Crisis? What Crisis?

“The old mergers were fueled by survival; the new mergers are driven by mission and vision.”

Christianity Today published an article last week titled, “The New Math of Mergers” where they described a shift in how church mergers are being seen. Thirty years ago they described how mergers were usually seen as a sign of failure—two or more churches that felt forced to join together to ward off a potential closure. “ICU mergers: the last stop before death” is how the article described them.

Today, MultiSite Solutions, an organization that works with congregations considering merging have said the narrative appears to be shifting. While some congregations still feel forced to consider merging in order to survive, they said a shared sense of mission and vision is driving the majority of today’s church mergers.

This naturally caught my eye. Partly because my role is as the Presbyter for Vision and Mission and anything that uses those two words together will get my attention. But more importantly I think this shift represents a real hope for our time. When mission and vision are the driving forces behind what we do just about anything is possible. It’s hard to get enthusiastic about initiatives for survival. We do them, but begrudgingly. Vision and mission, however, are the catalysts for energy and passion.

moneyWhen you think about it we Presbyterians in this beautiful Cascades region are blessed with an abundance of resources. We have nearly 14,000 members and own a hundred pieces of property and buildings. Our leaders and members are some of the most educated and engaged people of our communities. We have influence on community boards, in government, and with hundreds of non-profits.

Our issue is not that we don’t have resources; our issue is that we often allow ourselves to be burdened by a narrative around declining resources forgetting that we still have an abundance of resources!

glass half fullI believe our curse is that we have a memory of how it used to be. In the glass half empty/glass half full image we can’t help but see the glass as half empty since we still remember when it was full and overflowing!

But what if we erased the memory of what was and just focused on what is. What if we didn’t worry about whether we were declining or growing and just said, “These are the resources we have to work with for the mission of Jesus Christ in our world right now.”

I remember a beautiful moment nearly a decade ago when I was working with Eastminster in NE Portland. Eastminster had experienced what we now consider the normative decline of a mainline Protestant church. At one time, their small church was bursting at the seams with children. When I arrived they were still bemoaning the fact that they didn’t have children to fill the four spacious Sunday school classrooms.

Then one day it all changed.

eastminster garden
Part of the Eastminster legacy, a 100-plot community garden on vacant land

They shifted their narrative and instead of focusing on the lack of Sunday school children they focused on the presence of four empty classrooms. They asked the question, “How could we use the resources we DO have for the mission of Jesus Christ in our community?” Within ten months of asking that question, in partnership with non-profits, the city and the county, they opened up a winter family homeless shelter serving sixty people per night for the coldest six months of the year. When they quit focusing on what they didn’t have and started focusing on what they DID have mission and ministry took off like wildfire.

I think the experience at Eastminster fits what the consulting group, MultiSite Solutions, is discovering about church mergers. No longer are church mergers seen as a failure of ministry; increasingly they are being seen as the right strategy to deepen mission and ministry in the community.

empty crossI think the fear that often paralyzes us is that many of our churches are going to become increasingly empty. But maybe emptiness is more an opportunity than a crisis. Maybe emptiness is an asset rather than a deficit. “And Jesus emptied himself on the cross…”

I encourage you to ask two simple questions—no more, no less:

  • What is the mission that God is calling your congregation to in your community, and
  • What spiritual and physical assets do you have to carry out that mission?

Don’t worry about what you don’t have. Concentrate on what you DO have.

Let God do the rest.

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