Since they only plan to wade into the shallow end of the pool, or a few feet into the river, lake or ocean, the typical congregational participant only needs to remove their shoes and socks. And we are not talking about feet washing here.
They have no plans to change into a swimsuit and get fully immersed in water, to swim in the deep end above their heads, or to allow the currents or the ocean’s undertow to challenge them. And we are not talking about baptism here.
Shallow congregations, like people who only wade into shallow water, only plan to lead people connected with them into a Christian lifestyle that gives them just enough Jesus to get their feet wet. That is not enough to call for a full commitment to a Christ-like lifestyle, and an ever deeper journey into a Christian community characterized by significant discipleship and mutual accountability.
A previous post spoke to the shallow and private nature of many Christians–That’s Between Me and God [And God Ain’t Talkin’]. That post suggested congregations often lack a commitment to open sharing, personal accountability, and meaningful community. Such a posture leads to an overall shallow congregation.
Who Are These Shallow Congregations?
No congregation plans to be shallow. Or, do they? Unfortunately some do plan to be shallow. They were established as a church in their community to which people in their Protestant tradition could go, worship God, and provide some reasonably good role models for their children. For them the phrase “good enough is good enough” applied not only to the quality of their programs, ministries, and activities, but also to the depth of their personal and congregational discipleship.
Other congregations started out with an intentional desire to be a deeply spiritual fellowship. Over the years several things happened. First, they lost that vision. Second, a crisis or unwise decisions refocused their energies around organizational and institutional issues rather than disciplemaking and missional issues. Third, they compromised their cutting edge nature supposedly to help the church sustain its numerical size and not exclude anyone.
People who did not have a deep disciplemaking commitment became their friends or were their family members, and the church relaxed some of their high commitment principles. Eventually they moved to a place where they did not want to offend anyone so they allowed silt to fill in their once deeper waters. Ultimately they developed a theological rationale that this is where they should have been anyway.
Many congregations are unaware they are shallow. They were founded as a cultural congregation in the Christian tradition with an overly churched mindset. They learned culture first, and Christ later. Cultural and family were at their core. Christ was at the outer edge.
Pastors, staff ministers, and a core of committed laypersons often toil for years seeking to help congregational participants with spiritual formation. But people still have the same attitudes and perspectives like they had never been through thousands of hours of sermons, teaching, small group sharing, and personal sharing. The idea of changing their attitude and life actions to be more like Jesus is an unknown concept to many congregational participants.
Creating the Anti-Shallow Congregation
Ouch! I do not like this negative sub-title. Yet, I must admit the long-term tendency of many congregations is to become shallow. Therefore, in addition to going deeper spiritually, it may also be necessary to work against becoming shallow. Thus, intentionally function as an anti-shallow congregation. How do you do this?
The best way to do this is to start a new congregation with a set of non-negotiable core values that focus on being invitational, discipleship and spiritual formation focused, and unashamedly missional in ministry engagement. Creating a new culture that is deeply Christ-centered stands the best chance of creating and sustaining an anti-shallow congregation. My informed guess is that this will be successful one out of two times.
A second way is to radically reset your existing congregation. Reset to become a new inviting culture of spiritual formation and missional engagement with a new eternal mission, everlasting purpose, enduring core values, and empowering vision. Then covenant with one another around living into these. Do this within four to six months from the time you start. You will probably lose the people who do not want to make this commitment. My informed guess is that this will be successful one out of five times.
The way many congregations who decide to become an anti-shallow congregation are likely to move forward is incremental transition and change. This takes three to five years to achieve, and five to seven years before we will know if it is sustainable. It involves the same actions as reset, but incrementally engaging rather than radically and quickly moving in that direction. My informed guess is that this will only be successful one out of ten times.
How deep is the water into which you are willing wade? Will you make the full plunge? How about your congregation?