All summer our congregation has been participating in a “Season of Listening” in which we have gathered together, shared a meal, and told stories about what’s important in our lives. If you’ve attended one or more of these events you know that they have been lots of fun, and we’ve gotten to know one another in new (and deeper) ways. It’s been amazing to hear the life stories of the other people in our congregation and see just how much we have in common as well as what we can learn from one another. Several people have remarked that they had no idea about the stories of people they had shared a pew with for years and it’s been a great way for all of us to get to know our newer members. One of our table leaders asked “Why don’t we have these sorts of conversations every week?!” I certainly hope we can.
Relationship building and story telling are really some of the key elements of this process, and a huge part of the reason we are doing this. But there is another reason that will come to the forefront in our August gatherings. As we come into late summer, we’ve got some really important work to do as a community. For the past four years, our leadership has been struggling to describe our congregations “purpose” and to form a concise statement of the particular role we play in God’s mission in our neighborhood and in the world. In studies of vibrant congregations, again and again “clarity of mission purpose” is a key factor in the strength and sustainability of the congregation and in ownership and participation by the members. If we are clear what it is we are up to, its easy for each and every one of us to find the particular part God is calling us to play in our common mission.
In previous years, something like “to be a place for Lutheran Christians to gather to hear the Word and receive the Sacraments” may have been enough of a purpose statement (and those things will certainly be part of our purpose). But the struggles Bethlehem has experienced in the last 20 years (both financial and participation struggles) and especially the last 5 years have shown that on its own a purpose such as this one isn’t able to inspire and motivate the members of our community to the point where we are sustainable, let alone to draw in new people to join us in this purpose. We are not alone in this. We’ve heard stories over the summer about other congregations you’ve been a part of that have struggled similarly--and other organizations (from the Grange to PTA to Elks and Eagles) that used to “just work” without that much effort, who have faced similar declines (and closures) in recent years.
It is out of the relationships we have built and the stories we have shared this summer that we will do the shared work of figuring out what our purpose is. The purpose-related questions before us are along these lines: “What is it that we value together?” “What sort of purpose for our congregation would we be excited to be a part of?” “What gifts has God given this collection of people, and how are we called to use them in mission?” We can all come up with ideas to “attract” new people, but the reality is if we don’t know why we are excited to be a part of this community of faith, why do we think other people would want to be a part it? But a clear purpose (in the form of a purpose statement we all know by heart) that motives us to act together is contagious. People will see how excited we are to be living out God’s call in this community that they will want to join us in our common work. And everyone, from the youngest to the oldest, has gifts that God needs. As I say again and again, God has given us everything we need to do what God is calling us to do. When we figure out just what that is, I expect the results to be extraordinary.