In our Lilly-funded Project Thrive endeavors, we have outlined seven key traits of thriving churches. It comes as no surprise that one of those is “missional focus,” meaning the ability to keep the congregation focused on its highest priorities.
It also comes as no surprise that the vast majority of churches we engage with have grown fuzzy in their focus on their mission and have drifted from their core reason for being. For many, clarity about why they exist has been lost in the busy-ness of what they do and how they do it. One of the first steps in regaining energy, passion and forward movement is to help them reconnect with and focus on their core mission.
Churches are prone to wander because we Christ-followers are prone to wander. Don’t you feel it? The burgeoning distractions of the day combined with our shorter and shorter attention spans create churches that dabble in their faith journey rather than genuinely embark upon it.
Much of our church conversations and many of our church activities have little to do with the mandate that Jesus gave his followers and that they drew up as a blueprint for the church in Acts 2.
My recent engagements with churches have me very nervous about where our people are getting their ideas about our reason for being. It’s as though we’ve traded our copy of Acts for the platform of a political party, or wacky theologians or the rantings of an online conspiracy website.
Clarity of mission is our friend, and the sooner we focus our full attention on this question of why we exist, the better. That kind of focus requires mindfulness. Mindfulness implies intentionality and purpose of intent. It means slowing down and taking in our surroundings. It means dropping our air of superiority and haughtiness. It means pulling back, pondering and discerning. It means asking honest and hard questions about what we are doing and why we are doing those things. It means being open to the possibility of change and adaptation.
“It’s as though we’ve traded our copy of Acts for the platform of a political party, or wacky theologians or the rantings of an online conspiracy website.”
Mindfulness, in so many aspects of our life, is contrary to our cultural drive toward mindless repetition, performance and self-absorption. Everything about our life pushes us away from mindfulness. And yet, if we fail to seek clarity around our missional calling, we run the risk of simply traveling through life and missing the opportunity to be transformed by living life as Jesus intended.
Our son, Ryan, preached a sermon a few months ago about the Transfiguration. In it, he quoted Rick Steves, the travel author, about what Steves calls the spiritual act of travel. While not a theologian, Steves outlined his hierarchy of travelers.
At the first level is the “tourist,” who regards all travel as a form of consumption, always looking for the best “Instagram spots.” These are the vacation-goers Steves wants most to reform, lifting them at least to the second tier of “traveler,” people willing to become “cultural chameleons” who immerse themselves in other places and ways of life.
The most heightened experience, however, lies in the third category, he said: the “pilgrim,” who seeks to find God through travel and discovers inner personal truths along the way. If tourism is about consumption and traveling about immersion, then pilgrimage, according to Steves, is about transformation.
Ryan went on to quote Diana Butler Bass from her book Christianity for the Rest of Us, in which she invites her readers to move from being tourists in life to being pilgrims. “Being a tourist means experiencing something new; being a pilgrim means becoming someone new. Pilgrimages go somewhere — to a transformed life.”
“If tourism is about consumption and traveling about immersion, then pilgrimage, according to Steves, is about transformation.”
Thriving churches are realizing that racing back to their pre-COVID approaches to ministry is a wasted opportunity to gain some essential clarity about purpose. Instead of operating like a tourist or a traveler who skims the surface of what a congregation could be, what if we looked upon this next chapter of our life together as an opportunity to take a pilgrimage? Could we take a more mindful approach to who we are, why we are here, how we got here, and where we are going?
It will mean being much more thoughtful and deliberate about everything. Many churches are awakening to the fact that the landscape of congregational culture has changed before our eyes. Many who were marginal will not be back. Many of our regulars will be showing up much less frequently. Some who never connected in person are waiting online to see if we have anything to offer them other than being a spectator at our worship service.
“Church on demand” is our new reality, whether we like it or not. We face a nation less and less interested in institutional religion, while still being curious about Jesus. Political loyalty seems to drive our thinking more than the priorities of Jesus.
This new landscape is begging for us to begin a pilgrimage. We are facing a world that is unfamiliar to us. We can race through it, dabble in it, or seek to immerse ourselves in it and learn from it, while maintaining our unique perspective on it. I firmly believe the Holy Spirit is looking for those who want to join in that holy endeavor and become salt and light to a bland and blind world. I hope you will set off on your pilgrimage soon.
Moving churches from risk management to risk-taking | Opinion by Bill Wilson
12 trends for being church in a post-pandemic world | Opinion by Barry Howard