My friend and colleague here in Orlando, Pr. Derek Hoven of Salem Lutheran Church, asks this question as he consults with other congregations that are in the midst of a leadership transition. Membership excluded, would anyone in your immediate neighborhood/town/world care if the whole thing just evaporated in a poof?
Sometimes the question strikes people as a little harsh. But, then, sometimes questions strike us as harsh when it is not actually the question but the answer we’re forced to give which is unpleasant.
When I was fresh out of seminary, I served a year at a small congregation that was world renowned (as they perceived it) for their pumpkin patch sale every October. Since, a big part of an interim job is to figure out if a congregation’s self-perception matches with reality, I would go around the neighborhood from time to time, as an admittedly unscientific experiment, and ask people how they felt about said church. Often standing just blocks from the building, sometimes within eyeshot, most people had no idea what I was talking about. To ease their bewilderment, I would follow up with “you know, the pumpkin patch church,” which would raise my success rate to maybe 50 percent, as the annual sale was pretty visible from the road.
In one memorable instance, I stopped a guy on the sidewalk right in front of the welcome sign, and making a point of putting one foot on the church’s own lawn for my own amusement, I asked, “Excuse me. Think you could give me directions to Such and Such Lutheran Church?” When the name had failed to make an impact, I went on to describe in great detail the building, then standing less than 75 feet behind me, even glancing at it once or twice for reference. A spark of recollection returned to him, and he directed me: “Oh yeah. I think that’s the one about three miles north of here, if you head up to this, hang a right at that…”
I share this not to shame those mostly loveable pumpkin peddlers, but clearly this congregation made up of 99% white, professional class people who typically drove over three to four miles from the wealthier suburb down the road to get to their church, which was located in a primarily Hispanic, working class neighborhood, were not leaving much of a social footprint on their surroundings.
A complementary trend I've noticed, as so much of the North American church fades into irrelevancy as a societal institution, is that good church folk are tempted to write off the importance of their society rather than their church—to say it’s the society's fault for not recognizing our importance because they’re either too me-focused, or too godless, or too shallow, or whatever to embrace the church. The next move then is for these church insiders to reframe potentially embarrassing statistics as virtues. A church in numerical decline is relabeled as being faithfully counter-cultural. A self-enclosed congregation is described as tight-knit. A church with virtually no benevolence dollars leaving their doors is said to “take care of their own.”
In many ways, the entire Castle Church vision is based on the idea that the Holy Spirit deserves better than a simple renaming of our failures—so long as Jesus actually intended his church to be a beachhead for the kingdom of God on earth rather than just a circled-wagon clan of people who promise to scratch each other’s backs all the time.
So rather than eulogize a reclusive mindset, we seek to make ourselves indispensable to the community around us, as many other more conventional churches have managed to do for centuries before us. We seek to build a church whose disappearance, everyone would notice. How?
- Make a name for ourselves as a place of spiritual renewal, a place that actually lives by its promise of grace for broken and imperfect people.
- Impact the community and world around us by dedicating net profits and all of our offering to causes outside our doors.
- Create a culture of radical authenticity, where people do not feel like they have to hide their clay feet or put on a veneer of having it all together in order to be present.
- Serve unforgettable beer.
You can help us create this as we begin to launch the first communion group in our permanent location. Fill out a contact form on our connect page to find out details.
Cheers and Peace,