If you want to see me get all worked up, talk to me about how we in the church need to take care of ourselves before we can begin to look outward.
This happened recently, at a meeting of interfaith leaders in the area. I facilitate this group which gathers monthly, along with leaders from some social service agencies, to talk about ways to build community and strengthen families. We were brainstorming possible community outreach projects which might present opportunities for collaboration among faith communities -- things like occasional neighborhood dinners to which we'd invite our neighbors -- and one of my colleagues spoke up. I'm sure he had no idea he was about to push one of my buttons:
"You know, we have to take care of ourselves before we can begin to look to the needs of others," he said. "We're a very busy church with a lot going on. We've got to take care of our own needs first."
Oh man. I wanted to jump across the table. My first thought: Does this guy read the same Gospels I read? Are we following the same Jesus? Something here does not compute.
I spoke up, more with passion than with substance, letting him know that I totally disagreed with what he'd just said. I think it surprised him.
But really, isn't this why so many of our churches are struggling, or worse, on the edge of closing their doors -- because we've lost our bearings -- because we've become little more than social clubs whose primary purpose is institutional maintenance? What's up with this logic? Does anybody really believe that somehow, when we've taken care of all of our own needs, when the institution is finally running like a well-oiled machine, when we've focused inwardly long enough, that then we'll magically have the resources of time and money and skills to begin looking outward to care for needs beyond the walls of our church? Does anybody really believe this?
Before we moved to Portland, I served a church that had bounced back in a pretty dramatic way from a place of dismal decline. Once strong, over the course of decades the church had declined, not unlike thousands of other mainline Protestant churches in cities and towns across the U.S. Worship attendance was such that they'd move out of the sanctuary in the winter, into a small adjacent meeting room because (a) they couldn't afford to heat the big, beautiful sanctuary; and (b) they were small enough that they could. Their focus was inward. Morale was low. They wondered how long they'd survive.
But then over the course of ten or fifteen years, this congregation experienced dramatic change. Worship attendance began to grow... and grow... and grow... from a low of 40-something, I'm told, to something close to 300 fifteen years later. The church came alive with children, youth, and adults of all ages. A growing spiritual vitality manifested itself in diverse programs of mission and ministry that enlivened the church and impacted the community in profound ways. By all accounts, this church had experienced revitalization -- new life!
I remember being in a meeting where the pastor from another church was asking questions, trying to understand the factors that had led to such dramatic change. One of the church leaders whom I respected tremendously -- someone who'd grown up in the church and experienced the changes firsthand -- described it this way: "We used to be a church that looked inward. We were most concerned that the bills were paid, and when money was tight, we worked harder to balance the budget. All of our efforts went into trying to keep this church afloat." (How many churches could describe themselves this way?) "But then one day, a newcomer to the church stood up during the sharing of joys and concerns, and through tears, she shared her struggle. She had a parent back in Brazil who was dying, and she was desperate to make it home to see this parent before it was too late. It was hard for her to ask, but she wondered if there was anyone who might be able to help her financially."
This church leader described that as the pivotal moment. Presented with a challenge, they began to understand that they could help a sister in need. The tearful concern of an immigrant in their midst grabbed their hearts and took precedent over a balanced church budget. They began to work together to meet the need of the newcomer, and this need became their rallying cry. When they were able to raise enough funds to send this person to Brazil to see a dying parent, they realized God could use them for powerful things.
"Our focus changed, from inward to outward," said this church leader, "and that made all the difference. It was the beginning of a totally different focus for this church, and once we began looking outward, we've never stopped."
By now, of course, very few in the congregation could even remember this event, because the congregation had grown so dramatically. Certainly there were many factors that led to this church's revitalization, but the point was clear: When the focus is outward, some of the inward things begin to take care of themselves.