I remember receiving the news. Our church had raised a large sum of money to help provide food to students at the school where we worship. We were going to be able to feed over 200 students every weekend through a "backpack program" we had piloted the year before.
It was incredible to see God bring all the pieces together: permission from the school district, partnership with the school, volunteer energy from the church, and finally, the financial support. It was one of those moments where you clearly see God at work and your faith is strengthened.
As I began sharing the good news with other people, something struck me. No one was more excited about this than me. Don't get me wrong—other people were amazed at what had happened, but they didn't have the same response to it I did.
Well, as a paid staff person in our church, I had poured significant time and energy into developing the initiative. I had researched "backpack" programs around the country. I had prayed for God to open up possibilities for food sources and funding. I knew some of the students at the school who would benefit from the program. I heard the stories straight from the principal's mouth about kids stealing food on Friday's so they'd have something to eat at home on the weekends.
No one had invested more in the development of this than I had, and my faith grew because of it. It got me thinking. If I want to see my people grow, I have to find ways to help them participate. And by participate, I don't just mean just slotting them into existing church ministries. I need to equip them to discern what God is doing around them and encourage them to join God in that work, day in and day out.
Performance vs. participation
Excellence is a top priority for many ministries. We're all too familiar with what's at stake. Do things with excellence (i.e. musical worship, preaching, children's ministry, building space, and small groups) and your church will grow. Don't do things with excellence and people will move to the church down the street with better programs and more polish.
Yet excellence has a dark side. Making excellence a top priority can lead to an understanding of church as little more than a producer of religious goods and services. In this view of church, the organization able to offer the highest quality religious goods and services will attract the most people. Of course many churches have this "works." If you offer a great spiritual product, you get more people.
But what happens to these people once you "get" them? Like the old marketing adage goes, "you keep people how you get them." By emphasizing excellence as the key to successful ministry, we condition people to be critical consumers of the best religious goods and services. We train them to consume; we don't equip them to participate.
Jesus doesn't call us to be consumers of religious goods and services. He invites us to be participants in what God is doing in the world. If we don't participate, we can't grow as followers of Jesus. We don't build any spiritual muscle by passively receiving our faith from professional Christians week in and week out. You can't pay someone to go to the gym and get in shape for you. And you can't outsource your spiritual development to the paid church staff. We all have to participate ourselves in what God is doing. If our churches don't provide the space for people to grow as participants in God's work in the world, then we are stunting their growth and reinforcing faulty notions of what church is about.
A new emphasis
For years ministry books and conferences have sung the praises of excellence. But if we hope to see people truly grow, we have to start focusing on participation. It's only through active participation that the capacity of our local congregations for significant ministry will grow. Participation is the new excellence.
This is not an easy shift. The default for most of us is to focus on doing our ministry with as much excellence as we can. But we have to start making the shift. It will mean valuing ownership over efficiency. It will mean celebrating stories of everyday acts of faithfulness over high quality production.
This past Thanksgiving we held our annual "ThanksGiveServe" event at the local food shelf we partner with. The event aims to help erase the line between those who use the food shelf's services and those who serve at the food shelf. Everyone shares a potluck meal before packing a bag of food to take home, either to use personally or give away. This gathering is designed so that everyone recognizes his or her role as an active participant. Without the participation of everyone, the event doesn't work. We have found this dramatically increases the sense of ownership of those involved. Their participation strengthens their faith in God because they recognize they are playing an essential role in the significant work God is doing.
Now whenever our church staff meets, we ask, "How can we increase people's participation? How can we increase participation in our worship, preaching, hospitality, service, evangelism, community care, children's ministry, and discipleship?"
Slowly we see people moving from consumers to participants, from passive observers to active disciples. And we're learning how our leadership must change if we hope to be a church where everyone participates in God's mission.
Michael Binder is co-pastor of Mill City Church in Northeast Minneapolis.
Copyright © 2013 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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