Lovett Weems, Distinguished Professor of Church Leadership and Director of the G. Douglass Lewis Center for Church Leadership
While no one thing is most needful for church renewal, one practice that could go a long way toward that goal is for churches to fall in love with their communities again.
The longer a church has been in existence, the less knowledgeable it is likely to be about its community and the less connected it becomes with that community. Although that sounds strange, it is rare that a long-existing church is more aware of the trends, demographics, and movements of its community than a new congregation in that same place.
How does this happen? In the early years, a congregation gives careful attention to the community, its people, and their needs. Otherwise, it does not survive. Then the congregation reaches a point of critical mass. Weeks or months go by without new members joining, and the congregation continues to stay alive. But there tends to be a shift in focus from reaching new disciples to caring for current members.
Many congregations then become worlds unto themselves, lacking active engagement with the changes in their surroundings. This movement from external sensitivity to internal focus occurs in virtually all organizations. Without a careful plan to stay close to the heartbeat of one’s surroundings, internal considerations dominate. Good leaders seek to link the internal life of the congregation and its external context.
During hard times especially, churches can forget their purpose and heritage. Forgetting our original mission can easily happen under the pressure to survive. Churches conduct a financial audit each year. What if your church conducted a mission audit once a year to assess its faithfulness to the Wesleyan tradition of serving others? You only need to ask one question in this audit. I first learned this question from United Methodist pastor Don Haynes:
If your church closed today, who would miss it other than your members?
Think about that question for a moment. Make a list of the people and groups in your community outside your membership who would miss your church. What would they miss? Repeat the exercise a year later. Is the list longer or shorter?
It is in answering such a question that we may discover clues about the current state of our church. We may come to see some of the reasons for our strength or weakness as a faithful community of fruitful disciples.
A lesson for leadership in the Wesleyan tradition is, “If you want to thrive, serve.” Despite shortcomings and limitations, the Wesleyan movement produced social reform and service of massive proportions. The spirit of revival sparked fires of change.
Albert Outler describes evangelism in the Wesleyan spirit as Wesley teaching his followers to be a “band of martyrs and servants,” emptying themselves as servants, giving themselves freely for others. For the early Methodist movement, there was a close connection between what happened in the pew and what happened in the jails. What happened in the class meetings connected directly with what happened in the homes of the widows and orphans.
The Wesleyan movement began not for itself but for others. Thriving and serving were indeed linked. The growth of the Wesleyan enterprise is directly related to its identification with the needs of all God’s children.
Is this happening today? Are people saying that because our church is in the community, there are no hungry people? Are people saying that because of our church’s presence in the community, there is no bigotry or discrimination? Are they saying because we are in the community, there is no one homeless? Such questions continue to be the test for heirs of the Wesleyan spirit.
This site is a resource for church renewal offered by United Theological Seminary.