by A.J. Thomas
The other day I drove past a church facility that was undergoing significant expansion. As we often see around many sites where construction is happening, there was a piece of plywood propped up by the road with the words “FILL DIRT WANTED” spray-painted in bright red.
I’ve spent hours in my own yard moving piles of dirt from here to there, leveling out dips and filling holes, using that fill to get the yard looking just the way I think it should.
How often does a congregation view people as fill?
“Come fill our (choose all that apply):”
e. Offering Plate
Sometimes, it’s overt. I have heard more than once, “If we just had more people, then our finances would be all right.” Would you stick around the church whose primary interest in you was as a potential new source of revenue? Or whose hope in resurrecting the defunct children’s ministry lay squarely on your “wide birthing hips?” (My sister had nearly this verbatim sentiment expressed to her when they were new to a community and looking for a church.)
Sometimes, it’s a bit more subtle. We bemoan declining participation in certain ministries or activities of our congregation. We cajole/beg/guilt people to participate, rather than recognizing that this particular activity may have run its course and outlived its place in the life of our faith community. It may be time to put that activity to bed, celebrate its place in our congregation’s life, and consider how people’s time and resources might be better directed.
The church must be interested in newcomers, of course. After all, our mission is to make disciples. Discipleship involves both the initial move into faith, and then discovering, nurturing, and committing our gifts to God’s work in and through our church. Newcomers to every community can bring a sense of renewal and re-purpose and new life, as the bring new energy and new ideas and new gifts to the table.
This new life comes to a congregation when we seek to be filled with the Holy Spirit, with the mind of Christ, who himself was filled with compassion for the crowds around him who were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. His first interest in outsiders was in them and their needs, not what they could do for his growing movement. As the Gospel unfolds, outsiders are brought in, those on the margins are brought to the center, and divisions between us and them come down. The contribution of newcomers to the community of faith should be warmly welcomed and embraced, as they discover and commit their gifts on their journey of discipleship.
On the other hand, if our interest in newcomers is self-serving and motivated by institutional preservation, the decaying scent of desperation will be sniffed out a mile away, and the only message we are giving off will be, “Come fill our cemetery.”
Rev. A.J. Thomas serves as the Founding Director of Joyful Giving Group, LLC, where he is dedicated to cultivating a culture of generosity.