Your Church Can Be a Refuge
I didn’t pick up running until my mid-20s. I’ve never been an especially fast runner, but I possess one talent that allowed me to finish with better times than many of my competitors: pacing. Others would begin too fast and fail to finish, or they would start their final push to the finish line too soon. A runner who does not understand their pace and adjust their gate accordingly cannot reach their full potential. They might not even finish the race.
When I became the lead pastor of a 50-member, 90-year-old church in need of renewal, I immediately felt the need to pick up my pace even though I had not yet determined where I was heading. Driven largely by a fear of failure, a need to impress, and an unhealthy does of competition, I packed the calendar with stuff.
It was good stuff, too: a worship night, leader trainings, redecorating the sanctuary, and a neighborhood Easter celebration complete with a petting zoo for the kids. Within six weeks, I had built a spiritual machine rather than a sanctuary. And I was good at it. Too good, in fact.
The church seemed to have new life. We were growing, and many were excited about the changes.
Six months later, I hit a wall. I was physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted. My congregation felt the same way. Our pace was unsustainable.
I didn’t enter the ministry to be a hyper-strategic business executive, faced with the impossible task of maintaining momentum through constant spiritual events. I’ve always wanted to concentrate on leading the people I serve into the sacred presence of the risen Christ. But to do so, we needed to slow down and catch our collective breath. I was the pace leader, and the small church I started with was right behind me. We needed to recalibrate.
God was calling us to build calm, safe harbors of connection rather than culturally relevant centers of activity. Our people longed for a place to be rather than a space to do.
1. Model and preach rest as a value.
I began by modeling rest in my own life. I started by observing a weekly Sabbath. I kept my phone on silent and checked it two to three times a day at the most.
But for this to stick, it had to be a deep change, not just a quick fix. I took a more deliberate approach to Sunday services, allowing myself to be present with people rather than settling into the role of the frenzied minister on the run.
We worked toward a culture of casual excellence rather than slick performance. We left nonessentials undone in the name of peace. If bulletins did not get folded, we handed them out flat rather than asking someone to come in early to get it done. We closed the office on Fridays to give the campus a Sabbath as well, and I regularly featured rest, an often overlooked spiritual discipline, in my sermons.
The response was immediate and overwhelming. Congregants emailed, texted, and stopped me in the grocery store to tell me how our new value of rest impacted their lives. Most told the same story: they were tired, burned out, and filled with anxiety. They wanted to rediscover what it meant to follow Jesus beyond their phone Bible apps and the seemingly endless treadmill of ministry opportunities.
2. Clarify your church’s vision.
Our leadership set about defining our core values. Prayer, God’s Word, authenticity, fun, and play were some of the 12 we decided upon. We scrapped our growth strategy in favor of an emotionally and spiritually vibrant community. I removed goal setting from our yearly staff calendar. We didn’t need a goal to know whether something was alive and healthy or needed adjustment.
As a result, our staff relaxed and remembered why they were called to the ministry in the first place. We began to experience growth and results far beyond any goal we would have had the spiritual hubris to set. Intentionally living out our primary values allowed us to exceed the limitations of setting and striving toward goals.
After we established the vision of congregational rest, we decided to remove anything within the organization that got in the way of that vision. Few things besmirch the sacred like noise and chaos, so we cut anything that resulted in these annoyances. For you this might mean the annual Christmas play or the yearly rummage sale. Only you can determine if the physical, emotional, and spiritual cost of these activities is worth the reward.
3. Empower and equip your people.
Let’s be clear: rest is not death. Rest means working wiser, not harder. We still believe that a small local church can change the world, and we aim to do so. To become a local church with global impact, we knew we would have to empower our people to become the mechanism of change. The church would be a place to replenish them for their journey, rather than the destination.
Doing fewer organized events as a church freed us up to focus on equipping people to do more in their own community spaces. This encouraged church leaders and volunteers to shift their focus and energy toward their personal living spaces.
Rather than highlighting all the amazing things we were doing as a church, we turned the spotlight towards individuals doing simple yet profound work in their corners of the world. We did this in three ways.
First, we gave space in our Sunday services to let them tell their stories. Second, I used our printed sermon notes to give people a list of challenges to impact their community. Third, we began to offer weekly conference call coaching sessions where our people could digitally join in on a conversation with me and other ministry veterans to glean wisdom and ask practical questions.
In a sense, this is a hack of the popular multisite model. Rather than invest the energy and finance into a large and sometimes risky endeavor, we ask our people to use their home addresses as our venues. Today we have over 400 “sites,” and we never had to set up a single chair.
4. Make church community simple.
Finally, we decided to make the most crucial church services as simple as possible for our congregation. We kept the sanctuary open and available for anyone who wanted a place of communal silence, encouraging them to write out the Word of God by hand to focus their minds on God’s Word. We made our prayer gathering a regular weekly event and started a monthly night of worship through music. This created a rhythm of varied worship within a context of community.
Perhaps the most impactful decision we made was determining what to do with the remaining finances after eliminating the “noise and chaos” programs. Ultimately, we decided to shift those funds to our hospitality budget to provide a free catered lunch every Sunday for all attendees. For less than 10 percent of our yearly budget, we were able to provide 52 community building, enriching, multi-generational events. Most importantly, we were able to relieve the pressure from our people’s schedules rather than add to it.
Our community is now running at a sustainable and life-giving pace. We have the margin and space to engage beyond the temporal, knowing that while speed might be exhilarating, it keeps you from seeing and experiencing as much.
Adam Stadtmiller is pastor of LaJolla Christian Fellowship in LaJolla, California.