There once was a town that was scheduled to be flooded when the new dam was built. Suits from the government came and explained why and how these people’s homes were to be bought (or taken by eminent domain) and there was nothing they could, or should, do about it. Watch now. Within days, there was a change. Some people stopped mowing their grass. Contractor's signs ceased to dot the yards and nobody was buying wallpaper. Within weeks, a rattier appearance had settled in. It rippled out, even influencing homes distant from the flood zone.
Two years passed before the dam was completed and the first government reimbursed moving van arrived. In that time, the town became almost unlivable. Worse than any ghetto, for here the bustle of the street was muted and natives ceased to talk to strangers. Coffee shop chatter stopped being witty. Home made pies were replaced by Sara Lee. Even the tap water looked cloudy and tasted flat.
Many morals could be drawn from this parable about hope and the power it has to lift us above circumstance and sustain the virtues of a community. In the real world, the care we have for our property manifests our vision for the future. Notice also, that shame or the fear that we are not worthy, can destroy our capacity to maintain current relationships and squelch our desire to form new ones. Obviously, they are building the dam here because our town doesn’t matter. Our church is going to close because we aren’t big enough. The visitors that came this morning won’t be staying because we don’t have much to offer.
A colleague of mine has a word for congregations operating this way; he says that they are in a state of ‘pre-evangelism.’ Before a church can witness and attract new families, they have to reach a certain level of hopefulness and system-wide health. Just having a new preacher in the pulpit won’t do if the nursery is dingy and the parking lot shows potholes of neglect. If the greeters by the door don’t greet and the trustees bicker instead of fixing, it may be that shame has sucked away the spark needed to evangelize your context.
Congregations in pre-evangelism feel overwhelmed. They are stuck in a series of negative feedback loops; the lack of new people means a lack of money to fix things, the lack hope leads to loss of capable leaders, the lack of faith leads to ineffectual praying, a culture of shame diminishes witness, the boredom of facing repetitive problems leads to apathy, but most importantly, a loss of vision (optimism for the future) leads to low Spiritual Passion. This leads me to suggest system wide tools to jump-start congregational health. Such as:
1) Low hanging fruit or “Just fix one thing” -- having the whole congregation focus on one improvement and then celebrate when it happens.
2) Walk the neighborhood -- use some tool that gets people out and asking their neighbors what they need the church to do for them.
3) Radical Rebirth -- close the church doors, spend 50 days in serious prayer, rebirth focusing on what the congregation discerns that the Holy Spirit is saying. (see Reality Check 101 pp. 187 - 194)
There are many more system-wide tools, but what marks each of them is that they don’t center on a single panacea, such as winning the lottery or receiving a gifted, but cheap, clergy leader. Labeling this state ‘Pre-evangelism’ should help us to see it for what it is, a spiritual issue.