Ask each other the questions that will lead to the reflection of God at work in the world.
“How is your church doing?”
We get this question a lot. In many seasons of life it’s a welcome opportunity to testify to the goodness of God. Unfortunately, there are also seasons where this question evokes nothing but dread. We think of families leaving our church, finances dwindling, or arguments over music style or carpet color—and we feel small, inconsequential, a failure.
That’s why we suggest thinking through this situation by talking about . . . golf.
No, we don’t mean the benefit of taking a break from routine and getting some exercise, although that can be a good thing. No, golf can be a maddening game, and sometimes it evokes strong reactions, by both expert players and beginners.
More alike than different
Both of us golf. One of us is good. Jason grew up with the game. He learned techniques and mental aspects of the game as a child, since he was raised as a golfer by a golfer. He even earned a scholarship to play golf in college. Tim, on the other hand, never picked up a club until he was near the end of high school and never had lessons until he was in his thirties.
But, the shared love of golf makes us more alike than different. Recently, after a good round for Tim—but one that, if he were playing, would make Jason cringe—Tim texted pics of his “great” shots to Jason. How did Jason respond? He celebrated with Tim. He congratulated him. He even celebrated one of the better shots by affirming it as “impossible.”
Remember, for a scratch golfer (a player who can shoot par), Tim’s shots would be routine. But for someone who is not as good, these shots become the reason you go out again. Success can be so contextual in a game as difficult as golf, and Jason recognized that with encouraging words.
Do we have an ethos among the church similar to the one Jason, the scratch golfer, has for his friend Tim, the duffer (a player who usually can’t shoot par)?
When we gather as the church—at zone (churches in a smaller region within a district) meetings, Christmas parties, district assemblies, conventions—do we celebrate one another in a way that, as the author of Hebrews puts it, spurs “one another on toward love and good deeds . . . [and] encouraging one another” (Hebrews 10:24-25)?
All of us, after all, are more alike than we are different—no matter how big, small, thriving or struggling that our churches are.
Sometimes it feels like there is such pressure to “keep up with the Joneses” that we fail to see the power of God at work in the life of our churches. Perhaps we feel we don’t stack up to the megachurch model that we unconsciously hold as criteria to be able to belly up to the table and declare, with confidence, that God is at work in the life of our church.
Think about it: when a layperson or a fellow pastor asks that big question (“How is your church doing?”) do you not feel the temptation to answer in terms of attendance and giving? Certainly, those metrics matter, but they are not fully indicative as to whether or not a local church is declaring the kingdom of God in the world.
At some point, do we need to stop utilizing size and scope of ministry as the dominant metric for impact? Certainly, neither of us wants to argue against growth or large churches. Rather, we see a need to recapture the art of storytelling.
In ancient Israel, storytelling was the primary means by which the goodness of God would be told. These stories were told to children so that the stories of God’s goodness would not be lost. We need to recapture the art of telling stories about God’s goodness and faithfulness within our churches and ministries. God is doing something where we are at right now, and you are invited to both participate with God and to tell that story.
Recently, Tim was able to share a meal with a pastor who is starting up a ministry in rural Maine. She is well educated and well connected in the rural areas in which she lives. She got permission from the town hall to meet in their building as a church plant.
The average attendance number of the church is still low. But there is incredible kingdom faithfulness displayed in this work.
This pastor planted a church in a city building and is developing ministries for the people of the town. What good news this fledgling church plant is for the sake of the place in which it is planted!
Jason had the opportunity to teach a year-long Bible Study this past year at his local church. What he discovered as he got to know the participants were the ways in which they are able to connect the narratives of Scripture to their lives and especially workplace. One young woman in particular discovered God’s grace in a new way, especially as it related to her work with recently released prisoners. As she read in the Bible of the Israelites continued forgetfulness and disobedience she exclaimed, “We are just like the Israelites.” She began to have more grace for those prisoners who relapsed, walking through them in those moments with God’s patient love and care.
Stories like these beg us to consider on what criteria we are grading our own ministries. Success comes in many forms, and that growth can be seen both when numbers rise as well as when people are deepened. We are called not simply to grow in numbers, but to also grow in Christ. We are invited by Jesus to “follow Him” far more regularly than we are called to grow a ministry following. As Mother Teresa famously said, “God has not called me to be successful, He has called me to be faithful.”
Has God done something in your midst that affirmed His faithfulness to you? Do you know a story of a relationship in your life or the life of your church family that has been repaired or deepened? In what ways have you seen the kingdom of God come to earth, as it is in heaven? What if you are planting seeds you will not, yourself, harvest? If there are answers to this question, tell your story with gusto and life. Your co-dwellers in the kingdom of God need to hear what God is doing through your church, regardless of its size.
On the other hand, you may be struggling to see how God has been at work in your life. Perhaps you could ask a mentor or friend the ways in which they have seen God make an impact through your life and ministry. Maybe you could keep a “gratitude journal” to help you document the stories when God has answered prayer or been present in your life.
After every round of golf, a good golfer will often go back over his day, finding ways to improve and recalling the best moments. They don’t simply share their score from a card. They tell the story of the shot that keeps them coming back to the golf course, no matter how good or poor they play. As Christians, looking back to our lives in prayerful contemplation, listening to see how God may affirm His loving and active presence is a meaningful practice.
After these suggestions, if you’re having a hard time sharing a story about a relationship or a moment of transformation, we would like to challenge you to practice your faith in ways where you just can’t help but say about what God has done, “You won’t believe this!”
Just as it doesn’t matter how good a golfer you are, when you hit your shot of the day you tell that story to anyone who will listen. Similarly, it doesn’t matter how big or small your church is, when God acts we need to tell the story of God’s amazing faithfulness to a world and church that has a short memory. And ask each other the questions that will lead to the reflection of God at work in the world.
In what ways have you seen the kingdom of God come to earth?
Timothy Brooks is the lead pastor of South Portland, Maine, Church of the Nazarene.
Jason Smith is the associate pastor at Oklahoma City First Church of the Nazarene.