A few weeks ago I wrote about why I as a young adult stayed in the church—because my small hometown church was authentic. They knew who they were and didn’t pretend to be something they weren’t. They didn’t go all out in trying new programs and investing in recruiting young people—they simply tried to meet the needs of the people already within the church, as well as recognizing the needs of the larger community they were part of. I also reflected on the church I attended in college, how while I was there they recognized the best way to reach out to the college students was to be authentic—to welcome the students and their gifts and abilities, to not pressure students to come every Sunday, but to welcome and invite students to participate in ministry with their gifts and time as they could, and to care for the students in their needs. For me, I remember not feeling guilty about skipping church during finals—instead I remember a wonderful gift basket during final exams week with snacks and a note of encouragement. I have never forgotten the care and compassion.
I was asked in response to that article what role authenticity in those congregations played in shaping my call to ministry. As I think back to my home church that included me from an early age and to the church I attended in college, here are some ways being in a church that valued authenticity helped shape me in my call to ministry:
1. My home church recognized and valued my call to ministry. I felt God’s call to ministry when I was thirteen, sitting in my grandfather’s church in Pennsylvania, and felt something inside me say “That will be you someday” as I listened to my grandfather preach. When I shared this with my pastor a few months later, he was delighted, and made a point of including me in the worship leadership throughout my youth, in varied ways. I was invited to preach on occasion, and not just on a special Youth Sunday or when we came back from summer camp (although I was asked to preach then). In the church I attended in college, I was not only invited to preach, but asked back after my initial sermon which I know was terrible. I was given another chance, and I remember my religion professor who attended that church telling me how much I had improved. My first sermon there really was that bad, but this church loved me, encouraged me, and kept inviting me back. They truly were authentic in who they were, and they were loving, forgiving, encouraging people. Maybe my first sermon wasn’t as bad as I remember, but I know I was anxious and nervous, and this church continued to see a call from God in me and nurtured that call.
2. I learned first-hand about the challenges facing small churches and the reality that many mainline churches face today. I was asked to serve on the Deacon board in my home church when I was thirteen years old, and I already understood how many who serve in the church as laity become overworked and burned out. But I also learned how to become refreshed and that sometimes we take church life way too seriously and need to step away for a breather. We do have a life outside of church, laity and clergy.
3. Church does not have to happen in an old building that has been in the same spot for 200 years. Church can take place in a rented church space, in the basement of a house, in the back booth of a coffee shop, in the bowling alley, in the kitchen of the pastor’s house (where we made excellent homemade pizzas as youth). Church happens where two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name. My home church changed locations a few times before settling in their current location (a house that they purchased and converted into a Meetinghouse; several AA groups and other organizations also use the building as part of the church’s ministry now).
4. Vision is something to be embraced, and vision can be renewed. In my home congregation we went from trying to be a church in the traditional sense, of looking for land to buy and a building to construct, to renting space in another church and deciding that maintaining a building was not part of our ministry, to a future where in a nearby town we did decide to own a building and give space to other ministries. But the vision continues to grow and change. It made me less afraid of the major changes a church may go through in deciding to sell a building or move or changing its vision of pastoral ministry. It’s just part of the vision process, part of change that all churches must go through and it is not necessarily negative and can be quite positive when the congregation embraces the process of co-creating vision with Christ.
5. Bending/breaking “the rules” and taking risks are necessary parts of the journey of ministry. Chucking the sermon and having a genuine conversation. Suspending/ignoring the bylaws because they don’t work anymore and no one remembers anyway. Having church at the home of your eldest member because they can’t drive in the snow to get to your place of worship. Being spontaneous and moving worship outdoors because the day is just too beautiful to spend inside. Letting go of an idea for youth ministry and instead supporting another church’s youth outreach because it is effectively meeting the needs of the youth in the community. Abandoning plans to buy property and build a church because you recognize the needs of mission and ministry are done beyond the walls of any one building, and yet are often done within the walls of the homes of the members of the church community.
These are just a few of the ways growing up in authentic community helped shape me. To sum it up, I learned that by being authentic, there is little to be afraid or ashamed of. Instead, all moments can reform vision, create new opportunities, and encourage spiritual growth. It may sound cliché or even too enthusiastic to say that, but when people, a congregation, a church, is authentic, they are not afraid to voice both their concerns and their hopes and dreams, both their worries and their prayers and new ideas. Authentic vision is created and something new is given root. Even if that authentic vision leads to a church closing, resurrection is always possible—something new can be born.
All too often, churches put on blinders. For churches that have existed for many years, a decline in attendance or membership can lead to panic or anxiety that leads to creation or adaption of programs without vision. Often this manifests itself in creating programs to attract young adults or young families in hopes of recruiting the next generation to take the place of the declining generation. It is a true bait and switch—the church puts out the message that they are welcoming of families and young adults but then wants them to conform to the ways they have always been. It’s not always conscious it does this, but I have seen many churches attempt to grow by just trying to reproduce what they have always had.
The other most popular way I have experienced this is in churches that have tried to take on contemporary worship when it obviously does not fit. If your church has primarily used the organ for the past one hundred years and within a few months you want to switch to guitars, I can tell you most likely it will not work. Mainly because you are fooling yourselves. Now if your congregation has been experimenting with different kinds of music over the past few years, it might not be such a jump. But more importantly, if you have young families attending your worship already, it is not so much of a stretch to assume that they might actually like the traditional music. And even if they don’t, they obviously don’t mind it so much as to leave and find another congregation—they have come to your congregation for a reason. Find out why. I can guess that it is probably because they have established relationships there—authentic relationships with others.
As a pastor, I have done my best to be authentic in my ministry, to not pretend to be something I am not and to not portray a church as something it is not. But one thing I have consistently done is sought out young people who have gifts for ministry and encouraged them in using those gifts, both within and beyond the congregation. I have encouraged preaching and worship leading among my youth and not just on Youth Sunday. I have invited youth to attend pastoral visitations with me. But more importantly, I have encouraged the congregation to embrace these young ministers as ministers—not just youth who are dressed up cute and have a nice message to give—but as called by God to be ministers.
I was one of three straight-from-college young seminarians during my first year. Over my three years of seminary there grew to be more of us, but I found from talking with my peers that few of them were nurtured in a call from their home church. They may have felt the call as a teen or even as a young child, but their home church did not give them opportunities for ministry. They were taken out of the service to be with the other children because they weren’t old enough. They were invited to participate in worship as a teen but only on Youth Sunday. Their pastor rarely talked to them except to ask them what college they were going to. So many felt called by God, were inspired by their churches, but then were not given the opportunity—and so they assumed maybe they weren’t called. Went to college and tried something else. Fortunately, a lot of them made their way back to seminary and ministry, and some of them made their way back to church.
We need more authentic churches, not only for the sake of Christian ministry in the future, but for the sake of nurturing authentic pastors and ministers. Kids see right through us when we aren’t authentic. When we say “Jesus welcomed all the children” and then shuffle them off to another program, we aren’t authentic. We have blinders on. We are baiting and switching.
Look to your children and youth. Where do you see ministers? Where are they ministering? Open up the opportunities for them. Encourage them. Invite them to grow on the journey. Remind children when they dream of what they want to be when they grow up that ministry is a great and wonderful calling, and that chances are, one of them is called to be a minister. Be real, and real ministers will blossom.