If your parish church was suddenly uprooted and gone, what would the local community experience in its absence? This question was posed at a workshop I attended many years ago and I have since used it in some of my own presentations. The answers are astounding. Some parishioners can quickly articulate the many ways a local community would be negatively impacted by the absence of the church. Others struggle to find any particular ways the community would even notice the church is gone. This begs the question, how relevant is our parish congregation in bringing the love of Christ to others?
Chuck Lawless published an article entitled Hidden, Dangerous, Contagious: 10 Church Diseases You Should Know. The author devised a number of clever titles to reveal some very serious challenges within church communities. Although he did not go into much detail on any of the ailments of the church, he certainly “named” things well enough to provide a jump-start for further reflection by the individual reader. That is what I am going to do today as I ponder Chuck’s diagnosis of Congregational Myopia.
Chuck Lawless said, “The congregation with this condition is nearsighted, focusing on themselves only. They have no vision for the future, and fail to see that their current direction will likely lead to further disease and decline.” The diagnosis, as well as the prognosis, seems to be quite harsh. However, based upon my own experience, I would have to say it is also right on target. This situation can be quite deadly for the life of any congregation.
I have had the privilege of working with a number of parish pastoral councils through the years to train and assist them in understanding their role in the parish. One of these gatherings was uniquely enlightening. This particular event was designed to be a three hour workshop as compared to some gatherings where I conducted the training in the midst of a weekend retreat. The sole purpose of this workshop was to reflect upon the parish mission statement and brainstorm ideas for better fulfilling it. As I read the mission statement it was painfully obvious that it suffered from Congregational Myopia. The entire mission statement focused on the people already in the pews and had no outreach mentioned at all.
In a step-by-step process of drawing out the thoughts of the council members, it finally became crystal clear to them that their current mission statement had a definitive shortcoming. A member finally asked, “How do we correct this?” We subsequently began to look at the life of the parish from the perspective of where it had been, where it was currently, and where they would like it to be in the future. Unfortunately, three hours passed quickly and we were far from complete in our endeavor. I assured the parish council members that they had the tools to finish the project, and they were excited to develop a new mission statement to bring to the rest of the parishioners. A fresh fire had been sparked and a myopic view was in the process of being corrected.
The second encounter I had with this particular diagnosis was at a workshop with the parish staff of a mega-church that boasted a whole booklet full of ministries. The parish had a state of the art campus with many bells and whistles to enhance the experience of learning and worshiping. It seemed like the epitome of success in regard to church operations. In many ways it was a successful venture, but a look below the surface revealed some stark realities. Most of the ministries listed in the booklet were inward focused. It seemed that they catered to the needs of the existing parishioners and gave little regard to those outside the walls of the church. I wish I would have coined the term Congregational Myopiaat that time to present an accurate diagnosis of the problem.
Suggesting a wider outreach to build up the Kingdom of God was met with indignation and contempt from some of the parish leadership. One staff person vehemently asked, “How could you even think that we aren’t doing enough with everything that is going on in the parish?” In my opinion the answer wasn’t in doing more; it was in realigning priorities and being more intentional in reaching out beyond the church walls.
As I look back at this experience I can see clearly what Chuck Lawless is saying, “…their current direction will likely lead to further disease and decline.” If our focus is no longer on loving Christ and loving our neighbor, and we are instead centered on ourselves and our success, the only possible outcome is further decline. Acknowledging our condition is a prerequisite for healing. If parish leadership fails to recognize that a problem exists, the myopic view continues. Subsequently, the potential of the parish to transform the world is severely diminished.
It is extremely important that we care for the people in our pews. They need to be nurtured and nourished with great pastoral care and support as this helps equip them to be beacons of light out in the world. We desperately need their faithful witness. However, it is also essential that we are intentional about reaching out beyond the church walls. How do we bring the love of Christ to our communities through effective outreach and presence? How do we care for the poor and marginalized members of society? In a comprehensive manner, how do we effectively live the mandate to go out to the whole world and tell the Good News?
As individuals, and as congregations, how is our vision?