I have four boys living in my house and nothing is more tedious and annoying to listen to than when they start to copy each other. I know it’s part of regular development and that younger ones learn from older ones, but man can it grate the nerves to listen to and witness. I so desperately want them to discover who they are, to take pleasure in their own voices, and uniqueness. I pray they unfold like butterflies with a beauty all their own. So I suffer as they copy and conform and I hope and trust they will ultimately find their own voices and paths.
This past weekend I was pleased to hear about the art of visioning as it takes place at Tenth Church in Vancouver. The pastor, Ken Shigematsu, was presenting at our synod meeting and focused on the work of the Holy Spirit within the vision process of our congregations. What I most appreciated was his exhortation to not copy other churches. He hammered home to us that he and his staff haven’t followed the path of any other church but have sought to use the gifts God has given them and to boldly follow where he leads them. Next week I will write 5 reasons why we should copy the church down the street, but this week let’s talk about 5 reasons not to.
1) The Church down the street already exists and is thus already serving the people who need it. Let’s assume for a moment that a big part of why we look at other churches is their ability to attract newcomers (whether we are concerned about this for the survival of our congregation or the well-being of lost souls is beside the point, at least for now). The successful church down the road is already offering its own particular flavor to the “Bic C” Church in your region. That is to say that for a certain type of lost soul or potential church-goer that option is already visibly available. Copying or duplicating it is what Tim Horton’s or Starbucks would do, to make money. But if we are to serve God and be His church then we must aim for more than that. This will require that we add to the options available to those who are seeking. We need to find out who God has waiting for us, who He has called us to reach in our own way.
2) You couldn’t do what they are doing as well as they are anyways. This one stems out of the first point. Suppose you thought you really were called to do what that other church is doing; you would never be more than that church-lite? How many sequels are as good as the originals? It happens but it’s rare and do we really think we have that in us? We aren’t that church; we aren’t built that way as a people. They can do what they are doing because it’s in their DNA to do so. God has equipped them for it, not us.
3) God has equipped your church with its own special gifts. This may be hard to believe at times, like when you get back from the weekend and have another 50 e-mails to catch up on, but your church is equipped for something. Trying to copy another church means figuring out what they are equipped to do and how they do it. This will lead us to complain about all the tools they have that we don’t, the opportunities they have that we lack, and to generally put them on a pedestal and us in a valley and then we will try to rally to climb a big hill God never intended for us to climb. It’s much more logical to sort out what we are equipped for because we have a better view and what we discover will give us opportunity for immediate action, often the path forward will be obvious because it will entail excitement and a sense of calling, rather than desperation and heavily burdened shoulders. Start looking at/for your strengths. If you listen to the narratives of the “Big Churches” they mostly start small, recognize the spirit talking to them, discern a particular gifting, and focus on that.
4) God called your church into being for His reason. The church, and our congregations in particular, don’t exist because we want them to or because we think they are a good idea. They exist because God has a plan for them and then entire world. Yes, God most certainly planted the big church down the street, and yes, He does have a plan for them (no need to be so skeptical about them or hold their success against them). And yes, you might wish you had been called there and yes, you wish God was calling you and had such an obvious purpose for you and your church. Here’s the rub: HE DOES. It always looks greener on the other side doesn’t it? The key difference is likely the ability to listen for God’s unique calling and purpose combined with the boldness to go after whatever he shows you. Going your own way is always fraught with danger, but it’s okay because God knows the path forward and recognizes obedience when He sees it. We know God has called you to your congregation as a leader or member, we know God has a purpose for your exact church, your exact group of people, in your exact location, are we courageous and adventurous enough to live in to what God has for us?
5) You’re doing better than you think you are. Seriously you are. Being a people hearing the word and practicing the sacraments is a big deal in a world opposed to faith. Humble as we may look we are daily and weekly and monthly accomplishing important goals for the kingdom of God. We are to steward the gospel forward from generation to generation until the Lord returns in Glory. Each of our churches has unique gifts to offer or God wouldn’t have us in existence. The future, the vision, the grandness, is located in the smallest of current realities ( a bible study, a food ministry, a heart for justice for a particular group). Every church is pregnant with possibilities, like all those barren women who give birth to important biblical figures, we need to be open to God and what he has in store for us, we need to be resolute in trying to hear Him, we need to be heroic in our pursuing of what he has for us. If we are, He will show up in amazing ways. It won’t look like the church down the street, it will look like your church, His church, as He meant it to be.