Engaging the Future as Leaders and Congregations

by Grady D. King, D.Min

Most leaders and congregations know the term “normal” means the future will not be like the past. What it looks like in terms of people in the pew, programs, and mission is uncertain. The loss of regular attendees is a pandemic reality. Empty pews translate to anxiety. If we only talk about and yearn for the past, our future is already determined.

Some Ways Forward

Self-Awareness:  How we understand and cope with our own anxiety matters. Don’t misunderstand, anxiety is part of being human; it means we are alive. Yet chronic anxiety is debilitating and strangles our capacity to imagine and engage the future with hope. Chronic anxiety dissipates our energies and imagination for thoughtful ministry.

  • Take inventory of your own anxieties and how they are held in check and/or dictating your responses and decisions.  Ask those who know and care about you: What concerns you about me as a leader?” “What do I need to know that I am not seeing?”
  • Give yourself to spiritual formation habits.  Some of these include stillness, dwelling in the Word, and confession, individually and in groups. Also, praying the Psalms, journaling, and even deliberate breathing and meditation is formative.

Bigger Gospel: Do you know the gospel of Jesus Christ? The gospel is a way of life for the redemption of all things, now and for the future (Col 1.20).  Paring the gospel down to a plan of salvation focused only on forgiveness of sins to get to heaven is not big enough to transform lives now. It’s time to re-engage the gospel on its own terms.

  • Open your Bible. Consider the gospel Jesus proclaimed and embodied (Mk 1.14f).  What? Who? When? Where? Why? Then, factor in those big words for salvation by Paul and Peter (justification/righteousness, redemption, reconciliation, sanctification, etc.). All of which have loved God and neighbor implications. Followers of Jesus Christ are compelled to articulate their own life story and how the gospel intersects all of life.
    Most congregations are trying to do way too much to be effective. Church is community, not an event happening only on a Sunday morning.

Simplify Church: Granted, simple does not mean easy. Most congregations are trying to do way too much to be effective. Church is community, not an event happening only on a Sunday morning. The church gathered for Sunday worship matters, yet it cannot carry the fullness of connecting people for sharing life.  Intentional small groups with equipped leaders are indispensable to going forward.

  • Make a list of every activity and ministry and then explore these questions. What is essential for being God’s people? What are two-three things we will focus on for spiritual health and growth in the next year?  How are people connecting in our congregation for sharing life and faith? How many groups/activities are externally focused? What do we need to say “Yes” and “No” to?  What price are we willing to pay?
  • Measure Engagement: We measure what is important to us. More than attendance, contribution, and baptisms, there is the need to consider engagement: in discipleship, intentional spiritual growth, meaningful connection, and ministry for the sake of others. People need simple structure and clear expectations.

Shepherding: Many elders can identify with Jesus— “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd”(Matt 9.36). This is an apt description of the church emerging from the pandemic cave. Not all sheep need the same attention; some sheep don’t want to be shepherded. And not all shepherds are equal in their desire and capacity to shepherd. Regardless, shepherding is part of an elder’s responsibility (1 Peter 5.1f). Elders, however, are overwhelmed by the need to shepherd.  The congregation can and should assist in shepherding (1 Thess 5. 12-21).

  • Explore what it means to shepherd (pastor). The essence of pastoring is the feeding and care of people. It is not reactive, rather proactive in the traffic patterns of life. This is challenging in that elders have jobs, families, and demands too. This is why elders and spouses pastor (shepherd).  Many an elder’s spouse has provided needed perspective and counsel.  Because of the complexities, diversity, and cultural angst in congregations, the need for elders and mature people to assist in shepherding is great.
  • Consider identifying other mature people in the congregation who can assist you as an elder couple in shepherding. Two other couples with each elder can magnify the shepherding presence, cultivate a shepherding culture and equip for the future. Managing congregational morale is done in the trenches with people. It’s hard work. Inviting mature people to be your eyes and ears in prayer and care can help.
  • Increase your capacity to listen, bless and empower others for emotional maturity and growth. In short, be calm in crisis, state your position kindly and stay connected as much as possible.

Phygital: A word combining two words: physical and digital. Churches scrambled quickly to adapt to some kind of online worship, groups, and studies during the pandemic. The digital world is here to stay. Think both/and, not either/or going forward   Yes, for those who did the work it was exhausting but a viable future for congregations is to do both in person and digital worship/engagement.

  • Invest in doing online worship well while creating connections with online worshippers and seekers. The key is having a ministry team to engage people online relationally. This is an opportunity to serve for a team of people who are gifted at technology and creative in social media presentation. Yes, the goal is gospel connection and community. People fall along a continuum of engagement when it comes to church for a variety of reasons. Take people where they are without judgment.  Imagining a bridge from online to physical community is helpful.  It’s the Issachar Factor: “understanding the times and knowing what to do” (1 Chron 12.32).  The “nothing in particular” religious people are most likely to engage more so than “the nones.” (See The NONES: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going, Ryan P. Burge, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2021.

We can move forward in faith, trusting God and holding to Christ. Being faithful is about living God’s mission. In the end, going forward is not about having a mission, rather, does God’s mission have us?

His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness (2 Peter 1.3).


Cultivating a Gospel Formed Congregation in a Divisive Culture

The pandemic revealed the good, bad and ugly in our culture and congregations. Political, social and cultural divides are deep and wide. Issues regarding race, gender and LGBTQ are not going away. It is trying to even have civil conversations anymore.  But converse we must. As good news people how can we be an alternative to the divisiveness, yet disagree, hold to Christ and seek biblical understanding and truth.

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