On my first Sunday back from adoptive leave, I had the privilege of leading worship at St Raphael’s and St Michael’s care centers (my turn comes roughly once a quarter). I often find that these extra services remind me of the joy and privilege of leading worship in general. Sure, the congregations are always small, and several of the attendees nod off during the service, but there’s often a palpable sense that everyone in the room is grateful for the opportunity to worship. Of course, many in our regular congregation are just as happy to share in worship, but there’s a special welcome and a particular joy in sharing with people outside our familiar group.

These care center services are also special because they are exclusively an outreach ministry on our part. There’s no sense that the goal of the event is to encourage these folks to attend our church and help support our institution; rather, we extend the wider Church’s welcome to some who simply aren’t able to be with their home congregations. We offer similar gifts to the community when we contribute to the food shelf, clean up the highway roadside, serve at the Salvation Army supper club, or welcome college athletes to dinner. We have no realistic sense that these projects will suddenly pack our pews or pad our church bank accounts. We do them simply because they’re worth doing in Christ’s name.

Church consultant Bill Wilson writes about the tendency among churches to treat “outreach” efforts as “some form of ‘in-drag,’” where the primary goal is to get people into the building and then meet enough of their needs that they will contribute to the twin bottom lines of attendance and finances. Instead, he calls on churches to orient themselves outward: “to recognize that God is at work both within and around the church and to seek out that activity and name it.” The church’s purpose is not to entertain or gratify its members, but to live out Christ’s life of love for God and neighbor, and to share that life of joyous discipleship with all the world. We can measure our success, not in terms of “nickels and noses,” but in terms of our impact on the community around us.

As Presbyterians, and especially as Hope Community Presbyterian Church, we stand in a venerable tradition of service to the world beyond our walls. At the same time, we presently find ourselves in a challenging numerical position, with tight finances and decreasing attendance. The session has been talking in depth about the issues we face and the kinds of choices we may face before too long. I’m convinced that our primary choice will be how to answer Bill Wilson’s question of orientation: will we reaffirm our outward orientation of service to the community, or will we trap ourselves in an inward orientation, trying to solve problems for the sake of protecting our own numbers?

The same choice confronts us as individuals and families: are we more concerned about how to meet our own needs, or are we willing to put ourselves aside for the sake of others? Our own needs matter, of course, whether for financial security, physical health, or relational healing. All the same, we can too easily lose ourselves in a list of problems and desires, forgetting what great things God is ready to do for and through us. When we turn our attention regularly to what we might do for someone else, we keep an awareness of what blessings are already present in our lives.

I’m not convinced that the effects of this orientation shift can be easily measured. I don’t buy the “prosperity gospel” that claims we will achieve financial success or numerical growth by making all the right choices. Much of the congregation’s situation, like much of our individual lives, remains outside our direct control. The Spirit may have plans for us that are very different from the plans we would make for ourselves. Jesus left us with two solid assurances about the future: that it will be challenging and demand much of us, and that the blessing of God’s presence will be with us along the way as well as at the end.

We can be grateful as always for the legacy of faithful service in this congregation, and we can be hopeful as always for the rich future of Christ’s church in all its forms. Thanks be to God.

In Christ’s peace,

Nathan

P.S. Leanne and I are very grateful as well for your generous gift to support our family now that Ben has joined us. What a surprise and a blessing! We continue settling in and getting used to the new demands of being a family of four. As I’ve mentioned, Ben faces a rougher transition than Ian did, but we are slowly establishing trust and learning how best to share life together. Thank you for all your prayers and support.

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