as if I have failed in my ministry endeavors.  Then I begin to question if I, as a former catholic girl, was too presumptuous in assuming that God had called me to be part of any ministry.  What business did I have trying to help minister to the children of God?  Rather than feeling joy and fulfillment from my various roles I am feeling increasingly more frustrated and defeated.

Then I was hit with a blinding flash of insight!

We, as congregations, are our own worst enemies.  We can blame all of our declining numbers on the factors above and lament over dwindling number of people in our pews each Sunday while feeling sorry for ourselves.  In reality what we need to start looking at is what is actually stalling our growth from the inside. Is it stubbornness or a fear of change by some or all of the members?  Are we working at cross purposes among ourselves because we don’t have a clear understanding of what our mission as a church body is? Have we identified weaknesses in our communication structures but are slow to find ways to correct the breakdowns?

There are many more internal issues that can also be holding us back.  Only after addressing our internal struggles can we start to look at how we can combat the external factors.

I have been learning another really hard lesson on my journey these past several months.  I cannot single-handedly fix what is breaking.  Nor is it up to me to make sure that things don’t fall apart.  Perhaps they are falling apart for a reason and what God helps us find in the ashes of these failed ministry efforts will be greater than anything we can currently envision.

According to the online Merriam Webster Dictionary the definition of the word impasse is:

impasse: a situation in which no progress seems possible

1 a: a PREDICAMENT AFFORDING no obvious escape

b: deadlock

Perhaps it is time for me to step back from the impasse that seems to be occurring in my congregation.  In my steadfast belief that we need to make permanent changes in the way we as a congregation see and do church, I don’t want to become the lone dissenting voice of negativity.  Maybe the time for my call to change has passed for the moment.  It is time to wait until we as a congregation are more coordinated with each other on what our directions for the future should be.

Eventually we are going to need to step out of our comfort zones.  Until then I will continue to pray for God’s guidance and strength to move forward and serve as he would have me serve.  Or move on if that is what he has in store for me.

Perhaps the congregation isn’t the only one that needs to step out of a comfort zone.

Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.            (Psalm 25:5, NRSV)

What I’ve Learned as a Worship Leader

Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! (Psalm 150:6, NRSV)

Recently our congregation had a small group meeting with the title Re-imaging Worship.  The purpose of this short Bible study was to find out more about what worship is.  Out of the discussions came the following conclusions from the gathered group of believers:

  • we worship God because he is awesome
  • God is worthy of praise
  • No matter what is going on in us or around us we are always capable of worship
  • we are made to worship – if we aren’t worshiping God, we are worshiping something else

What is this worship I speak of?  Webster’s Dictionary defines worship as the act of showing respect and love for a god especially by praying with other people who believe in the same god: the act of worshiping God or a god.  So anytime, anyplace you show love or respect for God or his creations I would say you are engaging in worship.  It doesn’t have to take place in a sanctuary, but most of the time when we think of worshipping we think of it in the corporal sense that takes place in our congregations on Sunday mornings.

For the past four years I have served as a worship leader in our small congregation.  I vividly remember the first Sunday that I filled this role.  It was a Sunday that did not have a piano player, so I had to lead songs from the front step, by myself, with no musical accompaniment.    This is fairly normal for a Mennonite church, a denomination with a rich history of a capella singing, but for a former catholic girl brought up singing hymns with an organ, let’s just say that I wasn’t necessarily comfortable with this prospect.  Since I had accepted the request to lead that Sunday, I decided to make the best of the situation, determined to do a nice job my first time out.  I consulted with the pastor about what songs would be good choices to pick for that Sunday, and he offered me suggestions of songs that he felt would be fairly familiar to our congregation.  Easy peasy right?  Not so much.  Turns out that the songs that our pastor felt would be old, familiar favorites weren’t all that familiar.  I learned the very powerful lesson that day as I stood up there on that step trying to lead songs I didn’t know to people who didn’t know them either that each and every congregation, regardless of denomination, had their own set of favorites.  So what was familiar to our pastor, who was new to our congregation, turned out to be an epic fail for me.  By the grace of God I hung in there until the last lines of the songs had been stumbled over.  Fortunately the congregation was incredibly supportive and good sports about the whole thing.

Thus started my walk as a worship and praise leader.   It was a humbling experience, but probably one of the best ways to begin.  It made me fearless when trying new things, because I couldn’t possibly fail any worse than I did the first Sunday.  Since then I have had some really great worship experiences as well as some that were just ok.  During this journey the twists and bends in the road have helped me to draw some conclusions about the nature of worship in congregations.  Conversations with worship leaders in other congregations seem to point in the same direction.  These conclusions may not apply to everyone, but I would say in general the overall congregation population struggles with one or all of these.   It is the humanity in us.  Fortunately for us with lots of prayer and trust, our father in heaven can help us through if we are dealing with any of these.

People have worship preferences.  Let me say that again.  People have worship preferences.  Fear of redundancy is the only reason why I am not making that statement a third time.  In fact, saying that people have strong worship preferences would be an understatement!  We all have ideas of what is acceptable forms of worship and what is not.  We criticise those who have practices that differ from ours.  At times we might even feel smug and superior to those whose worship we feel just doesn’t measure up.

People don’t like change.  Whether the piece of the service that is changing is something major, like changing from a traditional service to a contemporary service, or something minor, such as moving the place in the service where the offering is taken, changes are not welcomed in general.  Maybe this is because the thought of the awesomeness of a God above who was willing to sacrifice his son to redeem humanity can be over powering, possibly uncomfortable depending upon our guilt levels.  So doing what we have always done is more comfortable.  We cling to the familiar when showing our thanks and praising our gracious heavenly father.

People take the music used in worship very seriously, and it is totally personal.  It has been my experience that the method and music styles that were learned as children at church tends to be our preferred style of music for worshiping today.  Music comes in all shapes, sizes, and varieties.  Some incredibly rich in melodic accompaniment, others the simple harmonies found in a capella.  We hesitate to incorporate new types of music into our worship services for fear of using music that is not christian or is displeasing to God.  Psalm 98: 4-6 tells us Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises.  Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody.  With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord (NRSV).  Could it be possible that all musical endeavors that are used to bring praise and worship to God are pleasing to his ear?  After all, he gave us the gifts to create all of the endless musical options out there.

Regardless of the format or order of service, it is a great privilege and honor to be called by God and your congregation to serve as a worship leader.  You can actually feel the current of the Spirit moving through the sanctuary when true worship clicks on within the congregation.  Feeling that presence is incredible and awesome!

Surprisingly, being a worship leader has brought me more blessings than I ever would have imagined.  In leading others into worship, it has helped me worship deeper and more fully in ways I had never been able to worship before.  At times the task of leading can be overwhelming.  Some Sundays you feel overwhelmed by life and just don’t even know where to begin to even start to worship because you just don’t feel like it.  However, when I step into my place on the step in the sanctuary, all of my troubles disappear and I am transported to that place where true worship can occur.

For it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.” (Romans 14:11, NRSV)